Hitting their 25th year anniversary along with the Current this year is Blue Star Contemporary Art Center, which began its reign as the center of Southtown arts when an exhibit of contemporary SA artists was booted from SAMA and relocated to the building that now houses the Art Center. The show, held in July 1986, was the inspiration for Contemporary Art Month. A quarter century later, moving is in the plans again.
The Blue Star complex, owned by developer James Lifshutz, is expanding south along the river to include the site known as Big Tex, which will be rebranded as part of Blue Star. Lifshutz has agreed to give the Art Center a 12,500 square-foot footprint on which to build a new two- or three-story facility, which, says Blue Star Contemporary Art Center Director Bill FitzGibbons, “will enable us to significantly increase our studio space, our education program, and give us a space for an auditorium for proper musical presentations and artist lectures.”
The Big Tex site has recently been given a clean bill of health by the EPA after the agency spent over a year on asbestos abatement.
The changes will take place over a three-year period. Last month, the first open discussion of plans was held at Blue Star to allow public input. The new development will include a parking garage and both residential and retail space.
Regarding the process of utilizing public input to create the plans, FitzGibbons told the Current, “We were born out of the community as an artist-run space in 1986. It started as a grass-roots driven organization by artists for artists. So we need to be very respectful of that heritage. Blue Star wouldn’t be Blue Star without community support. We are not sitting on a large endowment that allows us to go forward alone. We have to have buy-in from corporations, individuals and artists, and educational facilities. We have had a great relationship with high schools in the SAISD.”
The capitol drive for expansion of the Art Center includes a $15-million campaign, a third of which is slated to be used as a fund for operations.
Gene Elder remembers early days at Blue Star
You were property manager at the Blue Star complex until 1995. How did the Blue Star complex happen?
As I was told by Wade [Strauch], Happy [Veltman, Jr.] was driving around in 1985 on July the Fourth, and they had been looking at the run-down warehouses on the other side of King William, and King William was just pulling itself up and starting to look good. So that’s what he decided that he wanted to do was buy it, and it was on the river, so it all made sense to him. So he and Bernard Lifshutz bought it. Bernard was usually the money man when he and Bernard would do things together. I think they had decided to make it sort of a designer center, but then the economy collapsed.
In July 1986, the first art show happened in what became the Blue Star Contemporary Art Center. The exhibit had been scheduled for SAMA, but was cancelled. How did it move to the old warehouses?
Various people, including me, went over to Hap. I said, “You really ought to get this show, this is great. They won’t do it at SAMA.” Well, Bernard was really on the ball with all this stuff; he knew what was on the horizon. He put up just enough money so that the Blue Star art space could pass code for people to come in there, because all those buildings, and I mean all of them, had tires in them. It had all turned into one big huge tire warehouse. So, they had the opening of the Blue Star, and Hap immediately asked me if I would be the property manager and start renting these places out as studios. And of course they were just a wreck. One huge space might have an electrical outlet, and one might have a sink. Two or three doors down there was a bathroom. An assortment of artists came needing space, and they got it really, really cheap. I maintained that, seeing that utilities were turned on, or fixing some plumbing problems, and just having a good time, really.
Who were the first ones to move in?
Marcia Dahlman, who is still upstairs above what is now StoneMetal Press, is a potter who was there even before Hap and Bernard bought the property, and V.R. Hood, where she bought her clay, was downstairs. There were three studios, Donna Simon, Sharon Magruder, and Marcia. Then Stephanie Jobe, a young girl of a woman actually moved in and started living there. This is back when there were derelicts and hobos at night. She got the space that is now the UTSA Satellite Space. John Dyer, a photographer, came in and fixed up a nice space. Davis Sprinkle, an architect, came in. The first gallery was the Blue Collar Gallery run by Gary Schafter and Holly Moe. They were two of the artists in the original Blue Star show. They did a real good job of having fun art shows. Locus Gallery, run by Ralph Mendez, was down on the other side. He was an aggressive collector from a produce family, so they had the money to do it right. That was the first stuff.
How does the Blue Star complex feel now compared to the early days?
It was great then because it was sparse. I got to know the other artists very well. It was a very rich studio scene, everybody was working. Now, it’s much more crowded. It depends which sort of thing you are attracted to. Being the new fun thing to do and being popular appeals to a lot of people, but a lot of us, I think, really prefer mysterious places that not everybody is familiar with. It’s two different mystiques. … But then it gets gentrified and expensive, but of course it has to pay for itself. It is fun watching it grow into its potential. It was very important to solidify that end of the King William area. The Blue Star helped make the Southside what it is now. It all grew out of, “Wow, hey, the Blue Star is here. I guess a couple of blocks over we can do something, too.”