San Antonio now embraces all types of Latin artwork

Members of the wealthy Rockefeller family of New York helped establish the Museum of Modern Art and revive the old Cloisters medieval museum, both in New York City. The Rockefellers contributed to the restoration of Versailles Palace in France. And the estate of former New York gov. Nelson Rockefeller made possible the most comprehensive collection of Latin American art in the United States in San Antonio, Texas.

Sixty percent of San Antonio residents have Spanish surnames. America’s seventh-largest city is full of colorful murals, window decorations, and wildly painted automobiles created by Hispanics. Yet the San Antonio Museum of Art, which is housed in a 225-year old refurbished brewery complex, built its reputation primarily on its antiquities collection from Egypt, Greece, and Rome.

But several years ago, the museum hosted a touring exhibition featuring 30 centuries of Mexican artistic splendor. Over three months, 300,000 people visited the exhibit.

This success story got the San Antonio Museum to focus on the Hispanic culture around it. Its board of directors voted to build a new center of Latin American art within the museum. When it opened in 1998, the center was named for Nelson Rockefeller, whose family contributed several pieces of Mexican folk art that Rockefeller had owned. He had scoured Latin America for unusual contemporary art and helped legitimize the Latin folk-art genre.

His collection includes a painting depicting Mexican artist Diego Rivera’s visit to Moscow in the 1920s. That’s ironic, since it was the Rockefeller family that commissioned the Marxist painter to create a fabulous mural in New York’s new Rockefeller Center, only to order it destroyed because Rivera included a depiction of Russian leader Vladimir Lenin, as well as scenes deemed to be socialist.

Other U.S. museums can boast of fine collections of pre-Columbian art — that is, art created before Europeans explored the Americas — or Spanish Colonial, republican, folk, or contemporary Latin art. But none covers all five categories as completely as the San Antonio Museum’s 3,000-square-meter Nelson A. Rockefeller Center. Its 8,000 pieces of art — only a few hundred of which can be displayed at one time — range from Peruvian textiles to Costa Rican stone warriors to a wide variety of religious statues and paintings.

Marion Oettinger, Jr., the collection’s first curator, told us that the Rockefeller center is, in his words, “a way of peering into the soul, the values, the perspectives, and the sense of well-being of Latin America through artifacts.”

Two years ago, San Antonio extended its world-famous River Walk canal and strolling path three kilometers to the very door of the museum. That exposed even more visitors to the single-most comprehensive collection of Latin American art north of Mexico City.

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