Austin may have us beat as the alleged Live Music Capital of the World, but San Antonio wins in the realm of contemporary art — and with flying colors. Evidenced not just by our solid spread of museums but snazzy galleries, artist-run spaces and the monthly First Friday and Second Saturday art crawls, the Alamo City consistently serves up art of every imaginable persuasion, and there’s almost always a way to consume it free of charge.
A world-class gem opened by late artist and philanthropist Linda Pace in 1995, Artpace functions as a multi-gallery contemporary art space year-round but is easily best known for its International Artist-in-Residence (IAIR) program, which annually invites three trios of artists (one Texas-based, one national and one international) to “live and create art in San Antonio for two months.” Since its inception, the IAIR program has facilitated and funded site-specific exhibitions by more than 200 artists — all selected by guest curators from across the globe. Often credited with giving San Antonio deserved visibility on the world art map, Artpace is always free and open to public and is the organizing entity behind Chalk It Up, an annual fall festival that transforms downtown Houston Street into a street-level gallery of fleeting masterpieces rendered exclusively in chalk. Free, 445 N. Main Ave., (210) 212-4900, artpace.org.
Briscoe Western Art Museum
Opened in 2013 and named in honor of former Texas Governor Dolph Briscoe, Jr. and his wife Janey, the Briscoe is dedicated to “the preservation of the art, history and culture of the American West.” The museum, situated in a prime downtown location with River Walk access, comprises a historic structure that once served as San Antonio’s first library, a modern wing and a picturesque Lake Flato-designed pavilion dotted with bronze sculptures. Santa Anna’s sword (1852) and Pancho Villa’s saddle (c. 1890-1910) are among the oft-cited highlights of a permanent collection spanning five centuries, but the Briscoe’s programs and temporary exhibitions increasingly aim to unpack the genre of Western art through a modern lens, exemplified by this year’s “Into A New West: Contemporary Works from the Booth Western Art Museum” (May 22-September 1). In addition to offering free admission on Tuesday evenings (4-9 p.m.), the Briscoe is free year-round for active military and their family members. $8-$12 (free for kids 12 and under), 210 W. Market St., (210) 299-4499, briscoemuseum.org.
Blue Star Contemporary
A shining example of squeezing lemonade out of life’s lemons, Blue Star Contemporary (BSC) arose from an artist-organized exhibition staged in response to a canceled museum show back in 1986. Since that pivotal moment, the pioneering space has proven its staying power as the anchor of the Blue Star Arts Complex and First Friday celebrations in Southtown while living up to its mission to “inspire the creative genius in us all by nurturing artists through innovative contemporary art.” Billed as “the first and longest-running nonprofit venue for contemporary art in San Antonio,” BSC hosts more than 20 exhibitions each year — featuring work by local, national and even international artists — in a 11,000-square-foot warehouse space divided into four distinct galleries. The modest cost of admission is waived on the first Thursday and Friday of the month and every Thursday evening (4-8 p.m.). $3-$5 (free for military, veterans, educators and students with ID), 116 Blue Star, (210) 227-6960, bluestarcontemporary.org.
The Alamo City’s ever-imaginative DoSeum, formerly known as the San Antonio Children’s Museum, functions as a STEM-focused “charging station” fueled by exhibits and programs designed to “promote play, invite discovery, spark interest and develop positive attitudes towards learning across critical content areas.” Designed by renowned local firm Lake Flato, the 104,000-square-foot facility abounds in interactive opportunities, including a math-centric Spy Academy, a miniaturized “townscape” for toddlers, a musical staircase even adults can’t resist and an outdoor zone with a towering treehouse and water pavilion. A fitting complement to its “How People Make Things” exhibition, which features an “exploded bicycle display” and plastic recycling machines (on view through May 12), the DoSeum offers Little Maker Workshops and welcomes families free of charge the first Tuesday of the month (5:30-7:30 p.m.). $14 (free for kids under 1), 2800 Broadway, (210) 212-4453, thedoseum.org.
McNay Art Museum
The McNay, opened in 1954 in Marion Koogler McNay’s sprawling Spanish Colonial Revival mansion, proudly presents itself as “the first museum of modern art in Texas.” Greatly expanded in 2008 with the addition of the sleek, 45,000-square-foot Jane and Arthur Stieren Center for Exhibitions, the museum complements its impressive permanent collection of Post-Impressionist paintings, medieval and Renaissance treasures, modernist outdoor sculpture, Southwestern folk art and contemporary Latino prints with both touring and homegrown exhibitions. As part of its ongoing mission to “reach new audiences, and speak directly to the backgrounds, cultures, and interests of more San Antonians than ever before,” the McNay welcomes all walks with open arms for engaging programs, including the consistently excellent Get Reel film series and monthly, family-friendly Second Thursday gatherings that bring food trucks, local bands and craft brews to the lush grounds during weekly free admission hours (4-9 p.m. Thursdays). $5-$10, 6000 N. New Braunfels Ave., (210) 824-5368, mcnayart.org.
- McNay Art Museum
San Antonio Museum of Art
Housed in an elegantly repurposed Lone Star Brewery within easy walking distance from the Pearl, the San Antonio Museum of Art (SAMA) is an eclectic treasure trove of works from around the globe. In addition to the many discoveries to be made in galleries dedicated to art from Texas, Latin America, Europe, Asia, the ancient Mediterranean world and elsewhere, the museum boasts a solid contemporary art collection that includes works by notable San Antonio artists. Frequented by locals and clued-in tourists during free admission hours (4-9 p.m. Tuesdays and 10 a.m.-noon Sundays), SAMA engages the community via special programs — including gallery talks, crafty workshops for kiddos, outdoor film screenings and an adults-only Art Party series featuring music and cocktails — and also houses a thoughtfully stocked museum shop and chef Jason Dady’s Tre Trattoria, which serves up Tuscan-inspired fare and wine in a historic structure with views of the San Antonio River. $12-$20 (free for kids 12 and under), 200 W. Jones St., (210) 978-8100, samuseum.org.
Southwest School of Art
With a fascinating timeline that includes an early gallery presence at HemisFair ’68, a takeover of the historic Ursuline Convent and Academy in 1971, an expansion into a former Sears Automotive Center in 1998 and a 2013 designation as the first independent art college in Texas, the Southwest School of Art extends far beyond its educational boundaries with museum-quality exhibitions that showcase the work of local and national artists. The school also offers lectures, workshops and a wide assortment of nicely priced community classes (drawing, ceramics, jewelry, weaving, painting, paper making, glass mosaic, you name it), and welcomes more than 100 artists each April for the seasonal favorite Fiesta Arts Fair (April 20-21). Free, 300 Augusta St., (210) 200-8200, swschool.org.
From humble beginnings as a natural history collection displayed in a local high school, the Witte has transformed into a stately institution that proudly celebrates “Everything Texas, and So Much More.” The “New Witte” has expanded significantly over the last decade to encompasses multiple exhibition spaces, including the Helen C. Kleberg South Texas Heritage Center, the B. Naylor Morton Research and Collections Center, the Kittie West Nelson Ferguson People of the Pecos Gallery and the kid-favorite Naylor Family Dinosaur Gallery. While bluebonnet-filled landscapes, ancient artifacts and shimmering Fiesta gowns help bring to life the unique history of San Antonio and the Lone Star State at large, the museum also hosts temporary exhibits rooted in everything from portraiture to space travel, not to mention educational programs, special events and daily demonstrations dedicated to archeology, wildlife, cowboy culture, healthy eating habits and much more. Pro-tip: plan your visit on a Tuesday afternoon, when admission is free (3-8 p.m.). $10-$14 (free for kids 3 and under), 3801 Broadway, (210) 357-1900, wittemuseum.org.
Slightly outside the bubble of the local art scene, Ana Montoya’s AnArte focuses chiefly on the work of San Antonio painters (both figurative and abstract) and typically opens shows to the tune of live music and cocktails with a percentage of sales benefiting area charities. Free, 7959 Broadway, Suite 404, (210) 826-5674, anartegallery09.com.
Curator and jeweler Susan Oliver Heard’s stylish Blue Star gallery celebrates contemporary art in all formats and maintains a keen focus on the work of women artists from Texas and beyond. Free, 1420 S. Alamo St., Suite 147, (210) 557-6073, cinnabarart.com.
Centro Cultural Aztlán
The pioneering Centro Cultural Aztlán — established in 1977 with a mission to “preserve, develop and promote Chicano/Latino art and culture” — specializes in themed group shows dedicated to everything from the Virgen de Guadalupe to Día de los Muertos and does a commendable job of giving emerging artists visibility. Free, 1800 Fredericksburg Rd., (210) 432-1896, centroaztlan.org.
Under the direction of idiosyncratic local artists Justin Parr and Ed Saavedra, FL!GHT champions underdogs and established artists alike in a convivial Blue Star space that buzzes with creative energy during First Friday receptions and occasionally hosts experimental live music. Don’t miss the compact, salon-style gallery in the back. Free, 112 Blue Star, (210) 872-2586, facebook.com/flightsa.
- Briscoe Western Art Museum
Making creative use of a former H-E-B warehouse, the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center’s roomy gallery upholds the West Side nonprofit’s mission to cultivate, promote and preserve traditional and contemporary Latino arts and culture via solo and group exhibitions and also hosts seasonal celebrations such as Día de los Muertos altar displays and the Hecho a Mano holiday market. Free, 723 S. Brazos St., (210) 271-3151, guadalupeculturalarts.org.
Presa House Gallery
The quaint and aptly named Presa House, co-directed by artists/curators Jenelle Esparza and Rigoberto Luna, has emerged as a rightful fan favorite in Southtown by showcasing local artists and visitors (from Brownsville to New York and points in between) in consistently solid exhibitions that spring to life during eclectic First Friday celebrations. Free, 725 S. Presa St., (210) 913-5842, presahouse.com.
Dedicated to “promoting the careers of emerging and established Texas artists,” Dana Read’s Tobin Hill gallery represents a solid roster of painters, printmakers, sculptors and photographers. Free, 219 E. Park Ave., (210) 224-1227, remgallery.com.
Patricia Ruiz-Healy’s elegant Olmos Park gallery showcases paintings, prints, drawings, photography and sculpture by accomplished local and international artists in immaculately hung exhibitions that often engage in a “Latin American, borderland and Texas discourse.” Ruiz-Healy Art is also the exclusive representatives of the Estate of Chuck Ramirez, the late local photographer many knew simply as “Tía Chuck.” Free, 201-A E. Olmos Dr., (210) 804-2219, ruizhealyart.com.
Launched by New York-based San Antonio artist Alejandro Diaz in 1995 and currently under the direction of Anjali Gupta, the cozy, experimental art space Sala Diaz promotes a “down-home — and world-renowned — artist-centric model of operation.” Free, 517 Stieren St., (972) 900-0047, saladiazart.org.
Second Saturday, a monthly celebration uniting multiple destinations, lures the art scene out en masse for a gallery crawl anchored by artist-run spaces in and around Andy and Yvette Benavides’ maze-like 1906 S. Flores St. complex, the Freight Gallery compound (1913 S. Flores St.) and a string of warehouse spaces along Lone Star Blvd., including Bill FitzGibbons’ neighboring Dock Space and Lone Star Studios (both at 107 Lone Star Blvd.).
Studio at Ruby City
Nestled in the corner of serene Chris Park, Studio primarily displays contemporary works (including installations, videos, photography and sculpture) held by the Linda Pace Foundation, the entity behind the shimmering, David Adjaye-designed Ruby City, which is scheduled to open in October. Free, 111 Camp St., (210) 227-8400, rubycity.org.
The University of Texas at San Antonio’s offsite gallery introduces viewers to the next wave of artists by unveiling MFA thesis exhibitions. It also accepts show proposals from local and national artists biannually. Free, 136 Blue Star, (210) 458-4391, art.utsa.edu.