By my understanding, Luminaria was not originally conceived as an Art Basel type international art fair. That’s another species of creature altogether. Luminaria was, by my understanding, conceived to highlight the aesthetic production within the local arts community. It was a unique opportunity for regional artists to show their works to mostly suburban audiences who were otherwise oblivious to local art culture. It was the only time of the year when large masses of Looplanders would come downtown to engage local art. Luminaria was beginning to make inroads into the heretofore impenetrably vast cultural wasteland of the Northside and those residents were beginning to, for the first time in San Antonio history, become cognizant of the importance of art to the quality of life of their city. Luminaria was becoming a point of civic pride amongst both bourgeoise suburbanites and urban artists. Getting these two disparate demographics to share a common cause was no small achievement. As veteran local artists and cognoscenti can testify, one can hardly overstate the importance of this unprecedented phenomenon. Luminaria was perhaps not so prestigious as an international Biennial, but it served a legitimate, essential and relatively unique purpose.
Luminaria was, to some extent, a victim of its own success. As Luminaria became noticed outside the community, it seems politicians began to prioritize Luminaria as a public relations opportunity for the City. It became something to be exploited for political and business purposes that had less and less to do with the arts and cultural life of the community, or even enhancing the local arts industries. Does anyone in city government find it bizarre that, in forty years, almost no art gallery has managed to become profitable by locating in the areas of the city whose residents have the most disposable income? In other cities the size of San Antonio, there are copious successful art galleries selling antique paintings and sculpture, fine quality antique furniture, investment quality contemporary art as well as reasonably priced works from local contemporary artists who have loyal followings among viable numbers of local collectors. Why is San Antonio perpetually stuck out in the cultural and economic cold when it comes to creating a viable local art economy?
The problem is an absence of cultured leadership. Those that have the political power don’t have the culture and those with the culture don’t posses the political power. It is not so much that’s San Antonio’s economic and political elites have bad taste, so much as no taste at all. It would be one thing if the Civic leaders decided to prioritize putting on a bonafide world class Biennial instead of Luminaria. It might not serve the same essential purpose as Luminaria, but it would, on balance, still be a positive development for the cultural life of San Antonians. From such an endeavor, prestige would begin to be associated with art collecting and its appreciation in the city and this might indeed have certain positive trickle down effects for local artists.
But who are we kidding? We are not losing a local arts festival and gaining a prestigious international Biennial. We are losing a viable and serviceable local Luminaria and instead getting a pathetic attempt at politicians putting on cultural airs that will be all too transparent to genuinely cosmopolitan audiences. It will be neither serviceable fish nor gourmet fowl. As a result, we will be squandering an historic opportunity to create a viable local art economy. I’d rather have a populist local arts festival that unites the diverse community and creates genuine cultural economic momentum than have a poor excuse for an international arts fair that is a waste of scarce local resources and will ultimately only serve to demonstrate how provincial a community can actually show itself to be when its uncultured leadership is merely pretending to be cosmopolitan.