July 2016 issue culture

Isn’t It Iconic?

The price tag on a new public sculpture in San Antonio renews a 20-year debate over whether a city program creates art — or just controversy.


A version of this story ran in the July 2016 issue.

When the main lobby of San Antonio’s Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center is busy, “Liquid Crystal” is in its element. The 30-foot-tall metal sculpture is studded with 3,500 pyramid-shaped LCD panels that, when triggered by motion-sensing cameras, blink in contagion. The effect is a ripple of light sweeping across the surfaces of the triangular column — the digital equivalent of a fountain. The more movement in the lobby, the more waves undulate across the surface. Its designer, London-based Jason Bruges, said he was inspired by the nearby San Antonio River to make a sculpture that reflects the motion of the water, even as it reflects the movement of convention goers.

Between events, when the lobby is empty save for an occasional maintenance worker, the sociable sculpture becomes more subdued. A lone passing pedestrian still provokes a response, but it’s a smaller one. A momentary shimmer races across the sculpture’s face, like a tentative wave toward someone who might not wave back.

July 2016 issue culture
London-based designer Jason Bruges, who created San Antonio’s public sculpture “Liquid Crystal,” was inspired by the city’s river.  Brad Doherty

When there’s no motion in the lobby at all, the scaffolding studded with sharp triangles looks “like a $1 million cheese grater,” says Joe Krier, the City Council member representing San Antonio’s District 9, which hugs Highway 281 and Loop 1604. Such was the case at the unveiling of “Liquid Crystal” in late January during the ribbon-cutting for the $325 million expansion of the convention center; the $1 million sculpture was commissioned with part of the project’s $3.25 million budget for public art. Perhaps unaware that “Liquid Crystal” only “performs” in response to motion, the event planners organized a dramatic countdown to the dropping of a curtain around the sculpture — which, in reaction to the stationary crowd of dignitaries, did nothing.

Distaste for the work, coupled with the piece’s price tag, led Krier and others to question the utility of Public Art San Antonio, the city program that funded it. (“Great art stands the test of time,” Krier later said. “This is art based on a gimmick. Technology changes so fast; does anyone think that LCD lights will be cutting edge 20 years from now?”) Others questioned why the city chose an overseas artist for the project. Comments on the Facebook pages of local news stations, including KENS 5, suggested other priorities for the money: “Meanwhile our roads still suck”; “Wow they could of helped the homeless living on the streets with some of that money.” On 550 KTSA’s page, a commenter summed up another argument: “Because ‘art’ is subjective, ‘art’ should be supported by patrons, not politicians.”

The debate sparked by “Liquid Crystal” posed the same questions about public art that the program provoked when it began two decades ago. In an interesting symmetry, some of the program’s pilot projects were created for the convention center’s first expansion in the same building where “Liquid Crystal” now stands. But the upgraded convention center is only one site expected to draw a larger and more international clientele in coming years. In response to last summer’s UNESCO designation of the city’s five Spanish colonial missions as a World Heritage Site, and in preparation for San Antonio’s tercentennial celebration in 2018, local leaders say public art should be worthy of the spotlight tilting in the town’s direction.

“We need bold statements that show vision and leadership, and that say San Antonio is in the 21st century and a world-class city that cherishes its culture,” says Guillermo Nicolas, chairman of the city’s arts commission. Making such statements requires investing in work that, at its best, becomes a landmark beloved by locals and tourists alike and, at its worst, alienates the audiences it’s meant to serve.

July 2016 issue culture art
Felix Padrón in front of the “Torch of Friendship,” a tall, ribbon-like red sculpture by Mexican artist Sebastián that sits in a roundabout near the convention center.  Brad Doherty

When the idea of pegging public art to development was first proposed in San Antonio in the 1990s, it sparked a vigorous debate, complete with impassioned citizen speeches to City Council and protests on the steps of City Hall. The guidelines for public art were developed by Felix Padrón Jr., who retired in March from his 21-year career in the city’s cultural arts department. The ordinance he drafted earmarked 1 percent of all capital projects — like bond-funded construction of a new fire station or bridge — for art, a common strategy already adopted by Austin, Dallas and Corpus Christi. Before voting it into law, the city used the convention center’s late-1990s expansion as a test case. Today’s convention goers can still see those works, which include “Lone Star *Can*delier,” a chandelier made from 1,900 aluminum cans, and “Harmony en la Esquina,” a drawing of local young men and women in their neighborhood.

We need bold statements that show vision and leadership, and that say San Antonio is in the 21st century and a world-class city that cherishes its culture.

When the ordinance first came before City Council in 1996, so did naysayers. “Because it was a new concept, there was a lot of fear of the unknown,” Padrón remembers. Members of the Homeowner Taxpayers Association called it “pork for artists,” arguing that art was a luxury item the city shouldn’t subsidize. Others associated any public money for art with National Endowment for the Arts grants to controversial artists like Andres Serrano, whose 1987 photograph “Piss Christ” depicts a crucifix submerged in urine (the photograph was not a public art piece).

The ordinance passed, but in an illustration of how contested it was, the rule’s biggest advocates on council were not reelected. In 1997, the new council rescinded Padrón’s ordinance and replaced it with a policy that prioritized “design enhancements” in public projects on a case-by-case basis, with no specific funding guidelines. The program was later folded into the city’s development code — still without specific amounts — until the council ultimately voted to re-establish “1 percent for art” in 2011.

Today, San Antonio’s public art projects are overseen by the 15-member San Antonio Arts Commission and the city’s Department for Culture and Creative Development. Artists are chosen by a selection panel comprising arts commission members, staff from the relevant city department (such as parks or fire), and the community where the project will be built. For most projects, artists are selected from a prequalified city registry that’s updated annually. If a project calls for one kind of expertise — a sidewalk enhancement, say, might need a mosaic artist — the selection panel can use the registry to find appropriate candidates. In rare cases, including the convention center expansion, the public art office issues a request for qualifications, then whittles the respondents down to a short list of artists who submit proposals for the site.

Krier says that since taking office, he’s been “singularly underwhelmed” by the public artworks chosen by the panels. He describes “El Bosque,” a sculptural wall at a District 9 branch library, as “a large piece of aluminum with random words stamped into it.” (The cut aluminum panels depict oak trees and quotes from local authors.) But beyond issues of taste, he is skeptical of the city funding art at all. “I just don’t see it as a fundamental role of government,” he says. “This is not a wealthy city. We are sailing into the preparation of our 2017 budget, with all of its challenges, and are trying to put together an $850 million bond issue. I know excruciatingly well how tight we are for funding things that are really essential.” He would have preferred to put the money that funded “El Bosque” toward an expanded book collection, or sunk the money that paid for “Liquid Crystal” into IT enhancements for the convention center.

Public art advocates, though, say it serves two crucial purposes: It enhances the visitor experience and makes visual art available to locals who otherwise would never encounter it. Particularly for “A City on the Rise,” as San Antonio has branded itself, a diverse public art collection signals to outsiders that the town values culture. And individual pieces that achieve iconic status become tourist attractions themselves. Padrón cites the example of “Cloud Gate,” Anish Kapoor’s massive, reflective sculpture in Chicago’s Millennium Park, colloquially and affectionately referred to as “The Bean.” The park, which draws 5 million visitors each year and has helped revitalize Chicago’s downtown, has multiple works of art, but “The Bean” has become the city’s must-visit landmark, the instantly recognizable backdrop for countless selfies. While vacationing families on the Alamo-Six Flags Fiesta Texas-Sea World circuit might not articulate an interest in public art, they’d probably take a photo in front of “The Bean” on a trip to Chicago.

But the public art of San Antonio — or any town — exists to serve residents as much as visitors. In a city where one-fifth of the population lives in poverty (as in many Texas cities) and only a quarter of adults hold a college degree, most San Antonians don’t travel to see art. Many feel intimidated when visiting museums in their own backyard, says Rene Barilleaux, chief curator at the McNay Art Museum and a member of the arts commission. But beautiful and whimsical works in public space make art accessible to everyone and cultivate community pride.

Done right, public art projects benefit both visitors and residents. “Light Channels,” by San Antonio-based light sculptor Bill FitzGibbons, illuminates a stretch of underpass that separates convention hotels from the St. Paul Square Historic District. Prior to the installation, the area beneath the freeway bridge had been a haven for transients, and visitors were reluctant to walk the short distance. Now, FitzGibbons says, “tourists have no problem going through there, and actually it attracts them.”

July 2016 issue culture
Bill FitzGibbons’ “Light Channels.”  Courtesy Bill FitzGibbons

He completed a similar project in Birmingham, Alabama, where a freeway stood between new residences and a park. FitzGibbons designed a light sculpture that made the underpass safer but has become a destination in its own right. He keeps a picture of a bride and groom posed beneath the wash of magenta and royal blue. “This was a place where bums were hanging out, and now people are getting their wedding pictures taken there,” he says. “That’s the power of public art: how you can transform a space and bring a quality of life to a community, where otherwise it would be a crappy old underpass. You’ll be hard-pressed to find anybody in Birmingham that doesn’t have a selfie with them standing in this thing, but do they think it’s contemporary art? They just know that this is an energized, magic space.”

The core of public art’s ongoing public relations problem: People don’t recognize it when they see it. Even people who appreciate the lighted underpass or a sidewalk mosaic may not associate it with the city program. “Most people don’t realize they’re encountering art all the time,” Barilleaux says. “Unless it’s pointed out to them or branded ‘art,’ they don’t really frame it that way in their minds.”

Lack of knowledge doesn’t stop people from having an opinion about pieces like “Liquid Crystal.” (In contrast, another $1 million project by an out-of-town artist, a decorative frieze around the exterior of the convention center called “Cactus,” has drawn little criticism.) “For some reason, art is inherently more vulnerable, as something that everybody feels they are an expert in,” says former arts commission member Patty Ortiz, an artist who has designed public works in Denver.

Few people understand city budgets, or the fact that money approved in general obligation bonds for construction projects, including the 1 percent spent on art, can’t go toward operational expenses like street maintenance or homeless services. The convention center actually doesn’t take money from residents’ pockets at all; it was financed with hotel occupancy taxes. And people unfamiliar with the economics of the art world often balk at a work’s price tag. The $1 million the city spent on “Liquid Crystal” included materials, fabrication, the artist’s travel expenses and his take-home pay. By comparison, Millennium Park’s privately funded “Cloud Gate” cost more than $20 million.

Even the budgets for much smaller projects cover more than initially meets the eye. San Antonio artist and Artpace studio director Riley Robinson has made several public art works in town, including a galvanized steel bench for the Mission Reach section of the river. Arching over the seat is a curved roof with the inscription “Yanaguana,” the indigenous name for the river. On sunny days, the roof throws the paved path by the bench into shadow, and “Yanaguana” appears written in light.

July 2016 issue culture public art
San Antonio artist Riley Robinson with the galvanized metal sculptures he created for the city’s Tool Yard.  Brad Doherty

Robinson says the piece, commissioned by the San Antonio River Foundation, went through 11 different committees for approval and took three years to complete. He estimates that his take-home pay was about $1,500 of the project’s $10,000 budget. The rest went to materials, mock-ups, and hiring a fabricator to roll out the metal and cut “Yanaguana” into it.

He compares public art to architecture, in which a client compensates the architect for the concept for a building but doesn’t expect that fee to cover construction labor and materials. “If you are expecting the artist to just take 20 percent and make a huge piece, the artist won’t make any money off of it,” he says. “That works out to a couple dollars an hour. But if the artist gets paid for his concept but also gets paid as the project manager, and as the physical labor to grind and weld, that’s different.”

Krier, who is skeptical about spending public money on art in the first place, would prefer that it go to regional artists, keeping money closer to the community. “If I were redrawing the rules on the process, I would change them to limit it to artists who are from Texas,” he says.

Many in the arts community instead advocate a balance between locals and those outside San Antonio. (Of the 122 artists who responded to the call for convention center proposals, 20 were from San Antonio.) Inviting outside artists, they say, guards against parochialism. Take the concept to its logical extreme: Do visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art expect to find only works by New York artists there?

“I ask people, ‘Do you want to go to the main library in San Antonio and have only books written by Texans?’” FitzGibbons says. “Of course not. You want the best books from all over the world. I think it’s important for the public art program to recognize the value of San Antonio artists and to support them, but be inclusive with national and international artists. As a truly international city we want to show the best art from around the world.”

“Most people don’t realize they’re encountering art all the time. Unless it’s pointed out to them or branded ‘art,’ they don’t really frame it that way in their minds.”

FitzGibbons, Padrón, Nicolas and others aired these ideas as panelists at a February “Coffee with the Councilman” organized by Roberto Treviño, whose District 1 includes downtown and the convention center. If Krier is the council’s resident public art skeptic, Treviño, an architect, is its champion.

“One percent [of a bond package] is us fighting over crumbs,” Treviño says. “It makes it very hard to make a significant impact, which is why I think we should actually invest more.” Treviño says he will propose raising art funding — possibly to 2 percent — to accomplish an ambitious set of goals: improving public safety, boosting tourism, and promoting cleaner streets, social equity and community pride.

The arts leaders at the coffee meeting talked with their audience of roughly 50 people about funding, artist selection and the purpose of public art. It was a version of the conversations that happen in individual neighborhoods when the community is invited to help plan new artwork. Such discussion, Padrón says, is the program’s best outreach. That, and good public art.

“You start showing people: ‘Look, this is what your park can look like,’” he says. “‘This is what your underpass can look like.’ People are saying, ‘Wait a minute, I’ve got an underpass in my corner. Councilman, can you get me money to do that?’ To me that’s probably the most rewarding outcome that you can get from a public meeting, when the citizens that you’re serving are saying, ‘I want that, I want more.’”

One of those citizens, musician Erik Sanden, is president of the Shearer Hills/Ridgeview Neighborhood Association in District 1, which doesn’t have any public art. He speaks wistfully about a lighted metal sculpture that marks the entrance to a nearby neighborhood, and enthusiastically about the art installations on the northern extension of the River Walk. “As you’re exploring the city, these pieces of public art make the exploration much more playful and rewarding,” he says. “When you figure out that, say, there’s a sound installation under the bridge, that’s a nice feeling — to know there’s a city at play, not just at work.”

And in addition to money, sometimes the best investment in public art is time. “You’ve got to give public works time to breathe and expand thought,” Padrón says. He points out “La Antorcha de la Amistad” (or “The Torch of Friendship”), the tall, ribbon-like red sculpture by Mexican artist Sebastián that sits in a roundabout near the convention center. The piece was a 2002 gift from the Mexican business community, requiring limited public expenditures, but Padrón says it was still controversial.

“There were certain stakeholders that did not want it in that location because it was by a Mexican artist,” he says. “It was a huge piece, it was contemporary, and ‘so close to the Alamo!’” he recalls people saying. “People hated it. They called it ‘The Gumby.’ But now it defines San Antonio. If you’re watching the Spurs game and they cut to commercial, what image do they show? You may have one or two detractors, but over time, the conversation starts to expand.”

It’s too early to tell if “Liquid Crystal” will become one of San Antonio’s iconic works. But it has already generated public discussion of art. “Look at the effect that it’s had on getting art on the forefront of people’s minds,” Treviño says. “Public art, culinary arts, performing arts, architecture — all these things shape the identity of a city. They shape how we ourselves perceive the world, and how the world then perceives us.”