Originally built in 1968 to connect the River Walk to the World’s Fair, now known as Hemisfair, today’s extension by the Shops at Rivercenter is getting a major makeover that will transform it into the River Walk Public Art Garden.
Designed as an outdoor museum, the garden will be used to preview public art before the pieces are moved to permanent sites across the city.
“The goal of the garden is to beautify the River Walk even more and to connect downtown with other City Council districts in San Antonio,” Debbie Racca-Sittre, Department of Arts & Culture director, said. Free-standing sculptures, wall-mounted art installations and informational displays will be part of the permanent and rotating installations.
“In essence, we want to inform River Walk visitors of what the entire city provides outside of downtown,” Racca-Sittre said. “The hope is that visitors would be enticed to visit these districts, including the public art in these areas.”
Five brightly colored metal sculptures by the Mexican artist Sebastian are on view as part of the citywide exhibit “Sebastian in San Antonio: 50+Years 20+Locations 100+ Works.” The 50-year retrospective is scheduled to end May 31, but the installations at the Public Art Garden, San Antonio International Airport and Mission Marquee have been extended for another year.
Sebastian’s iconic monumental sculpture Antorcha de Amistad, or Torch of Friendship, marks the western entry point for the garden at the traffic circle where Commerce, Alamo and Losoya streets converge. Mosaic murals created for HemisFair ’68 by Mexican artists Juan O’Gorman and Carlos Merida on the sides of the Henry B. González Convention Center delineate the eastern end of the garden.
It is accessible via sidewalk entrances off Commerce and Market streets as well as directly from the downtown loop of the River Walk.
In spite of government-mandated lockdowns for much of society to limit the spread of COVID-19, the art project remains on track with some tweaks.
“The Public Art Garden is still on schedule in terms of planning and design,” Racca-Sittre said. “The only impact COVID-19 has had on the project is installation and construction. This was originally planned for November, but with Fiesta rescheduled for November (due to the pandemic), the festival’s events and attendees will be in the area, so we won’t be able to begin construction of Phase II until early next year.”
So far, Phase I of the project occupies a 16,000-square-foot plot on the north side of Market Street near Alamo Street across the river from the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce building. Construction of Phase II in the adjacent Peak Park on the River Walk is slated to begin in January 2021. Phase III will be located closer to the San Antonio Marriott Rivercenter. With precast benches, landscaping and winding trails through the trees, the entire project is scheduled to be completed by mid-2022.
At last fall’s ribbon-cutting, Mayor Ron Nirenberg called the first phase a new “front door of what will be an incredible new public art facility.”
District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño noted the garden will serve as the entrance to the reimagined Alamo. The new public art garden is intended to create a downtown hub linked to public art projects in each of the city’s 10 council districts.
The Department of Arts & Culture’s Public Art programs span the city and range from parks, community centers and roadways to building facades and bus stops. The city has more than 600 artworks in its public art collection, which can be browsed on a Public Art Map at getcreativesanantonio.com.
Public art to be showcased at the Public Art Garden ranges from large-scale sculptures such as Stargazer, made of volcanic rock by the Mexican artist Pedro Reyes, to Bloom, flowers made of bicycle parts by San Antonio artist Leticia Huerta. However, to create the garden, the city removed a long-controversial sculpture of labor leader Samuel Gompers.
“But the garden will include a Labor Plaza, which will pay tribute to the labor movement in San Antonio,” Racca-Sittre said. “The 2019-2020 Poet Laureate Octavio Quintanilla will work with San Antonio artist Ann Wallace to incorporate text into the plaza’s design.”
Wallace’s public art projects include Glorieta, cast-bronze tree-trunk slices at Brackenridge Park, and Everything Was Close, photos and poignant memories of residents embedded in concrete along South Presa Street.