San Antonio’s Luminaria arts night kicks off tomorrow, and the general sense of discontent in the contemporary arts community seems to be growing. I have talked to several artists who were promised funding, and then told at the last minute that their projects will not be funded, forcing them to drastically scale back their projects and/or scramble for private backing. Then there’s the little problem of scheduling the event during Austin’s SXSW, which tends to soak up a lot of attention. This has led San Antonio’s own newspapers to give Luminaria short shrift in favor of covering the star-studded music festival up I-35.
But the biggest problem is the perceived disconnect between the event planners and the actual artists who could make this festival meaningful. Rather than trying to build on existing, grassroots art events like First Friday, Contemporary Art Month, Art in the Hood, or SMART Fair, the city chose to reinvent the wheel. What’s worse, they don’t seem to be listening to the people who are deeply involved in the day-to-day work that has given San Antonio such a rich variety of artist-run spaces and events.
Naturally, part of the problem is money. Some (including myself) feel that at an event receiving a large chunk of city funding, as well as support from Bank of America, AT&T, Ford, and Valero, the artists themselves could hope for more than a $200 honorarium. If even $10,000 or $20,000 (a small fraction of the budget) was made available on a competitive basis, a number of successful local artists might have thrown their hat into the ring rather than sitting this one out. The talking points coming from City Hall point out that artists will be “paid in exposure” — but then, of course, all the established and semi-established artists who already show their work at good galleries in New York and other art centers have no incentive to participate. And so Luminaria has been engineered to showcase artists desperate for exposure, rather than those who have hit their stride and earned some level of national recognition. This approach sells everyone short, and implicitly sends the signal that Luminaria is not a venue for recognized artists. It also ignores the reality that a lot of art takes money to produce — artists have to invest more than just time and energy to realize an ambitious project.
However, despite all this, a number of talented artists are participating in Luminaria, and if the city can provide basic organizational support, the arts night could turn out to be a valuable venue. While some artists are distancing themselves from what seems more and more like a potential train wreck (from the artist’s perspective), others are throwing their talents into the mix to see what happens. And despite what I’m sure sounds like a pretty negative pre-judgment of Luminaria, I’m really interested to see what happens. I’m sure there will be some successful projects out there tomorrow, and I’m sure the city will provide the basic infrastructure necessary for this kind of event. I’m just worried that it will fall short of the potential, and that many artists will be alienated by the lack of respect for their achievements and the realities of their profession. Check back soon for post-Luminaria reactions.