For most visitors to San Antonio, the city itself is the primary artistic attraction. With its old Spanish missions, historic downtown, and Riverwalk—now 15.5 miles long thanks to a recent $384 million extension—San Antonio is arguably the state’s most beautiful city. What many tourists don’t know is that it also boasts a robust visual arts scene, one that’s quickly becoming competitive with the best that Houston and Dallas–Fort Worth have to offer.
On a recent trip I stayed at the Menger Hotel, across the street from the Alamo, which opened in 1859 and has long played host to aesthetes (Oscar Wilde in 1882, for one). Although the hotel has since added a large new wing, guests can request a room in the original building. What the latter lack in comfort—the A/C in mine was on the fritz—they make up for in atmosphere.
The next morning, after chilaquiles and house-made corn tortillas at the Thousand Oaks Cafe, I started my cultural tour at the McNay Art Museum. Founded in 1954, Texas’s oldest museum of modern art is housed in a stunning Spanish Colonial Revival mansion on a large, verdant estate. In 2008, the McNay doubled its size by adding a sleek new exhibition space (if you hurry, you can catch an excellent Robert Indiana retrospective through May 25). The museum’s permanent collection includes exquisite works by Picasso, Matisse, and Modigliani, as well as a selection of Medieval and Renaissance art.
San Antonio Museum of Art
Southwest School of Art
Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin
Armstrong-Browning Library, Baylor University
Art Museum of South Texas
If the McNay is San Antonio’s answer to the Menil, the San Antonio Museum of Art (SAMA) is their Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Like the MFAH, SAMA is a comprehensive affair, with a collection ranging from ancient Egyptian to contemporary American, from Tibetan to Latin American. I spent several hours wandering through gallery after gallery, amazed by the museum’s breadth and depth. Although the MFAH may attract better exhibitions, SAMA has far more exhibition space to display its extraordinary permanent collection.
For art of more recent vintage, there’s the Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum, located in a former tire factory on the Museum Reach section of the Riverwalk, which shows edgy installations by living artists from Texas and around the country, as well as Artpace, a contemporary art space founded by the heiress to the Pace hot sauce fortune, and the Southwest School of Art, which hosts ambitious exhibitions at its downtown campus.
For dinner after a long day of museum hopping, I stopped at Cappy’s in Alamo Heights, an upscale restaurant with a rotating selection of work by local artists on its walls. Eating shrimp nachos on the spacious patio under the spreading live oaks, I felt like I’d achieved the perfect balance between natural and manmade beauty. Whether you’re coming to San Antonio for the art or the atmosphere, I decided, you’re not likely to be disappointed.
The encyclopedic and extremely well-funded Harry Ransom Center in Austin owns two Gutenberg bibles (both on display in the lobby), a major collection of literary modernist manuscripts, extensive holdings in film and photography, and the papers of such contemporaries as David Foster Wallace, Norman Mailer, and Don DeLillo. Its first-floor exhibition space is currently hosting a fascinating show devoted to World War I (through August 3). And don’t forget to check out the neighboring Blanton Museum of Art.… For anyone interested in the history of jazz, New Orleans, or both, the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University is a must. The collection includes sound recordings, film, photography, and 2,000 reels of oral history documenting the origins and growth of the twentieth century’s most important new musical genre.… Last November, Fort Worth’s Kimbell Art Museum debuted its first new building since Louis Kahn’s original 1972 masterpiece—a stunning pavilion designed by architect Renzo Piano (he of the Menil) which features a transparent lobby and galleries saturated in filtered natural light, all the better to show off the Kimbell’s small but superb collection of Old Masters and early modernist gems.… Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning were the first couple of British Victorian poetry, writing some of the nineteenth century’s most innovative and enduringly popular verse. So naturally the most important archive of their writings is located in … Waco? The brainchild of a former Baylor University English professor, the Armstrong Browning Library, founded in 1951, regularly hosts exhibitions, lectures, and concerts, all open to the public.… The greatest work of art at the small Art Museum of South Texas in Corpus Christi is the building itself, which looks from a distance like a white, wind-sculpted sand dune. Designed in 1972 by Philip Johnson, the architect employed shellcrete inside and out and provided perfectly framed views of Corpus Christi Bay through panoramic windows. Oh yeah, and there’s also a pretty decent art collection.