Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Corporate Art Meets Grassroots Pros

Tobin's River Walk Plaza under construction. Photo by Yaya.
San Antonio is a city on the rise but rising isn't always easy. How a city progresses depends on its leadership but also the vision of the businesses and individuals mixed up in the momentum and those looking on from the periphery. Where you stand solely depends on you and today I had the opportunity to join members of the San Antonio Latino Theater Alliance (SALTA) for a tour of the soon-to-open Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. A relatively new group of theatre professionals who have years of experience in the arts, SALTA is a group on the go. Long before skyscraper cranes towered over the former Municipal Auditorium, local artists have hustled for the sake of their creative work, living paycheck to paycheck, knocking on doors, ready for the next project. Meanwhile the city pondered a new life for the site that witnessed civil unrest, Elvis, Jimi Hendrix, Fiesta coronations, Miss USA and so much more. A private, non-profit organization, the Tobin brings excitement among the vibrant arts community in San Antonio. Finally, a state-of-the-art home for the San Antonio Symphony, Chamber Orchestra, Opera and others. A blue black-box theatre and an outdoor setting offer smaller spaces for a variety of events.

View of  Siqueiros' "America Tropical," with Budweiser Beer Garden sign. (Credit: PBS)
Of particular interest to SALTA and tour organizer Mari Barrera, is the black-box named the Carlos Alvarez Studio Theater. Who is Carlos Alvarez you may wonder? We did too. It turns out Mr. Alvarez is the man responsible for bringing Corona Beer to the US. He is Chairman and CEO of the Gambrinus Company, "a highly successful brewer and beer distributor in San Antonio, Texas," according to Forbes. This news stumped a few of us SALTA members. Do we like this or really, really hate it? Latinos and beer money have always put arts administrators and artists in a catch-22. Do we take beer money and get our programs funded or do we reject their deep pockets and continue the fight to get our work accomplished? What's wrong with beer money? Well, just ask your tia Chela. However, it is a fact that Budweiser has been funding Latino projects since the beginning. When David Alfaro Siquerios spent 10 months in Los Angeles in 1930, he painted an amazing controversial an innovative outdoor mural at the birthplace of the city, Olvera Street. Historic photographs reveal a huge Budweiser sign indicating the beer garden just under the mural. Does this make it right? We were still pondering our feelings over a few mojitos at Ocho after the tour. In the case of the Tobin, the name of the black-box theatre probably had nothing to do with Mr. Alvarez's last name or what company he works for but more-likely a naming opportunity with a price tag. Of course, the name doesn't hurt in a city with a predominant Latino community. But now Latinos will want to know who is this Mr. Alvarez, and just as we got our hopes somewhat deflated, so will others. Not everything needs to be named for Cesar Chavez but here we thought there was a new leader in town that we could hold in high regard. Not to take anything away from Mr. Alvarez's accomplishments as a businessman. We're just used to naming places, streets, and our babies after community leaders. Perhaps Mr. Alvarez would be interested in funding a few SALTA projects? And if he is, there's that catch-22 again.

SALTA members with Tobin's Mike Fresher. Photo by Yaya.
The hard hat tour was led by President and CEO of the Tobin, Mike Fresher and Senior Director of Facilities, Jack Freeman. Both men have a resume filled with national performing arts facilities and shared their excitement about being in San Antonio and working on this project. While no working relationship was established at this meeting, it was good for Tobin execs to meet with this new grassroots group of professional theatre artists. Likewise SALTA members were able to ask questions and get to know how the Tobin will be operating come opening day and beyond. SALTA's goal is to have a local artists presence at the Tobin. County and City residents green-lighted millions of tax dollars in funds for the Tobin. It seems only reasonable for appropriate local arts organizations to be given the opportunity to use the space. But as Mr. Fresher said, the Tobin "is not in the business of losing money. We're not in the business of making a lot of money but we are in the business of making a little bit of money," referring to its non-profit status and rental rates for the space. It shouldn't always be about the bottom line but sometimes it is especially with NEA funding always in danger and other sources of funding dwindling. Still, there's always a silver lining and in a city where (Spurs) silver is held near and dear, the future of the arts here in San Antonio, is looking up.

SALTA encourages arts and theater professionals and supporters to join the alliance. Visit SALTA on Facebook at Facebook.com/SALTASanAntonio

Check out the Tobin's opening season schedule featuring Latino acts Vikky Carr, Alejandra Guzman, Santana, and Juanes here: tobincenter.org/box-office

Carlos Alvarez Studio Theater at the Tobin. Photo by Yaya.

Mandatory selfie.

Tobin's Fresher tours SALTA members in the HEB Performance Hall. Photo by Yaya.

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