A staple of downtown, the San Antonio Museum of Art is a curious building. Guarded by crenellated parapets with two towers, this seeming fortress has lived many different lives. Constructed in 1884, the building was once the Lone Star Brewery Complex, then became a cotton mill and had a third reinvention as an ice factory. Converted into a museum in 1981, the building is now home to fine art.
Uncannily different from anything around it, the SAMA is a brick-and-mortar echo from the past, still standing like a Roman ruin of the famous Pearl Brewery era, reverberating with new and old life at once. The façade of the building suggests the entrance to a castle. To enter is to step inside a sanctuary dedicated to the highest promise of losing oneself in a city of urban decay.
The only encyclopedic museum of fine art in South Texas, the museum has been home to many exhibits featuring modern art and ancient artifacts. Some past exhibits that have graced the halls of the SAMA include “5,000 years of Chinese Jade,” “Rodin: The Human Experience,” “San Antonio Collects: Theodore Gentilz and Mission Life of San Antonio and Northern Mexico” and a photography collection that spoke to the outsiders’ experience, “Danny Lyon: The Bikeriders.”
Before the world shut down, it was not uncommon to admire art from a distance, with the global art scene thriving on social platforms such as Instagram. In a time when businesses have been forced to reimagine how they can provide their services, the art museum business has been no exception, managing to stay afloat during isolation with the utilization of virtual galleries. The SAMA has moved activities and current exhibitions online through their home website.
Emilie Dujour, the P.R. and Digital Communications Manager for the museum, offered her insight about how SAMA has adjusted to COVID-19.
“The Museum is a big space (87,351 square feet of gallery space) so our visitors have lots of space to enjoy the art while social distancing…For our guests who are not ready to come back yet, we created a page on our website (http://samuseum.org/samaanywhere/) to invite our visitors to interact with our collection at home. We also offer several online programs which are a great and fun resource to interact with art,” Dujour commented.
Virtual events are now business as usual. Physically distanced outdoor movie nights, private jewelry shopping appointments at the museum’s gift shop, online virtual playdates for kids and digital tours of the museum are available on the SAMA’s website. Over the summer, the museum hosted a virtual poetry reading featuring San Antonio’s Poet Laureate Andrea “Vocab” Sanderson. Images of an art collection called “Texas Women: A New History of Abstract Art” were displayed with an audio of Sanderson’s performance.
In a space that was formerly bursting at the seams with visitors, it seems bizarre to imagine the museum online, substituting the art museum experience with dispensed images like an Instagram page. At a time when everything has been condensed to an abbreviated format from class lectures given over Zoom to curbside meals, it seems unlikely that a “non-essential” aspect of life would be remembered and, in that good ol’ COVID fashion, prepackaged in an accessible form to many.
Over the summer, the museum offered free memberships to teachers and professors in the area to thank them for their services during the quarantine. Their visitorship is very important to them.
“Our visitorship changed this year. This was the first time that we closed our doors for an extended period of time (March 13 to May 19) since we opened our doors in 1981. Once we reopened, we changed our capacity to 25%, and focused on digital and limited touch-free, self-guided experiences. Offering online events has allowed us to reach an audience beyond San Antonio. One of our newest members doesn’t live in Texas but he’s joining us online for many online events. In terms of visitors, we’re noticing that locals and regional tourists are discovering us,” Dujour said.
SAMA’s mission to enrich lives through exceptional experiences with art has remained intact even throughout a pandemic.
“With all the difficulties this year brought, we believe that we stayed truthful to our mission and that the public found relief and inspiration by coming to the Museum and participating in our online programming,” Dujour said.
Through the rehearsed motions of scheduled Zoom meetings and the impersonal interactions endured daily behind a mask, it has been easy to forget about the aspects of life that still make us human. Although there is love behind wearing a mask, we begin to experience compassion fatigue, and it becomes necessary to expose ourselves to the purest expressions of the human experience through art. We must continue to connect ourselves to our sources of happiness, even if they are in abridged forms. The museum stands to remind us that through change, we have the power to reinvent ourselves again and again.