San Antonio City Hall renovation reveals niches now filled with art celebrating the city’s people, music and neighborhoods

The new works of art at City Hall don’t take up much space but they cover a lot of ground.

The pieces, commissioned from six San Antonio artists as part of the recently completed, three-year renovation of City Hall, provide snapshots of the city’s history, people, neighborhoods and architecture. They are tucked into niches that were uncovered on the second , third and fourth floors of the building, which dates back to 1891.

“There are center rooms inside these buildings that have windows and doors for ventilation because there used to not be air conditioning,” said Debbie Racca-Sittre, director of the city’s Department of Arts & Culture. “When they took down some of the sheet rock, they uncovered these niches that were either doorways or windows that were inside the building. And the architects found them and said, ‘Oh, those would be great spots for art.’”

City staff agreed. A committee drawn from the city’s public art commission selected the artists, who were asked to create pieces that reflected the geography, culture and history of the city.

Because of security measures, members of the public can’t walk in just to see the artwork. Anyone who comes to City Hall has to have a specific purpose, such as an appointment with a City Council representative. Racca-Sittre and her staff are making plans for an open house sometime in the near future so folks can see the new works of art as well as other pieces in the city’s art collection that are on display in the basement.

The works in the niches, which are 71 inches tall and 13 inches deep on the second and third floor and 24 inches deep on the fourth floor, flank office suites.

Emily Fleisher’s “Foundational Elements” is the only sculpture installation. In each of three niches, a small limestone-like rendering of a local building —City Hall, Mission Espada and the Bexar County Courthouse — rests atop a desk. Glass lampshades over each desk are meant to evoke the bell towers at the Espada and San Juan missions.

As part of her process, Fleisher researched the history of City Hall.

Interactive Guide

Guide to public art in San Antonio

“It’s always been office spaces,” she said. “Then I got the funny idea that the niches were like the smallest cubicles ever, like joke office spaces. Then the idea emerged of building small desks to fit in them and putting the structures on top of them.

“I thought about people working in the space, sort of anonymous people working there over the past 120 years or so, and the very slow, methodical work that grows a city.”

Ruth Leonela Buentello’s “Entre Fronteras Memory Migration Maps” was inspired by family stories about migrating to San Antonio from Mexico as well as her experience as a caseworker for young migrants. Maps form the backdrop for each panel, and native plants line the bottom.

In the panel on the left, a mother and child stand before the map, anxiety etched on their faces. The center panel bears a photo of Buentello’s grandmother surrounded by her grandchildren. And the panel on the right features a photo of her mother, who migrated to San Antonio from Piedras Negras. A pair of swallows fly overhead.

“Swallows are migratory birds and they don’t recognize borders,” said Buentello. “So I just thought, there’s nice symbolism there for that.”

She hopes the stories that inspired the piece will register with lawmakers.

“I just hope that it’s a reminder to the council that they serve families that are descended from people who immigrated here, and that there are families that continue to immigrate to the neighborhood,” she said. “Their decisions impact real families, real people.”

The other artists and their works are:

 Ana Fernandez’s “Three Streets” depicts the neighborhoods that Culebra Road, Austin Highway and Fredericksburg Road snake through.

 Raul Rene Gonzalez’ “Music in the City” captures the energy of concerts by jazz, heavy metal and Tejano and conjunto artists over the years.

 Mari Hernandez’ “Tap Milam Portraits” comprises vibrant depictions of descendants of the region’s First People set against the Blue Hole Headwater Sanctuary, Mission San Francisco de la Espada and Mission San Juan Capistrano.

 And Megan Harrison’s digital collage “Morning, Noon and Night” blends nature images from various parks and green spaces across the city.

Racca-Sittre said she is pleased with the way the installations turned out, and she hopes City Hall visitors will see them as an indicator of the strength of the city’s art scene.

“I hope that people will see that San Antonio has great artists and great contemporary art,” she said. “I want people to know we are an arts city.”

[email protected] | Twitter: @DeborahMartinEN

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