SAN ANTONIO (AP) – Former Gov. Dolph Briscoe Jr. was passionate about having a Western art museum in South-Central Texas. More specifically, he liked the idea of having a repository for the history and culture of the American West on the River Walk in San Antonio.
“We had great discussions about the fact that people would fly into San Antonio, they would come into downtown and they would want to see cowboys. And yet, there really wasn’t a place to go downtown, per se,” said businessman and former state Sen. John Montford, a Briscoe friend.
The San Antonio Express-News reports that will change when the Briscoe Western Art Museum, named for the late governor and his wife, Janey, opens with a free celebration Saturday in the historic building that formerly housed the Hertzberg Circus Museum.
The event also will feature live performances, demonstrations and hands-on activities for children.
Those who go to the museum in search of the cowboy mystique will know immediately they’re in the right place.
The lobby is dominated by “Visions of Change,” a 13-foot-tall bronze sculpture by artist John Coleman depicting herds of longhorns and buffalo.
With about 700 objects on display – including a stagecoach, a chuck wagon and walls of saddles and spurs – the museum provides a broader view of the West, one that also explores the American Indian, Spanish and Mexican contributions to the area.
About 10 years in the works, the $32 million museum, refurbished by LakeFlato Architects, opens in the midst of a cultural boom in San Antonio, with the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts and the San Antonio Children’s Museum under construction, and renovations ongoing at the Witte Museum.
Witte President and CEO Marise McDermott said the Briscoe will complement the Witte, which she describes as focused on San Antonio and South Texas.
The Briscoe, by comparison, tells “the big story.”
“It really is what San Antonio needs, and it’s going to be fantastic for downtown,” she said. “They’re focusing on Western art and the big themes of the West.”
The Briscoe adds a new element to the city’s cultural offerings as the first dedicated Western heritage museum. Briscoe officials and city leaders see the new museum fitting into a well-established niche: the tourism industry.
Located at Market and Presa streets on the River Walk, the museum is within easy reach of various tourist destinations.
“They’re a walk away from the Convention Center. They’re a walk away from the major hotels downtown, so it’s an added value to that experience,” said Felix Padrón, director of the city’s Department for Culture and Creative Development. “If we can encourage tourists to stay an extra day not only to go to the Briscoe but to the Tobin or other institutions downtown, that’s a win-win situation for all of us since we’re supported by the hotel-motel tax.”
Pat DiGiovanni, CEO of Centro Partnership San Antonio, said cultural attractions such as the Briscoe are key to the effort to revitalize the city’s core.
“This is the kind of asset we need to build off of if we’re going to have a vibrant, 24-hour, seven-days-a-week downtown,” he said. “So this, and hopefully other extraordinary cultural experiences, is what’s going to bring more consumers and more patrons, more locals, downtown.”
While six of 10 visitors at the San Antonio Museum of Art on the northern edge of downtown are local, Briscoe Executive Director Steven M. Karr anticipates the majority of visitors to the fledgling museum will be from out of town.
“The visitors we’re going to attract on a large scale are going to be the many tourists who walk on the River Walk ... and the conventioneers moving up and down Market Street,” he said. “Location is key, and we’re very pleased with that.”
With a pair of entrances – one off the street, one off the river – the museum is prepared to capitalize on both traffic streams.
Karr, former director of the Southwest Museum of the American Indian, Autry National Center in Los Angeles, declined to project attendance figures. Last year, the San Antonio Museum of Art and the McNay Art Museum drew about 109,000 and 125,000 visitors, respectively.
“I think what’s safe to say is that our location on the River Walk in the heart of downtown San Antonio is going to lend to higher numbers than institutions in other areas,” he said.
With its prominent placement in the lobby, “Visions of Change” serves as visual shorthand of sorts for visitors.
“We wanted to hit people over the head when they walked in here and say, `You are in a Western art museum,”’ said Karr, who took the reins of the museum in 2011.
Just beyond the lobby, a stagecoach on display appears slightly off-kilter on a patch of rocky terrain.
Schoolchildren who enter through the museum’s education gateway off the River Walk will be greeted by a modern Comanche-style teepee towering against a vintage black and white photo mural.
The piece, painted by nationally known Comanche artists Calvert Nevaquaya and Tim Tate Nevaquaya, has been described as a “living artifact.”
Among the objects in the galleries are a presentation sword that belonged to Santa Anna, the last known saddle of Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa and an Apache olla basket. A detailed interactive diorama depicts the battle of the Alamo.
The vast majority of objects on display are on loan to the museum. The exhibits will remain in place for three to five years while the museum builds its permanent collection, Karr said.
Though now part of San Antonio’s cultural landscape, the story of the Briscoe begins in Kerrville.
In 2002, Michael Duty, director of what now is the Museum of Western Art, began a push for a new facility in San Antonio. Jack Guenther Sr., CEO of the Performance Cos. , which includes auto dealerships, business management and hotels, real estate, oil and gas investments; and Mark Watson Jr., founder of insurance company Titan Holdings ; were part of a group within the Kerrville museum that wanted to make the move.
In 2003, Guenther and Watson resigned from the board and started a nonprofit, now the National Western Art Foundation, to fund the new project.
The rift between the Kerrville and San Antonio camps lead to lawsuits, which were settled in a confidential agreement in 2004.
On the basis of population alone – about 22,300 in Kerrville and 1.3 million in San Antonio in 2010 – the question of where the museum should be had “a pretty easy answer,” said Guenther, a native San Antonian.
“You have the Alamo, you have millions of tourists that come to the Alamo and they go out the front door and they say `Where’s the West?”’ Guenther said. “We have nothing downtown that’s showing them the origin of the West. The trail drives started in front of the Alamo in Alamo Plaza; Teddy Roosevelt trained his Rough Riders when he lived in the Menger Hotel. That’s history, and I think San Antonio is a very historic city.”
Initially slated to open in 2009, the Briscoe was delayed as the original design changed and grew, and the price tag grew from $18 million in 2006 to the final $32 million. Of that, $17.3 million went to the stabilization, design and renovation of the building: $12 million went to the design and construction of the adjoining Jack Guenther Pavilion; and $2.7 went to exhibit development, design and fabrication.
More than $7 million in taxpayer funds has gone into the project, including $6.25 million from the county – $4 million of that approved by voters as part of the 2008 election to extend the county’s venue tax – and about $1 million from the city.
The rest of the funding has come from the private sector. Briscoe, who died in 2010, was an early member the National Western Art Foundation. It was his gift of $4 million that got the project rolling.
“I had to get my nerve up to ask him for $4 million,” said Montford, who served as chairman of the museum board before stepping down in 2010 after he was hired at General Motors Co. “He kind of looked at me over his glasses and said, `Would you repeat that please?”’
Other heavy hitters on the donor rolls include Peter Holt and his wife, Julianna Hawn Holt, principal owners of the San Antonio Spurs, and billionaire businessman B.J. “Red” McCombs, who has loaned 70 objects from his private collection to the Briscoe, including a siege cannon used at the Battle of the Alamo and a presentation sword that belonged to Mexican President Porfirio Díaz.
“I’m proud to be a contributor to it as far as funds,” said McCombs, who declined to reveal the size of the donation. “But I’m prouder for all the people who did the work on it.”
The Briscoe’s annual budget for 2013 is $3.2 million. That figure is likely to climb significantly as the museum goes into its first full year of operation. Karr said the museum board has not yet voted on a budget for 2014.
For some, the opening of a new museum downtown may raise the specter of the failed Museo Alameda, the Latino museum that opened with great fanfare in 2007 in Market Square and closed after five years, its brief run marked by financial woes and personnel problems. But the comparison is “apples to oranges,” Padrón said.
“You’ve got a very well-organized museum with a very professional staff that has been working in the context of curatorial experience for quite some time now,” he said. “My understanding is that they’re pretty financially sound.”
The Briscoe’s capital costs are covered, said Debbie Montford, who became the head of the museum board after her husband, John Montford, stepped down. In addition, the museum has a financial reserve, though both Debbie Montford and Karr declined to disclose the amount.
“I feel very comfortable with the reserves that we have knowing that it will certainly take a while to get the museum up and going,” Debbie Montford said. “I do think it is positioned for success, certainly with the tourism industry being right on the river.”
Along with the excitement leading up to the opening of the museum, there is some sadness among those who knew Briscoe.
“I regret that he won’t be here for it, because he was so excited about seeing that get done, as we all are,” McCombs said. “So we’ll try to make every tribute to him that we can.”