Steven M. Karr, founding executive director of the Briscoe Western Art Museum in San Antonio, Texas, was recently asked to name a favorite piece from the collection of this “Alamo City” institution, which opened October 26, 2013. Keep in mind that the museum—on the popular River Walk within walking distance of the Alamo itself—houses works by Maynard Dixon, Edward S. Curtis, George Catlin, Frederic Remington and Allan Houser, and gracing its lobby is John Coleman’s monumental 2012 bronze Visions of Change.
“I love everything,” Karr says, “and being the founding director, it’s almost like saying which child’s your favorite.” But then he concedes, “You cannot ignore Pancho Villa’s last known saddle.” Accented with silver and tooled leather, the charro-style parade saddle was made in the early 1920s by artisans Joaquin Rodriguez and Alberto Tulan Cingo Marquez. Villa was assassinated in 1923, and the saddle has since had a colorful history of its own. It is on loan from the Ernie and Louise Davis Collection.
“If you’re from the borderlands in particular, you really can’t ignore it,” adds Karr, who last spring jumped at the opportunity to oversee another great collection as president of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. “It speaks to so much of the American Southwest, and from an artistic perspective obviously these two gentlemen were artisans of the highest, highest caliber.” And that’s what the Briscoe does best—presenting art with history.
“Western art is not just cowboys and Indians,” explains Yadhira Lozano, the Briscoe’s head of communications. “It’s the different cultures of the American West.” Consider the museum’s circa 1890–1910 handwoven Apache olla; an 1870s–80s Saltillo serape; Mexican commander Antonio López de Santa Anna’s gilt-handled 1852 dress sword; a circa 1750s Comanchero jacket; spurs; Mexican santos (religious carvings) and retablos (altarpieces); a replica Wells, Fargo & Co. nine-passenger stagecoach; and an interactive diorama of the 1836 Battle of the Alamo.
“The Briscoe aspires as a new institution to really look at the West broadly,” Karr says. “It’s also important, in our estimation, to allow people their own interpretation within their own aesthetics and their own context of history and culture.”
The 1¼-acre complex comprises two buildings, a courtyard and a sculpture garden. The main building is the 1930 San Antonio Central Library, and the museum directors had many of its art deco/neoclassical elements restored. Occupying three floors, the nine galleries of the roughly 38,000-square-foot building mix artifacts and art, from members of the Taos Society of Artists to such contemporary masters as Howard Terpning, Z.S. Liang and Oleg Stavrowsky.
Much of the artwork and a sizable donation came from museum namesakes the late Dolph Briscoe Jr. (1923–2010) and wife Janey (1923–2000). Dolph himself occupies a spot in Texas history, as the state’s 41st governor (1973–79).
The Briscoe isn’t stuck in the past, though, but actively supports Western artists. Since 2012 the museum’s Jack Guenther Pavilion has hosted the annual Night of Artists Art Sale & Exhibition, which marks its 14th year in March 2015. The invitation-only show brings in such top Western artists as Coleman, Sandy Scott, Billy Schenck, Oleg Stavrowsky, Kim Wiggins, Z.S. Liang, T.D. Kelsey and Doug Hyde. The Briscoe Legacy Award, presented to an artist “whose body of work has left a lasting impact upon the Western art world,” went to sculptor Sandy Scott. Previous recipients include Terpning, Martin Grelle and Bill Owen. After the show and sale, the artwork “becomes a content component” of the museum, Karr says.
“This provides people the chance to see how Western art has evolved over time,” Karr says. “You talk about Remington and [Charles] Russell, you talk about the Taos painters, the great California painters like Maynard Dixon. But to see how those traditions live on in this genre today is really exciting.”