San Antonio for Art Lovers

16 May

Most visitors to San Antonio come to see the Alamo, the Spanish Missions, and the vibrant River Walk.  Many don’t know, however, that San Antonio ranks as one of the top 25 cities for art in the United States. This city loves art, and its artists love their city.

Artwork in Franco Mondini-Ruiz's house

Artwork in Franco Mondini-Ruiz’s house

Franco Mondini-Ruiz, an exuberant San Antonio artist, couldn’t agree more.  “San Antonio loves art!” he exclaims, as he invites us into his home, which, crammed floor-to-ceiling with all kinds of unusual treasures, is a work of art in itself.

“I wanted to work eighteen hours a day doing what I love to make a living,”  Mondini-Ruiz says, “and San Antonio has allowed me to do this!”

Mondini-Ruiz — who gave up a law career in 1995 to become a visual artist — is living his dream.  His work can command up to $50,000 per painting.

The studio of Franco Mondini-Ruiz

The studio of Franco Mondini-Ruiz

Numerous other artists are also finding success in San Antonio.  In fact, visitors are only just beginning to discover exactly how art-smart San Antonio is.

Distinctive art galleries

Each year during March, the city holds its annual Contemporary Art Month (CAM), a celebration of contemporary art at the city’s museums, studios, and galleries.  This includes studio tours and artistic events and performances that highlight San Antonio’s cultural treasures.

CAM was the brainchild of the non-collecting and non-profit BlueStarContemporaryArt Museum, a series of galleries housed in a warren of warehouses in San Antonio’s arts community called Southtown.

“BlueStar,” explains Emily Barker, Membership and Community Outreach Coordinator, “is a collection of working studios and galleries which began 27 years ago when a group of artists who needed space for an art show took this old warehouse and fixed it up.”

Now Blue Star curates over 20 exhibits a year.  They also hold a monthly celebration called First Friday, where, according to local artist Gini Garcia, who creates brightly colored, hand-blown glass at her studio, Garcia Art Glass, “you’ll find music in the streets and dancing, and a lot of great things going on.”

Another such endeavor is Artpace San Antonio, begun in 1995, an organization which, according to Deputy Director Mary Heathcott, “is a creative lab that encourages artists to step outside the box and experiment. We encourage them to dream big.”

Three times each year, Artpace selects three artists, one from Texas, one from elsewhere in the U.S, and one from abroad, who will each spend eight weeks living and working here.  Their creations are then exhibited and open to the public for two months.

Also worth browsing are Artpace’s archives, which offer biographies and details of each artist-in-residence’s work since the program began.

And then there’s Andy and Yvette Benavides, the visionaries behind the 17,000 square-foot gallery and studio space ONE9ZERO6.  They import artists of all mediums from around the world, providing workspace and time to create through S.M.A.R.T., their non-profit organization meant to raise awareness of art in San Antonio through education and civic events.

Visitors can also take a look at the studio of sculptor Donna Dobberfuhl, who creates sculpted brick murals and life size bronze sculptures.  Her work can be seen enhancing public parks and a wide variety of local buildings.

Sculptor Donna Dobbefuhl in her studio

Sculptor Donna Dobbefuhl in her studio

And don’t miss the shared studio of artists Mark Hogensen, Nate Cassie, Kimberly Aubuchon and Ethel Shipton, who host an Open Studio in their space during CAM.  Each has their own style and medium, but all agree with Nate who creates art because “it’s the funnest thing I know.”

World-class art museums

When it comes to the art world, no city would rise to the top without first-rate art museums, and San Antonio does not disappoint.

The first place to check out for art when visiting San Antonio is the  magnificent San Antonio Museum of Art (SAMA), situated on the expansive former site of the historic 1884 Lone Star Brewery, houses more than 25,000 objects, representing 5,000 years of world-wide culture.  Its galleries include comprehensive exhibits of Egyptian, Greek and Roman antiquities, an enchanting Latin American folk art exhibit and one of the most impressive Asian art collections in the country.

SAMA also offers a wealth of free classes for locals and visitors alike.  While in San Antonio, why not take a meditation class in the Japanese Gallery, or a sketching class based on the paintings found in SAMA’s collections?

Also exceptional is the McNay Art Museum, which holds a superb collection of 19th and 20th century art housed in a once-private Spanish Colonial Revival-style home.

Established in 1954 when Ohio-born oil heiress Marion Koogler left more than 700 works of art, and her estate, to start the first museum of modern art in Texas, the McNay now features nearly 20,000 works from artists such as Modigliani, Chagall, Matisse, Picasso, Monet, O’Keeffe, Gauguin and Rivera.

Another must-see is the colorful Museo Alameda, part of the AlamedaNationalCenter for Latino Arts & Culture.  Decorated in hot-pink and apple green, the Museo Alameda is the nation’s largest Latino museum and the first formal affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution outside of Washington, D.C.

Art-themed shopping and nightlife

In San Antonio, art is everywhere, both indoors and out.

The River Walk’s new Floating Art Corridor, for example, is best viewed by taking a river taxi along the North River Walk known as Museum Reach.  Each unique piece of art, including a school of giant sunfish, dangles from a bridge or overpass, and is most enchanting when illuminated after sunset. It’s a great place to see if you are touring San Antonio.

Even San Antonio’s shopping areas are infused with culture. If you’re doing some sightseeing in San Antonio, there’s the vibrant, bustling atmosphere of Market Square, site of the Museo Alameda, where visitor’s browse to the sound of Peruvian flutes, the aroma of roasting corn, and the din of merchants and shoppers.

La Villita, an historic arts village located on the south bank of the San AntonioRiver, was San Antonio’s first neighborhood — now, it’s a thriving art community, brimming with galleries, craft and jewelry shops.

The arts have their place in the city’s eateries, too, like the Tex-Mex Mi Tierra Café y Panaderia, where strolling musicians, or trovadores, are as plentiful as the food.  Mexican décor runs delightfully rampant here, where holiday lights festoon Mi Tierra’s dining rooms year-round.

Dining at the colorful Mi Tierra

Dining at the colorful Mi Tierra

Diners at Azuca Nuevo Latino enjoy Latin and Caribbean dishes amid décor sprinkled with beautiful blown glass creations made by a neighboring business.  And at Carmen’s de la Calle, dinner and drinks are accompanied by outstanding flamenco and jazz performances.

And then there’s Ocho, located at the Hotel Havana, enclosed by a glass and steel conservatory.  Patrons sit in a lovely courtyard overlooking the North River Walk or, for a more intimate setting, descend to the basement where a lounge, lit by dim candlelight, is reminiscent of a 1920′s speakeasy.

The Mediterranean Revival designed Hotel Havana is a distinctive place to stay, too; each of its 27 rooms is unique, decorated with antique furniture, Turkish rugs and vintage Cuban artwork.

There are numerous options for entertainment in San Antonio as well.  Visitors can take in a performance at the Blue Star Arts Complex by the Jump-Start Performance Company, who produce four to six original works per season.

Or head to the Majestic Theatre, a vintage vaudeville movie palace that is home to the San Antonio Symphony and the AT&T Broadway Series, which offers topnotch theatrical performances such as “Les Miserables” and “The Phantom of the Opera”.

And kids of all ages love the endearing performances at the Magik Theatre, which are adapted from books like The Velveteen Rabbit and Treasure Island. The company reaches out to the community each year with events such as Shakespeare in the Park, summer camps and a touring company.

Captivating art festivals

An artist working at Clogged Caps

An artist working at Clogged Caps

At no time of year is San Antonio more dazzling, though, than during Contemporary Art Month, when its major art festivals take place.  One of these, Clogged Caps International Aerosol Art Festival, celebrates urban art culture.  Hip Hop music and the odor of spray paint fill the air as a group of artists create colossal works of graffiti-art on the expansive outer walls at Backstage Live.

Aerosol art at Clogged Caps

Aerosol art at Clogged Caps

And then there’s Luminaria – Arts Come to Light, an annual one-night festival that attracts more than 300,000 people to downtown’s HemisFairPark.  At this free-to-attend event, visitors are immersed in music, dance, film, literary arts, theater and visual arts on numerous stages and galleries sprinkled throughout the park. It’s an art event that has elevated San Antonio’s profile as a world-class city for the arts.

With passionate artists, world-class galleries and museums, and spectacular arts festivals, visitors are no longer coming to San Antonio just for the Alamo, the Missions and the River Walk.

It seems this city that loves art so much is not just an emerging arts destination, but one that has arrived.

San Antonio for Art Lovers


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