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McNay Museum Grounds Become The Canvas For Designers Reimagining The Landscape

The McNay Art Museum’s new landscape master plan aims to make the property feel less like an exclusive, elite institution and more like an inclusive, accessible public park -- an approach embraced by museum director Richard Aste.

“People feel at a park or at a library that it’s for them, and there isn’t the intimidation factor that often museums and cultural institutions have to navigate,” Aste said. “So when we’re referred to as a park, that’s music to my ears.”

The $6.25 million plan features pedestrian and bike paths, meditative seating areas, and enhanced lighting. The tall hedges on the McNay’s perimeter will be removed, and increased pedestrian, bike and disability access will further open the grounds.

The design comes from Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc. -- the same architecture firm that designed the landscapes of the George W. Bush presidential library and the upcoming Barack Obama presidential library.

The firm's Laura Solano acted as lead on this project. She said the McNay’s previous layout was designed primarily with vehicles in mind. The focus on cars led to fragmentation for the sake of function.

“They have had periods of rapid expansion, and the fallout from that was an unintentional fragmentation of the landscape. That really disconnected it from its scenic past and interfered with its purpose and cohesion today,” Solano said. “I guess that’s a fancy way of saying that as the car became more prevalent, the landscape was kind of given away to functional things like delivery and the car.”

Credit Courtesy of the McNay Art Museum
The Mays Family Park will be located at the intersection of North New Braunfels and Austin Highway.

The new design doesn’t disregard cars entirely. Both vehicular entrances will be overhauled, and several new driveways will be installed.

Phase I gives prominent placement to Ascent, a large, colorful sculpture created by Alexander Liberman. The work will be placed on the greenspace at the intersection of Austin Highway and North New Braunfels in the soon-to-be Mays Family Park, which is named in recognition of a $2 million dollar gift from the Mays Family Foundation.

Solano said outdoor art galleries are a central part of the new plan.

“We talked about it in terms of creating ‘landscape rooms’ for sculpture, so that you would have different settings for different types of art,” she explained.

In addition to Phase I, MVVA sent a series of plans and multiple phases to the McNay.

“Next is to start to deal with the parking and to make some of those ‘outdoor rooms,’ both for functions and for art,” Solano said.

The McNay said Phase II of the landscape master plan is still in the works.

Credit Courtesy of the McNay Art Museum
A digital rendering of the Mays Family Park.

“What the focus will be then is to activate even more of our interior acres. We have 17 acres of our 25 acres that don’t have buildings on them,” Aste said. “The fact that we can be an outdoor museum as well as an indoor museum is probably our greatest asset at this moment where every generation is engaging with nature on a whole new level, so we want to take advantage of that with Phase II.”

The renovations are intended to draw more diverse crowds to the museum by creating a perception of openness. Before coming to the McNay, Aste worked at the Brooklyn Museum, which successfully crafted that perception.

“That museum in 2004 underwent a very similar transformation with its facade,” Aste said. “Just by opening up the facade and adding a glass pavilion, that welcomed everyone and pulled back the curtain on what was going on behind these mysterious doors, increased attendance and increased the number of people of color who felt they were at home.”

In 2014, the McNay’s mission statement was updated to include intentional engagement with more diverse audiences. “And within that year, the board leadership along with the director decided that the best focus of leaning into that new mission of engaging a diverse community through the arts was to think outdoors and focus on the landscape,” Aste said.

Tom Frost, former CEO of Frost Bank, was a strong proponent for the McNay’s acquisition of the green space that will soon become the Mays Family Park. His son, Frost Bank executive vice president Don Frost, hopes the $500,000 gift from the Frost Bank and family will help future generations enjoy the museum as much as his late father did.

“The McNay had a special place in my father’s heart,” Frost said. “And maybe this is what my motivation was: that we know that this plan is going to help the McNay find a special place in the hearts of many, many more San Antonians than ever before.”

Phase I will be completed by Spring 2020, and the McNay will remain open throughout the renovations.

Dominic Anthony Walsh can be reached at Dominic@TPR.org and on Twitter at @_DominicAnthony