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.