Founded in 1954, San Antonio’s McNay is the oldest modern art museum in Texas. Both its original collection and the 24-room Spanish Colonial Revival mansion that is the heart of the institution were the bequest of Marion McNay, a five-times-married oil heiress and art lover. On the bright, crisp winter day I visited, the place sparkled, a jewel set in twenty-three acres of park-like grounds.
McNay began buying in 1927. For the rest of her life, she continued, collecting 19th- and 20th-century European and American paintings and Southwest art. At her death in 1950, she left some 700 works of art, the house and its grounds, and what must have been a substantial endowment.
From that original nucleus, the collection has expanded to some 20,000 works. These include prints and drawings, theater arts, glass, and even Medieval and Renaissance art (a bit of an outlier—there must be an interesting story there). But the thing that you notice right away when you enter the McNay is that its collections and exhibitions are, well, relevant, in that they address and include the people and the artists of West Texas.
From the parking lot, visitors walk past outdoor sculpture-- most prominently, Robert Indiana’s LOVE sculpture, a popular site for wedding and engagement pictures-- to enter the museum’s modern addition. Here, contemporary (as in, larger-scaled) work can be shown, in a series of boxy, high-ceilinged white galleries. This new building was completed in 2008 and added some 45,000 square feet to the museum as well a sculpture gallery and garden, a lecture hall, and classrooms in which the McNay conducts many educational programs.
When I was there in late December, the main exhibition featured the work of Chuck Ramirez, a beloved San Antonio artist/ photographer/ designer who died in 2010 in a bike accident. A sprawling show of photographs (he started his career doing commercial work for a local supermarket chain, H-E-B) opened with a flotilla of nine eccentric Christmas trees Ramirez had made for artist, collector and philanthropist Linda Pace, founder of the internationally-renowned local residency Artpace (http://www.artpace.org/) and Ramirez’ friend.
Plenty of visitors wandered through the rooms, examining the striking pictures; some featured single objects, while others documented the contents of purses or trash bags and hospital flower arrangements—all photographed against empty white backdrops.
There were opportunities to interact with some pieces. The labels were clearly written, both accessible and smart.
Along the side of the building, a long gallery features sculpture. Many works are by the usual (Famous Artist) suspects, but most are well-chosen pieces that are worth a close look.
A beautiful staircase at the far end of the building leads down to a lower level that includes the lecture hall, galleries of tabletop sculptures (19th and 20th century bronzes), and, when I was there, a show of politically-oriented prints by Francisco Goya, Gabriel Orozco and Ben Shahn. The choice of images seemed to be extremely apposite in these times.
Back upstairs, I wandered past the centrally-located (and rather generic) museum gift shop and into the house itself. Another small show, titled 'Transnational: Migration, Memory and Home,' included a nearly thirty year old painting by Bay Area artist Hung Liu.
In the end, the exhibition/area in which I spent the most time was “Artmatters 17: Mi McNay es Su McNay,” most likely a play on the hospitable expression 'mi casa es su casa.' Described as “immersing visitors in a domestic setting that blurs the lines between art and life” (the building WAS a house, after all), a series of small rooms present a range of well-chosen works dating from the 18th century to the present. The lighthearted wall text, written in the first person, suggests that a hostess--the founder herself?—is welcoming you to a party. The real occasion for this show, though, is to welcome the collection of San Antonio native John M. Parker Jr. to the museum, including some 160 pieces, the majority of which are Minimal or Conceptual. It’s a gift well worth celebrating.
Highlights include three eccentric furniture-based pieces by Erwin Wurm that solicit visitor participation (we tried them all). In another room, a rug featuring the outline of a table and chairs by Andrea Zittel lies before an enigmatic sconce-thingie by the Kienholzes, near a striking ceramic plate- collage by Ann Agee. Other ceramics include a dish by Turner prizewinner Grayson Perry, propped on a stand on a handsome antique sideboard like Grandma’s Spode.
In another room-- clearly the bedroom, in this domestic fantasy-- a Minimal couch/ bed designed by Donald Judd (who knew?) keeps company with sweater-y wall pieces by Wurm, a giant pair of foam boots by Swiss artist Donald Oates and one of Lesley Dill’s oversized, text-covered suits.
Some pieces are part of the McNay’s collection, but many came from Parker. Their intermingling suggests both that the museum is an appropriate new home for these things, and that the addition will be transformative for its holdings of this kind of art. The mixture of old and new is heady and the presentation, entrancing.
From there, a door leads out to the courtyard, where one or two lonely koi hide in a pond out of which peculiar, intermittent spurts of water jet into the air: a strange water feature, no doubt artist-designed, but it grows on you. Beautiful plants and colorful tile work make the space pleasant. In December, it is difficult to imagine what it’s like in the midst of San Antonio’s blistering summer heat, but it must be an oasis. The galleries continue on the other side of the house.
The day I was there, the glassed-in sculpture gallery was spectacular in the late afternoon sun. As I walked around the pieces, I thought about how much sculpture the McNay has in its galleries compared to many other smaller museums I’ve visited over the years. Is this a Texas thing? After all, the preeminent sculpture museum in the US, the Nasher, is in Dallas. I continued towards the library, and a show featuring Tim Burton’s work for The Nightmare before Christmas, including stop animation sets.
In the library itself, there was yet another small exhibition-- 'Stage Frights: Madness, Monsters, Mayhem,' of scenery and costume designs for theatre. Like the Tim Burton show, it had been put together from the McNay’s own collections. Nearby, in several of the mansion’s rooms repurposed as galleries, an impressive collection of modern art included a heart-stoppingly lovely Matisse, and so much more.
But it was time to go.
Parts of the McNay are in the process of renovation. Should I return, I hope to get to see them, and more of the 20,000 items in the collection. I also sincerely hope that the museum spruces up its website and its web archives, for all of those interested in their holdings. But I often wish that kind of thing, even as I realize that there is just so much money and time, institutionally-speaking. And clearly, the McNay is busy with its main job: putting on shows. There are eight this spring, both continuing an exploration of the very timely issues of race and identity and celebrating San Antonio’s 300th anniversary. The current ‘blockbuster’ is “30 Americans,” pieces by contemporary African- American artists selected from the Rubell collection in Miami. This is clearly a very popular traveling show; it has been in the road since its debut in Florida a decade ago, with four more stops scheduled after Texas, for a total of 16 appearances—all, at small regional museums.
The McNay complements “30 Americans” with “Something to Say: The McNay Presents 100 Years of African-American Art,” largely drawn from the holdings of local African-American collectors Dr. Harmon and Harriet Kelley. As McNay curator Rene Barilleaux told a local journalist, “The Rubell collection has been touring around the country, but never has it been positioned within a 100-year trajectory of African-American experiences reflected in the arts.”
But that’s not all. There is also a smaller show of the work of four Texas artists-- Xavier Gilmore (San Antonio), Rafael Gutierrez (San Antonio), Calvin Pressley (Philadelphia/San Antonio), and Deborah Roberts (Austin). This, too, is about identity and race, from the perspective of young artists of color in and around San Antonio. Coincidentally, Roberts has a wonderful solo show of collages in San Francisco at Jenkins Johnson Gallery (2/1-3/17/2018). It’s a small, small art world.
If I lived nearby, I’d visit the McNay often, as I do Oakland's somewhat more financially challenged regional museum. I admit to envy. Not to make too broad a generalization, but seems like Texas institutions (and collectors) have both deep loyalty and deep pockets.
And, finally: as visits to smaller museums like the McNay reveal, culture is everywhere. Take a field trip, and find out for yourself.