A river runs through San Antonio

Appeared in the April 2009 issue of AmericanStyle

San Antonio artist Stuart Allen's colored mesh panels are part of the new Museum Reach on the San Antonio River.

A river runs through San Antonio, linking the past and future of the sprawling city of 1.4 million. Canary Islands settlers arrived in 1731 to claim the region for the Spanish crown. A string of five missions grew along the river – including one famous for the battle of the Alamo fought in 1836.

In the 1930s, visionary architect Robert Harvey Harold Hugman created the River Walk, featuring winding walkways, lush landscaping and picturesque arched bridges along the cypress-lined San Antonio River downtown. It languished until the city hosted one of the last great world fairs, HemisFair ’68, which established San Antonio as a major tourist and convention destination.

Today, the Alamo and the River Walk rank as Texas’ most popular tourist attractions. While San Antonio has a reputation as a romantic getaway with mariachis and river barge rides, there’s also a thriving art scene with expanding museums, dozens of galleries and a large, supportive community of artists.

Each spring, the city celebrates Texas independence with Fiesta, a 10-day extravaganza of parades and parties. The family-friendly Fiesta Arts Fair, a 36-year-old tradition, features more than 110 of the country’s best craft-oriented artists. With visits by Fiesta royalty, it’s held on the shady grounds of the Southwest School of Art & Craft, originally a French convent built in the late 19th-century on the river overlooking downtown.

Paula Owen, Southwest School director, believes the line between craft and contemporary art is so blurred it’s meaningless. Her philosophy is reflected by the school’s exhibits, classes and gift shop featuring jewelry, fiber arts, painting, photography and ceramics by local artists. The school has expanded into a nearby tire store, now housing the Navarro Campus and its first-rate Russell Hill Rogers Galleries.

Currently, the city is building a $250 million 13-mile-long linear park along the river reaching from Brackenridge Park south to Mission Espada. The Museum Reach, under construction, will enable visitors to ride a barge or even walk from the downtown River Walk, past the Southwest School, to the San Antonio Museum of Art. In a renovated turn-of-the-20th-century Lone Star brewery, SAMA has a large Latin American Art Wing along with a superb Asian Art Wing and the state’s best collection of ancient Egyptian, Roman and Greek art.

North a ways around the river’s bend, Carlos Cortez, a master of faux bois, or false wood, is working on a $3 million public art project – a fairy tale grotto with waterfalls and realistic-looking stalactites and stalagmites carved in concrete.

Also downtown in Market Square is the city’s newest museum, the Museo Alameda, devoted to Latino arts and culture. Artpace, an acclaimed artists’ residency program, is located a few blocks north in a former Hudson auto dealership.

To find the heart of the city’s art community, follow the river south of downtown to the Blue Star Arts Complex, a 1920s-vintage warehouse district with galleries and artist-run spaces. The Joan Grona Gallery is one of the best places to find work by local artists, while San Angel Folk Art is jam-packed with international folk art.

Many artists live around Blue Star in the Southtown neighborhood, including stately restored Victorian mansions in the King William district. Gini Garcia blows glass in her Southtown studio, and she’s opened a River Walk gallery downtown near the art glass specialists at Gallery Vetro.

Galleries are sprinkled around downtown like darts around a bull’s eye, especially to the southwest in the warehouse district along South Flores and north in the upscale neighborhoods of Olmos Park and Alamo Heights, where you’ll find the city’s latest and best fusion of old and new, the Jane and Arthur Stieren Center for Exhibitions at the McNay Art Museum.

French architect Jean-Paul Viguier designed a light-filled minimalist pavilion that merges magically with the 1920s Spanish Colonial Revival mansion of founder Marion Koogler McNay. Her impeccable collection of late 19th century and 20th century French and American art has grown to include the world-class Tobin Theater Collection, one of the country’s best print collections and indoor and outdoor modern sculpture.

San Antonio retains much of the charm of its Spanish colonial past, but it’s also home to one of the liveliest visual art scenes in the Southwest.

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