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Don't miss opening of Briscoe this weekend

By Judith Pannebaker BCC Editor

1. Photo by Judith Pannebaker
A frieze of oversized buffalo-Indian head nickels greets visitors to the main lobby of the Briscoe Western Art Museum.

2. Courtesy photo
This circa 1890-1900 Apache olla is part of the Briscoe museum's permanent collection.

3. Photo by Judith Pannebaker
Equipped with Wi-Fi, the McNutt Courtyard & Sculptor Garden may be rented for private parties. It is open to the public during regular museum hours.

4. Photo by Judith Pannebaker
Steven Karr, executive director of the Briscoe Western Art Museum, formerly served as director of the Southwest Museum of the American Indian at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles. He joined the Briscoe in 2011.

5. A monumental version of this small bronze of longhorns emerging from water will be installed at the museum's entrance off River Walk.

The first thing that catches the eye when approaching the newly minted Briscoe Western Art Museum, at the intersection of Market and Presa streets, is a monumental bronze by Herb Mignery. "Checkmate" depicts a cowboy attempting to subdue a lassoed horse.
As part of the public art in San Antonio project, a counterpiece will also be installed near the museum's River Walk entrance. This sculpture shows three longhorns and a vaquero emerging from a river crossing.
"The Presa Street Bridge and former dam on that spot spans one of the low water crossings of the San Antonio River," said Steven M. Karr, the museum's executive director. "This is most likely where thousands of cattle crossed the river while being driven north."
A smaller version is on display in the museum. Clearly proud of the piece, Karr pointed out the sculptor's unwavering attention to detail. "The drover is definitely a vaquero and not a charro," he said. "The saddle he's using is from Texas, not Mexico - and he's not wearing a large sombrero."
Karr also noted that the vaquero is wearing military spurs, rather than the heavier Mexican variety. The piece, Karr said, depicted a western scene that probably took place in the 1880s as the massive cattle drives were winding down. "This work shows the vaquero as the direct antecedent of the American cowboy."
The Briscoe's board of directors commissioned the study by TD Kelsey as a tribute to San Antonio's rich history that includes a longhorns and Spanish and Mexican traditions - which, not coincidentally, remains a touchstone of the western art museum.
Although more than a decade in the making, the Briscoe Western Art Museum, will celebrate its grand opening next weekend, Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 26 and 27, with free admission and activities for the entire family. After the opening weekend, admission will be $5 for adults, $4 for seniors, students and military; and free for children ages 12 years and younger.
When entering the building itself, patrons will be impressed by the care that has been taken restoring and refurbishing the circa 1930 building. This building served first as the San Antonio Public Library and later as the Hertzberg Circus Museum.
While working at San Antonio's Witte Museum, Rebecca Norton, now executive director of Bandera's Frontier Times Museum, did a preliminary inventory of the Hertzberg collection. "While working there, I thought, 'This building would be so beautiful if someone would just restore it'." Well, $32 million later, the former library shines again as an elegant example of art deco, neo-classic architecture.
According to Karr, the lobby is about 85 percent restored to the way it looked in the '30s
A frieze of refurbished buffalo head relief sculptures lines the top of the walls in the Market Street entrance hall; rejuvenated glass and wood bookcases, original to the 1930s, surround the Gloria Gaines Clayman Education Gallery on the first floor; and buffalo hide leather treads were replaced on the stairs leading to the third floor, among other period details.
During a tour of the mostly installation-less museum in September, Karr explained, "Because of this wonderful location - and the two entrances - we know we'll attract tourists, but we'll have to work to get the 'home audience' here. They might not come for just the exhibits, but (locals) will be interested in the educational programs, lectures and film series. Education will be the cornerstone of this museum. We want our motto to be 'Don't come just once, come back again'."
In addition to special programs, a museum habitué searching for the story of the American West will find it among the 700 individual pieces that celebrate the cowboy, Spanish, Mexican, American Indian and other components of what is perhaps America's most iconic period.
Some outstanding pieces in the collections include life-size authentic reproductions of a Wells Fargo stagecoach and John Deere chuck wagon; colorful 16-foot teepee, constructed and painted by Comanche artists and brothers, Calvert and Tim Tate Nevaquaya; Santa Anna's presentation sword; a 1834 Texas-style saddle from the collection of Enrique E. Guerra; an interactive diorama of the Battle of the Alamo; a wall of 100 single, American, Mexican and Canadian spurs; and the last known saddle of Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, among others.
Reflecting on the diversity of the installations, Karr said, "No one single piece defines the museum, it takes a host of different works to define the scope of the American West." When asked to identify his favorite work, Karr quipped diplomatically, "They're all your favorites."
The museum campus sprawls over an acre and a half in downtown San Antonio and includes the main building; the Jack Guenther Pavilion, designed by Lake-Flato Architects; and the McNutt Courtyard and Sculpture Garden, which Karr described as "the best outdoor space downtown."
Karr expects 25 percent of his annual operational budget to come from rental opportunities from the pavilion and courtyard. "In this economy, museums must be operated as a business. Lots of museums are now scrambling for income. We're lucky that this was planned during the renovation and building stages," he said. "For example, we offer a state-of-art professional kitchen. Last week, we catered two events simultaneously." And, hosted a sit-down dinner for over 700 people.
In the future, Karr anticipates collaborating with other local museums and performance spaces such as the McNay Art Museum, San Antonio Museum of Art, Witte Museum, Children's Museum, Tobin Center for the Performing Arts and Artpace San Antonio, among others. Karr said, "The opening of the Briscoe Western Art Museum will help define San Antonio as an arts destination. The city is moving in a new and vibrant direction and we're excited to be a part of it."