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A Rift In the San Antonio Arts Community

Last year's CAM flyer.

Last year’s CAM flyer.

For years I have personally hailed the city of San Antonio as a leader in contemporary art, both civically and through grass-roots, community wide support. I have witnessed fruitful collaboration between its institutional leaders and community oriented initiatives. Above all, the thirty year presence of the Contemporary Art Month (CAM), and the city-wide promotion of contemporary art for an entire month is as progressive as it is impactful.

Last week, the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center (GCAC) suddenly cancelled its role as host for the annual exhibition, which in turn drove CAM’s decision to cancel the exhibition altogether. Ensuing community and political backlash has made me disappointed in the city itself.

To rehash: here is part of the GCAC’s statement, dated Februrary 11:

The Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center will be withdrawing as the host for the CAM 2016 Perennial… .  The lack of diversity in this year’s group of artists, specifically the lack of representation of Latina artists in this year’s edition of the perennial, has forced the organization to make this difficult decision after much deliberation and dialogue with CAM’s leaders.

I should address my investment in this mess. I’m an independent curator, and I live and work in both Mexico City and Austin. My Latina roots hail from the southernmost tip of Texas (Harlingen and San Benito), and since the age of four I grew up in Austin. In 2004 I moved to Mexico City, where my green eyes, tall frame, and perfect Spanish fit in just as well as the woman with the Mayan dialect next to me on the subway. I bring this up because I believe diversity is complex, and tokenism is problematic.

In 2014 I was invited by the CAM board to curate the CAM Perennial. As a curator, I’ve rarely enjoyed as much creative freedom and support as I did with CAM. The exhibition began as a blank slate, and the research that I committed to the project was an invaluable experience. In an effort to truly understand the audiences and the space—the GCAC—and to maintain transparency throughout my decision-making process, I wrote weekly articles in the San Antonio Current. In each of these I documented my concerns,  anxieties, and every studio visit. These articles became the story of why I chose to work with the artists I did.

To this day, one of those articles stands out as the emotional crux of the process. When I curated the CAM Perennial it was important to me to really understand the history of the GCAC, so I met with one of its founding members, David Mercado Gonzalez, and he told me the story of the Guadalupe, the history of its activism, the role of the center as a voice for the disenfranchised and as a center for advocacy on various levels, and its long history as a home to artist collectives.

What I learned was that the historical role of the Guadalupe extended much further than Latino/non-Latino identity. I learned that, historically, the GCAC has been a dynamic place of inclusivity.

The CAM Perennial is a two-fold opportunity for artists and art professionals in San Antonio. In my time as CAM curator I visited nearly 30 artist studios, which is an important kind of contact for artists wanting conversation with a curator from another city. This process also fosters merit-based decisions rather than continually recycling the same voices in the same contexts over and over. The Perennial exhibition is much more than just an exhibition; it’s a process of meeting and learning that culminates in a show.

I believe that in light of its history of supporting artists and constructive conversation, the GCAC’s recent decision to pull out as the venue for the CAM Perennial is a missed opportunity for the Center and the surrounding community it claims to support.

The GCAC appointed its new director, Jerry Ruiz, in 2015. With this, the GCAC is no doubt facing institutional changes and growth just as any institution does with a new director. As with the arrival of any new leader, there’s often a period of transition and possibly miscommunication as the staff learns how to carry out the goals of a new director while honoring the goals or ongoing projects of the outgoing one. In the case of the CAM Perennial and the GCAC, there was probably a series of miscommunications from both sides. (CAM’s two volunteer co-chairs are Roberta “Nina” Hassele and Chris Sauter, who have been in place longer.) It’s true that for the new GCAC director, the CAM Perennial may not have been the best fit, but cancelling its long-running agreement so publicly, and with so little time to allow CAM to find another venue, is in no way good for the artists, the community, or the voice of the CAM’s guest curator.

The CAM Perennial is an ongoing opportunity to create dialogue between San Antonio’s west side, a historically Latino neighborhood,and artists who would not ordinarily exhibit at the GCAC. It’s also an opportunity to think about creative public programming to further link artists with the community (especially in a multi-disciplinary way), which is a major part of the GCAC’s mission. The recent action of the GCAC has created further hostility and divisiveness between communities.

As to the issue of the CAM Perennial failing to embrace diversity this year: Diversity is not just about race or skin color. The roster of artists and curators who have been selected to lead the show in the past speaks for itself. The variety of voices and methods in each year’s CAM show is incredibly impressive, and in the past this exhibition has been embraced by both the GCAC’s staff and the community surrounding it. Curators are given creative license to choose as many or as few artists as they feel will build an outstanding show. In past years that roster of artists has ranged from as many as nine artists (the inaugural year) to as few as two artists (the year I curated), and the artists chosen often represent a range of backgrounds and gender. The GCAC’s decision to cancel as host in citing a lack of diversity undermines the backgrounds of each of the six female artists that this year’s curator,  Laurie Britton Newell, chose (and not that any of them should have to tout ethnicity or race to be included in an exhibition). Once again, tokenism is problematic.

Additionally, CAM itself is made up of a volunteer staff, is a major grassroots initiative that manages a successful city-wide program annually, and it has for 30 years. What CAM has done for the arts in the city is extraordinary.

Finding a different venue at this stage in the process is nearly impossible. Curating a thoughtful  exhibition can take up to a year, and most large non-profit art spaces—the kind that could host something like CAM—commit to programming at least a year in advance; their rosters for March are full. The GCAC’s decision to withdraw as a venue seems to be a strategic one with significant impact: We will not see the exhibition by guest curator Newell and the five incredible artists she’s selected for this year’s show, and the conversation between a variety of voices, collaborators, and civic leaders has been ruptured and fractured.

The visual arts in San Antonio has a long history of collaboration unlike what I’ve seen in most cities. The decision by the GCAC shows a lack of respect for that history of collaboration, and its irresponsibility will be felt citywide. In the end the entire city of San Antonio loses.

also by Leslie Moody Castro
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5 Responses

  1. Jane B

    I do not feel it is too late to find a venue or space, let’s make this wonderfully curated show happen!
    I will volunteer and I bet I could find many more who would help.

  2. You serm very sympathetic to CAM assigning most of the blame to GCAC. CAMs people are equally at fault for not upholding their end of the agreement, not honoring the wishes of their host. Lack of communication and professionalism from both sides.

  3. Tami Kegley

    Jane, it is too late. This experience has left everyone involved cold. It is a tainted event. The story has already been covered extensively in the San Antonio press, particularly in The Rivard Report and also in the Express-News. The curator wants nothing to do with it for fear of tainting her career with charges of racism, and she is absolutely correct to be concerned.

    I believe that the CAM board of directors made a difficult but astute decision. Spaces were most generously offered, but at this late date and with all of the negative turmoil the decision to just cancel was for the best — too much noise. The Perennial will be back in 2017, but for now, we have the entire month of CAM 2016 to look forward to in San Antonio. That is the upside that should be focused on. CAM is also planning a panel discussion to discuss the issues brought to the fore in this toxic tug-of-war over the now cancelled exhibition. Date and time to be announced.

    Thank you Leslie for weighing in on this issue. You are a beautiful part of the CAMunity and always will be. Looking forward to your next show in San Antonio, whenever that may be.

    For the convenience of those interested in the story — the good, bad and ugly — here are some helpful links:

    http://therivardreport.com/guadalupe-backs-out-of-art-month-cites-lack-of-latina-artists/

    http://therivardreport.com/gcaccam-commentary/

    http://therivardreport.com/commentary-guadalupes-win-defeat-san-antonio-art/

    http://www.expressnews.com/entertainment/arts-culture/article/Guadalupe-nixes-Contemporary-Art-Month-exhibit-6824290.php

  4. I think there are always two sides to a story and unless you know all of the facts – one should be careful to condemn either side.
    Let us stop pointing fingers now and move on to healing. We are an amazingly close community. We are a family, and just like in any family sometimes we disagree. Doesn’t mean we love each other any less. Can we just let it go now and make the best of this situation. Thank you!

  5. Joseph Bravo

    “In 2014 I was invited by the CAM board to curate the CAM Perennial. As a curator, I’ve rarely enjoyed as much creative freedom and support as I did with CAM. The exhibition began as a blank slate, and the research that I committed to the project was an invaluable experience. In an effort to truly understand the audiences and the space—the GCAC—and to maintain transparency throughout my decision-making process, I wrote weekly articles in the San Antonio Current. In each of these I documented my concerns, anxieties, and every studio visit. These articles became the story of why I chose to work with the artists I did.

    To this day, one of those articles stands out as the emotional crux of the process. When I curated the CAM Perennial it was important to me to really understand the history of the GCAC, so I met with one of its founding members, David Mercado Gonzalez, and he told me the story of the Guadalupe, the history of its activism, the role of the center as a voice for the disenfranchised and as a center for advocacy on various levels, and its long history as a home to artist collectives.” …..

    This kind of transparency of process and concern to “understand the history of the GCAC” is to be commended and is exactly what was missing in this year’s curatorial process. Had Ms. Newell been so transparent and conscientious in her curiosity about GCAC then this crisis of trust, communication, and understanding might have been avoided entirely.

    When CAM announced its choices on the web and social media before alerting the GCAC, they caught the GCAC understandably off guard. This was a significant breach of professional protocol on the part of CAM leadership and needed to be addressed. When CGAC brought CAM leaders in to discuss the issue, CAM spokespersons became instantly defensive and dismissive of the CGAC’s concerns. CAM immediately leveled the charge of “tokenism” and then dug in their heels. CAM evidently felt entitled to hand GCAC a fait accompli or lob the “Token” grenade. At that point, leaders of GCAC were incredulous and became offended. Understandably, neither side liked the implication that they were being racist and neither side was likely to back down from being indignant at the mutual charge. Both sides insisted on their entitlement to the moral high ground. Such circumstances tend to mitigate against the parties reaching a successful resolution. Then in the context of personal offense and administrative impasse, both sides took to social media to publicly air their umbrage. To be clear, one side was more vitriolic than the other.

    CAM is run by volunteers, and while this may be noble, it presents certain challenges when it comes to consistent professionalism and administrative accountability. Volunteers being responsible for conveying institutional messages is not without its problems. Throughout this situation we have seen CAM volunteers publicly tout their own identity credentials, disavow other identities, claim to have hit certain “diversity points” while dismissing others, speak in the passive voice as if curatorial priorities were a matter of chance, assert that no professionals will ever be willing to curate in San Antonio again if CAM doesn’t get its way on this issue as well as make a host of other hyperbolic claims while they publicly play the victim card apparently oblivious to the irony of their position. This is not how paid professionals manage a message in the public discourse during a public relations crisis. When there is no professional mechanism for administrative accountability then these things are litigated through the media rather than handled by paid administrators kept on short rhetorical leashes by their employers. It has served the agendas of well-intended amateurs to defend their personal reputations publicly but the reputations of both of these institutions have been tarnished by the unchecked personal agendas of CAM volunteers who cannot be held accountable in the same way as paid administrative staff.

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