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Century-old structure begins new career as art museum

The building that will soon house this city's art collection could claim to be a work of art in itself. The 100-year-old structure comes complete with ornately decorated towers, vaulted ceilings, arched windows, and an adobe-colored exterior that the Texas winds and sands have used for a canvas.

When the new San Antonio Museum of Art opens next spring, the paintings, sculptures, blankets, artifacts, and furniture will be insulated from the south Texas weather by multilayered brick walls more than a foot thick. Some of the works will be displayed in large, high-walled rooms while other pieces will be found in smaller, more intimate surroundings.

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The museum's opening in March will end a decade of planning, negotiation, and renovation that started in 1971 when the San Antonio Museum Association trustees took an option to purchase five of the buildings on the San Antonio River and the adjacent parkland. It will also mark the success of an effort to raise some

The museum's new home is actually nine structures. These were built between 1884 and 1903 to house a brewery, a function they served until 1917. Prohibition forced the plant into the production of a soft drink, but that venture was not successful.

In 1921 the buildings housed the Lone Star Cotton Mills, a business they contained until 1925, when the boll weevil put a crimp in the South's cotton production. From then until the early 1970s, a few of the buildings were used as warehouse space by the Lone Star Ice & Foods Stores, a convenience chain.

While the selection of the former brewery may seem an unusual choice for an art museum, its size and 19th-century strength make it a logical showcase for what the museum's administrators say is the largest collection of original art from Texas.

"We were the first to identify Texas regional material as an art form," said Adair Southerland, the museum's associate director.

The 66,000 square feet of exhibition space will house many of the things one might expect to find in such a display: American Indian jewelry and blankets, Mexican paintings and dresses, chairs fashioned from cattle horns, and paintings of Texas scenes.

However, Texans have their share of art that can take its place among the works of better-known artists throughout the world. And these will be represented, as well. Impressionism, abstraction, still-lifes, portraits, and landscapes will have display areas.

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The museum's opening will also mark the success of a fund-raising effort that has included the federal government, the state, the city of San Antonio, corporations, and foundations in the area, and individuals. The biggest share of the $7.1 million came from the Economic Development Administration of the US Department of Commerce. That agency's $3.4 million grant was based on the anticipated economic impact of the museum on the community.

"The EDA is probably one of the easiest agencies I have ever dealt with," Mrs. Southerland commented. "One time, we presented a proposal to them . . . and they approved it on the spot. It's unusual for an agency to do that when the people making the request are present."

The EDA's attention to the economic impact of the museum matches the administrators' belief in the importance of such an institution to attracting business to San Antonio.

"The impetus is truly economic development," museum director Helmuth Naumer noted. "You don't have economic development without institutions such as this." Mr. Naumer noted that a few years ago, the Northwestern Bell Telephone Company in Seattle conducted a study on the economic impact of cultural development on a city. "The study showed that every dollar given to a cultural organization brought $11 back to the community," he said. While this exact ratio may not be true in every city, he noted, "it is a valid argument -- an argument that i will use here."

For one thing, he said, more businessmen are traveling with their families (and there are more businesswomen traveling, too). These people will sometimes spend an extra day or two in a town if there is something like a good museum to attract them.

And while many people in a city like San Antonio may never set foot inside the museum, "Some of their jobs depend on people who do care about things like this," he added.

Mr. Naumer, who has served as a museum administrator in several other cities, pointed out that good cultural institutions can make it much easier to attract business to a city -- particularly one that is competing with other Texas cities like Houston and Dallas for its share of Sunbelt migration."Businessmen in other cities are serious about what kind of place their people are moving to," he said.

In using the adobe-colored buildings, Mr. Naumer and his staff have had to face the problem of how to show art in rooms that contain several columns. Because it would cost several thousand dollars to remove each column and modify the buildings to function without them, they will be left in place. Many of them will support vertical panels between them, so additional works can be shown.

Much of the renovation was designed by Cambridge Seven Associates in Massachusetts, a firm whose credits include work for the Boston subway system. For the museum, the architects included a pair of old, working elevators that have been glassed-in like those in some modern hotels. The pulleys and other parts have been chromed and left visible. They have also added sliding wooden louvers to the windows to protect the fragile art works from the hot Texas sun.

The museum is the newest of the Museum Association's network of buildings. Two others are a transportation museum at Hemisfair Plaza, scene of the city's 1968 World's Fair; and the Witte Museum, which had housed the association's entire collection of art and artifacts. The Witte had been the recipient of so many artistic and historic pieces from Texans, Mrs. Southerland noted, that it became overcrowded and earned the nickname "San Antonio's attic."

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