A less-traveled slice of San Antonio’s River Walk will soon be a hub for open air art
San Antonio’s famed River Walk is the biggest tourist attraction in Texas. But until recently something was missing: vibrant public art in the heart of the city.
Now the city is turning a less-traveled slice of the River Walk into a hub for open air art with the new River Walk Public Art Garden. And the timing couldn’t be better, says Debbie Racca-Sittre, director of San Antonio’s Department of Arts and Culture. In the face of COVID, public art is needed now more than ever.
“It’s connecting our own city to each other,” Racca-Sittre said. “With the pandemic, our locals are feeling more comfortable going to these outdoor places and exploring. Art has been so important — it’s the escape people need and the connectivity people need to feel.”
Racca-Sittre says the initiative is part of a boom in public art in the last decade, which has ramped up even more in the last five years, after a 2011 ordinance dedicated one percent of the city’s capital improvement budget to public art.
“We asked people where they wanted to see public art,” Racca-Sittre said. The answer was in the city’s diverse neighborhoods but also downtown and along the River Walk, she added. The city’s approach in recent years is commissioning work in parks and neighborhoods around the sprawling city and connecting them with pieces in the heart of the city.
The Art Garden has brought back to life an extension of the River Walk created for the 1968 World’s Fair. It links the city’s Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center with the historic 1930s River Walk.
“It was very much a connector,” Racca-Sittre said. “It was a perfect place to do some public art.”
Green spaces and a showcase for emerging artists
The city launched the Art Garden project last year with an installation by Mexican artist Sebastian. The space still includes five of Sebastian’s iron sculptures as it moves into Phase II of its development with cool new projects with plenty of local flair.
The project’s latest installation is Green Spaces at Market Street, a big step toward the goal of tying the downtown arts scene with other public art spaces in the city. Green Spaces is a downtown riff on a new public art project at San Antonio’s Hardberger Park on the north side of the city. At that site, the city is finishing construction of a unique Land Bridge allowing wildlife to safely cross the Wurzbach Parkway that intersects the park.
As part of the conservancy project, two young San Antonio artists Ashley Mireles and Cade Bradshaw worked with landscape architects STIMSON Studio to create metal viewing blinds for the land bridge, slated to open in November of this year. The sculptural blinds are designed to provide information about the park’s flora and fauna while allowing visitors to observe unobtrusively. Mireles’ work focuses on the region’s plant life while Bradshaw’s focuses on animal wildlife and topography.
“It’s exciting and interesting and playful,” Racca-Sittre said.
The city commissioned Mireles and Bradshaw to recreate that vision on a painted steel railing. It sits on top of a new retaining wall overlooking the River Walk and was unveiled as part of the Green Spaces project this spring.
In with the new
Upcoming Art Garden projects include a new “Bloom” installation by sculptor Leticia Huerta. Huerta’s metal flower sculptures will echo her popular pieces unveiled in 2018 in the city’s McAllister Park. The “Stargazer” installation, a large-scale sculpture made from volcanic rock by Mexican artist Pedro Reyes, is planned for early 2021.
The River Walk project also includes a new Labor Plaza in celebration of San Antonio’s labor movement. The city will replace a crumbling 1980s statue of the labor leader Samuel Gompers that was removed last year with a contemporary text-based installation. The concrete Gompers tribute, called “the world’s ugliest statue” by Texas Trail Roundup, will be replaced by a new installation designed by artist Anne Wallace in collaboration with the city’s former poet laureate Octavio Quintanilla.
Breathing life into gray spaces
While the River Walk initiative is focused on large-scale works with plenty of wow factor, San Antonio is also embracing the value of smaller murals and public art pop-ups in more urban downtown locations.
Centro San Antonio’s Art Everywhere initiative kicked off this spring, with a mission to bring public art to unexpected places. Organizers have set out an ambitious goal of 10 urban murals by the end 2020. And instead of slowing things down, the COVID pandemic is creating an even greater sense of urgency.
The Centro San Antonio public improvement district launched in 1999. Then in 2010, then-San Antonio mayor Julian Castro ramped it up, declaring “the decade of downtown.” It launched a ten-year plan to make the city’s downtown safer and more welcoming and boost downtown businesses.
“Centro’s mission is to care for and cultivate downtown. We strive not only to make San Antonio safe and clean but also beautiful, playful and welcoming. It’s only natural that art is a part of this,” said Andrea Rodriguez, Centro San Antonio’s Vice President of Urban Planning who oversees the Art Everywhere initiative. “The art industry also employs thousands of people in our city. Besides creating coolness in urban spaces, it possesses a robust economic impact on the physical realm by making the urban fabric unique and magnetic. It breathes life into gray spaces and gives downtown dignity–and distinction.”
Inspiration and economic impact in downtown
This spring, Centro San Antonio commissioned artists Justin Parr and Anthony Dean-Harris to create the text-based mural “Instructions for Use for Adapting to Our State of Constant Change,” a timely response to the ongoing nationwide reckoning on race.
“Justin felt that the ball should be left in my court for what the words should be and I immediately knew where to go with this, despite knowing that I would be saying inspirational words about the immensity of our current situation for a tourism board of the city. I think it worked out nicely,” Dean-Harris wrote on his blog in June.
Art Everywhere also included a playful mural from noted San Antonio artist Kathy Sosa. Sosa’s “Keep Calm Et Macaron” mural is a nod to the trendy French macaron cookie and the downtown French bakery La Boulangerie around the corner from Sosa’s piece.
Earlier this month, Centro San Antonio collaborated with Dean-Harris and the San Antonio street artist Scotch to paint lines from the city’s new poet laureate Andrea “Vocab” Sanderson in the streets surrounding downtown’s Travis Park.
“I believe artists are magical. And we need to take care to celebrate them and the organizations that bring not only beauty to our community, but tremendous economic impact,” Rodriguez said. “I would hope that we are never in the position of looking back and wishing we had taken better care of something that brings so much light to our world.”
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Jan Mercker is a freelance journalist, wine lover and arts enthusiast. A former public relations pro and lifelong Francophile, she helped French Champagne houses navigate the U.S. media landscape leading up to Y2K and ran the wine and spirits department at the French Embassy Trade Office in New York before moving into a writing career. She’s an underachieving but enthusiastic tennis player and parent of teens.