The Texas city of San Antonio is usually known by tourists for two things: the Alamo and the River Walk. The problem is, the Alamo, legendary and stirring piece of American history that it is, takes little more than a hour to visit, and the River Walk, although a lovely place for dinner and an evening stroll, isn't enough to base a trip around.
Culture is, however, and San Antonio, the ninth-largest city in the United States, has more of it than many realize. It is a polyglot of ethnic cultures, reflected in a synergistic arts scene that is as hot as the sweltering summer temperatures that grip the region.
"Artists here draw on our varied history and culture," says Joan Grona, who runs the Primary Object Gallery. "They are rooted in a rich Mexican, German, and Catholic soil - as well as in folk art." Museums and galleries as well as concert halls and theaters are thriving in an area that has become one of the hottest up-and-coming arts scenes in the country.
"For artists, it's almost a mecca," says David Keene, owner of the David Keene Gallery. "It's a conservative but tolerant town where people accept others.... I consider San Antonio to be what Santa Fe was 25 years ago. It's still a pretty quiet arts community, not yet really discovered."
Doris Miller, a ceramist who moved to San Antonio from California nearly two decades ago, agrees. "Artists will come here for a meeting or event and get so caught up in the lifestyle that they move here," she explains. "People here pull together to make things happen."
Visitors to the city can start by visiting the San Antonio Museum of Art and the McNay Museum, two places where fine art is represented. The former houses a world-class collection that includes everything from pre-Columbian artifacts to modern masterpieces. The McNay, housed in the former residence of Marion Koogler McNay, a wealthy San Antonio native who had a passionate commitment to art, is devoted primarily to modern art, with an emphasis on 19th- and 20th-century prints and drawings. Here, the artworks vie for attention with the gorgeous mansion that houses them, not to mention the 23 acres of landscape that make up the estate.
These museums are designed to showcase art masterpieces; the Southwest Craft Center, on the other hand, seeks to stimulate and promote the process of making art. The SCC was created in 1968 by a group of female arts enthusiasts concerned about the impending loss of American Indian crafts and culture. It features classes, workshops, and lectures, as well as exhibits by regional artists. There is also a wide range of affordable, handmade art objects by regional artists on sale at the Ursuline Sales Gallery.
The Blue Star Arts Complex, another institution devoted to contemporary San Antonio art, is near the historic King William district, the site of many spectacular Victorian homes. A thriving mixture of retail galleries and art studios, Blue Star offers one-stop shopping, ranging from wearable-art T-shirts (Body Lingo) to Latin American folk art (San Angel) to art created by local, inner-city students (Say Si).
For those with more adventurous tastes, ArtPace, housed in a former automobile factory converted into 15,000 square feet of exhibition space, offers challenging modern-art exhibitions. A rather gentler experience is La Villita (Little Village), a beautiful slice of old San Antonio. This collection of charming shops, galleries, and restaurants is housed in a group of historic buildings that reflect Spanish, Mexican, German, and French influences. This is an excellent place to find both high-quality and reasonably priced crafts, including Mexican and Guatemalan imports.
The performing arts have also assumed great importance in San Antonio. The San Antonio Symphony offers a range of programs, from classical to pop, with visiting performers ranging from Tito Puente to Rosemary Clooney. Touring productions of hit Broadway shows are showcased at the downtown Majestic Theatre, a spectacular example of the types of lavish, "atmospheric" theaters that were built in the 1920s. Resembling a village courtyard inspired by Spanish and Baroque architecture, the theater, which features twinkling stars and drifting clouds on the ceiling, is so beautiful that it is a show in itself.
Approaching its fourth decade, the Fiesta Noche del Rio, at the Arneson River Theater (located on the River Walk), offers musical entertainment under the stars. The Guadalupe Cultural Center's entertainment ranges from film to theater literary readings to dance, but its pride and joy is the Annual Tejano Conjunto Music Festival, held every May. This is the largest festival in the world dedicated to conjunto music, a lively blending of Mexican musical forms with European rhythms and instruments.
The city's ever-present commitment to multiculturalism is well demonstrated by the Carver Community Cultural Center, a neighborhood institution since 1905. Originally built as a library for the black community and renamed for George Washington Carver in 1938, it has presented in its illustrious history such artists as Paul Robeson, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Charlie Parker. It now features an annual season of performing and visual arts, as well as classes and other cultural activities - everything from Tibetan dance to Canadian puppetry to Jewish theater.
* For more information, call the San Antonio Convention & Visitors Bureau at 800-447-3372 in the US and Canada. Or visit the SACVB's home page at www.SanAntonioCVB.com/