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Rockefeller's spirited wing.

A dynamic new center at the San Antonio Museum of Art is shaped by its benefactor's passion for the Hemisphere's diverse cultures

This is one new arrival that's been eagerly awaited, prudently planned for, showered with gifts, beloved by family, and admired by strangers. Every child should enter this world to a reception as joyous as the one that greeted the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Latin American Art.

The $11-million addition to the San Antonio Museum of Art houses ten thousand artworks representing three thousand years of creative endeavor in Mexico and other Latin American countries. "It is," says Dr. Marion Oettinger, Jr., senior curator and curator of Latin American art, "the most comprehensive permanent display of Latin American art in the United States."

Oettinger traces the center's beginnings to 1985, the year the museum acquired a twenty-five-hundred-piece addition to its folk art collection from the estate of Nelson A. Rockefeller, prominent political figure and life-long collector of Mexican folk art. At the same time, Oettinger arrived to organize the museum's Latin American holdings into a new department. An installation titled Con Carino showed highlights from the Rockefeller and Robert K. Winn collections of folk art the following year.

But the real turning point came in 1991 with the blockbuster exhibition Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries. "We had never done anything that ambitious," says Oettinger. "But the museum pulled together, the city pulled together, and we did a beautiful installation. We had 275,000 visitors. The message was, `this is what San Antonio and South Texas want to see.' So we decided it was time to do a major statement on Latin American art from pre-Columbian to the present, and we started a capital campaign to raise the money for building a new wing. It was a seven-year march, and we opened in October to great fanfare."

The wildly successful debut of the country's premier Latin American art facility was by no means a foregone conclusion. In fact, the initial mandate presented a seemingly intractable challenge: Design a new wing that would complement its parent building, a rambling brick structure that had earlier segued from a brewery to an art museum and national historic landmark. At the same time, make an original statement. And one more thing--don't harm the two centuries-old oak trees that stand in the space allocated to the new wing.

The design of the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Latin American Art fulfills its mission so seamlessly that now any other outcome seems inconceivable. The new facility comprises thirty-three thousand square feet on three levels. Its beige brick facade extends the main museum building along the street and toward the San Antonio River, which curves behind the facility in a still-natural-looking state. (San Antonio's popular "Riverwalk" lies about a mile south.) The Lone Star Brewery's star emblem has been abstracted to a medallion, and its limestone base expanded. A two-story arched window fronting a glass-walled elevator forms a major design feature. As for the cherished live oaks, the L-shaped wing angles neatly around them, creating a space for a future sculpture garden.

But it is inside the new wing that the synergistic blend of artifacts and architecture makes the most dramatic statement. In its four distinct galleries, varying architectural motifs set the stage for the contents by subtly evoking a sense of time and place. To enter each of three rooms in the pre-Columbian gallery, for example, you walk through a corbeled Maya arch as though entering a temple at Uxmal or Palenque. Post-and-lintel construction complements the folk art displays; Romanesque arches transport visitors to the Spanish colonial era; and open grill-work sets the tone for the contemporary installations as it tempts museum-goers with glimpses of paintings.

Even the name seems preordained. Ann Rockefeller Roberts had purchased her father's collection of Mexican folk art from his estate after his death. Then, over a period of four or five years, she systematically scoured the country looking for the proper home for it. Her decision was a coup for San Antonio. In addition, the Rockefeller family has made significant donations to the museum. Even so, says Oettinger, "The primary reason that we are interested in having Rockefeller's name on it is that he loved Latin America; he loved Latin American art. The wing is named after Nelson Rockefeller in honor of his dedication and passion about Latin America."

A monumental arch at the juncture of the existing museum and the new wing underscores San Antonio's close ties with Latin America. The arch once marked the entrance to Miraflores, home of Dr. Aureliano Urrutia, personal physician to Mexican president Porfirio Diaz and minister of government until forced to flee his homeland during the Mexican Revolution. Constructed by a local folk artist, the twenty-two-foot gate features traditional Puebla tiles on the front and concrete worked to resemble wood on the back. The Urrutia gate survived both the doctor and his estate to serve as a symbolic bridge between old and new, San Antonio and Latin America.

In an orientation gallery, maps, timeline, bilingual text panels, and CD-rom help to fix the artworks in time, space, and cultural context. Collages of faces from throughout Latin America suggest the artists and artisans behind the material on display. "We've tried to associate the objects that you find in glass cases with hands and human spirits," says Oettinger, whose work as an anthropologist has taken him to remote villages like the ones where Rockefeller conducted his collecting expeditions.

Other innovations stamp the museum as both state-of-the-art and visitor friendly. A light, airy space shows off pre-Columbian sculptures and ceramics. "Most museums are scared to death of light," says Oettinger. "But we decided where you don't have art that's subject to problems, let's celebrate it, let it in. You get wonderful, strong sun coming right through here." Light-sensitive Peruvian textiles, though, are displayed behind filtered glass.

Arranged by culture area, the pre-Columbian gallery takes the visitor through Mesoamerica, Central America, and the Andean region, starting with the Preclassic Olmecs. Maya artifacts such as polychromes dominate the Classic Period. Though some of the material has been in the museum since the 1920s, a bequest two years ago from Elizabeth Huth Coates brought the pre-Columbian collection, in Oettinger's words, "from mediocre to one of the best." One such highlight that dazzles viewers is a Postclassic Mixtec mask from caxaca, made of wood inlaid with a mosaic of turquoise and mother of pearl.

A chronological sequence takes viewers from the ground-floor pre-Columbian installations (past the beckoning folk art exhibition on the same level) to the second-floor gallery that showcases Spanish colonial and nineteenth-century republican art. The Romanesque arch that leads to the colonial gallery is repeated in display cases that hold liturgical silver and religious statues. A niche atop the entrance holds a statue donated by a local collector: Nuestra Senora de San Juan de los Lagos, a replica of a venerated image from Jalisco, Mexico. Visitors of Mexican heritage from both sides of the border often recognize the statue.

The center is replete with such cultural crossovers and serendipitous discoveries. Oettinger tells the story of a painting that came to the museum by way of a local business. The owners had unpacked a crate containing unclaimed freight that had been abandoned forty or fifty years earlier. When they discovered a painting they called Oettinger, who identified it as eighteenth-century Ecuadoran. Now restored, it hangs in the Spanish Colonial Gallery.

A greater prize--one that bears the signature of Diego Rivera--emerged from behind a door in a San Antonio household to star in the contemporary gallery. Actually, it was the signature that had cast doubt on the portrait's authenticity, since it differed from Rivera's later signatures. In the end, expert examination revealed that the San Antonio painting was indeed an early Rivera work, one that had long been thought lost. Rivera painted El Albanil, the portrait of a mason, in 1904 for a competition at Mexico City's Bellas Artes academy, where he was then an eighteen-year-old student. The signature matches Rivera's handwriting from that period.

The contemporary gallery presents an overview of twentieth-century painting, including the work of Uruguayan artist Joaquin Torres Garcia, a leading exponent of the modernist school. The collection is especially strong in Mexican artists, containing--besides Rivera--Kahlo, Tamayo, Siqueiros, and Covarrubias, the last a friend and advisor to Rockefeller.

In the folk art gallery, visitors delight in the beguiling array of animal figures, dolls, masks, puppet heads, water jars, charms, chests, hand-painted bingo cards, and fantastical expressions of individuality from the Rockefeller and other collections. Here the artworks are arranged by function--utilitarian, ceremonial, and decorative--but once again, objects are shown in the context of who made them and how they are used. The display of a deer mask from Sonora, Mexico, for instance, calls for background figures wearing the mask and performing the Yaqui deer dance accompanied by original Yaqui music.

Future plans call for a research center for visiting scholars and curators, on the third floor, as well as landscaping of the riverbanks behind the museum as the San Antonio Riverwalk edges northward. In the meantime, says Oettinger, the center has been getting "enormous crowds"--both the people of San Antonio themselves, 60 percent of whom claim Hispanic heritage, and thousands of tourists from the U.S. and elsewhere who don't share that tradition.

During his long career, Nelson Rockefeller made it his mission to acquaint the people of the United States with the rich and varied cultures of their neighbors in the Hemisphere. The Center for Latin American Art perpetuates that vision.

The Magical World of Antonio de Oliveira

A space on the second floor above the orientation gallery accommodates changing exhibitions that complement installations in the four main galleries of the Center for Latin American Art. During the museum's first year, visitors have been transported to The Magical World of Antonio de Oliveira.

Oliveira, a Brazilian wood-carver who died three years ago at age eighty-four, left a universe of little figures enacting the whole panorama of human existence as seen from their creator's perspective. Among Oliveira's most enchanting compositions are everyman themes like the "stairs of life" allegory that begins with the arrival of the stork and proceeds through the stages of life to its inexorable end. Glimpses of everyday activities abound--a farm scene complete with animals and agricultural equipment; children's toys; workers toiling in a sawmill or bent over a limestone quarry; a blacksmith forging iron.

Oliveira also examines landmark events in Brazil's history, including the institution and the abolition of slavery, as well as popular legends, myths, and rituals infused with Afro-Brazilian and Catholic religious motifs. Sword swallowers, jugglers, and acrobats people a traveling circus, while the musicians in a spirited band prompt petite couples to dance the lambada.

Self-taught, Oliveira carved his figures in cedar and painted with house paint. Although later in life he gained recognition for his work, he resisted selling his little people. "I would miss them too much," he said.

Known in his village of Belmiro Braga as "the man who carves," Oliveira began his lifelong avocation at age nine, when he fashioned toys for himself and his siblings. Even while he raised a large family and supported them by working as a shoemaker, miner, salesman, stonemason, and carpenter, his carving continued unabated. His work spans three-quarters of a century, during which time he documented the transformation of a rural society to one largely urbanized and industrial.

A guardian of local tradition, Oliveira created a bridge between past and present. "I wanted to see a better world, or at least one in which I had lived: not so ignorant of the beautiful things in life, but with a sense of today and the mutual respect of former times where there was love and affection."

Oliveira bequeathed his sizable collection to the Casa do Pontal, the largest museum of Brazilian folk art, located in Rio de Janeiro (e-mail: pontal@openlink.com.br). The San Antonio exhibition is drawn from the holdings of a private collector.

The Magical World of Antonio de Oliveira ends November 6. An exhibition of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century reliquaries from Spain and Latin America opens November 11.

--Joyce Gregory Wyels

Joyce Gregory Wyels is a travel writer based in California and a previous contributor to Americas. Photographs from the collection appear courtesy of the San Antonio Museum of Art.
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Title Annotation:Nelson A. Rockefeller's contributions to San Antonio Museum of Art, Texas
Author:Wyels, Joyce Gregory
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 1999
Words:2065
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