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Art is (Not) Dead: How to not starve as a San Antonio artist

Photo: Courtesy photos, License: N/A

Courtesy photos

The beleaguered French and Michigan gallery space in Beacon Hill

Photo: , License: N/A


1. Evaluate the landscape, possible restrictions and zoning.

A hopping micro-scene is exciting but prepare for the concerns and potential static in your target neighborhood. One thing the Blue Stars and Southtowns have is the tacit approval of its commercial and residential neighbors. Without that, beware. An object lesson is the dilemma of French & Michigan, the highest-profile new indie space and San Antonio’s best hope for a commercially viable gallery that represents important local artists to a wider world, a la David Shelton.

The physical plant, at the corner of French and Michigan streets, is smack-dab in the middle of Beacon Hill, which seems in many ways to be supplanting Southtown as an arts scene. A terrific, welcoming two-story Spanish revival, the building also boasts an ideal position with a roomy corner structure that seems just right amid the artist studio spaces, houses and nascent community feel.

However logical the mixed-use site seems to enthusiastic urbanists, geographically, it may have garnered just enough public profile to get the arts community excited, while drawing the ire of those already concerned about area gentrification.

The building was originally zoned as commercial, but was re-zoned as residential. French & Michigan didn’t sort out the zoning limbo as part of their pre-planning. Busy devising a business plan, promoting, building an artist roster and opening for art and educational events, they applied to re-zone the building as commercial, whereupon they were met with hardcore pushback about the commercializing of the neighborhood by “outsiders,” which complicated their zoning appeal and has led to shuttering of the physical art space, at least for the time being.

I spoke to Billy Lambert, architect and one of three partners of the proposed gallery. Alongside fellow partner Celeste Wackenhut, formerly with the McNay Art Museum, the couple refers to themselves as the “mom and pop” of French & Michigan. Lambert’s also been a long-term resident of “The Compound” in Southtown, a cluster of casitas (including experimental gallery Sala Diaz) with a common outdoor space often used for art parties and fundraisers.

His role in establishing a physical venue, as well as his ideas about art dealing and curation, came “after living there, and talking to friends of mine about the gallery experiences they were having, versus what they wanted to happen.”

Lambert and co. expressed surprise at the Beacon Hill backlash (especially since the neighborhood association voted to support their zoning request) and frustration at the current impasse.

“The idea [of opening French & Michigan] was to bring art into the neighborhood, not to take anything away,” said Lambert, sitting under a lightweight, wavelike sculptural installation of interlocking plastic boxes, a site-specific design project by UTSA architecture students under Lambert’s mentorship.

About the gallery’s role as an educational resource he said, “ I wanted to work with students because I used to teach … I get a lot out of watching students work things out—or not have it work, exactly ... to struggle with executing [a project].” This process informs the French & Michigan mission, he says; a conglomeration of commercial space, experimental projects and educational outreach.

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