The San Antonio Museum of Art, dedicated to presenting art of the world's cultures from ancient times to the present, is housed in a renovated brewery located at 200 West Jones Avenue, near downtown San Antonio. The museum originated as an outgrowth of the Witte Museum, a general museum established in 1926 by the San Antonio Art League, the San Antonio Conservation Society, the San Antonio Museum Association, and the San Antonio Scientific Society. The idea of a separate museum of art originated with Jack McGregor, who became director of the Witte Museum in 1970. McGregor was the first to see the renovation possibilities in the former Anhauser-Busch brewery situated on a 2½-acre river site. The brewery complex consisted of nine buff-colored brick buildings built from 1895 and 1904 to replace wooden structures erected for the Lone Star Brewery, chartered in 1883. McGregor interested key museum trustees in the project, and in 1972 the San Antonio Museum Association acquired the property. Museum trustee Nancy Negley Wellin led a $12 million fund drive, which financed the museum's renovation and acquisition endowments. Major donors to the project included the Brown Foundation, the Cullen Foundation, the Ewing Halsell Foundation, the Elizabeth and George Coates Foundation, and the Economic Development Administration of the United States Department of Commerce. During this period of planning and development, McGregor led the association in acquiring a small but choice collection of contemporary art featuring artists from all over the country, including Texas, thus departing from the conventional allegiance to the New York School of painters exhibited by other major art museums in Texas. The Cambridge Seven Associates, a Boston-based architectural firm, produced an award-winning renovation plan in which eight galleries are housed in the brewery's two crenelated towers, which are connected by a glass walkway and a spacious ground-floor lobby. The renovated brewery includes an auditorium, curatorial offices, and a museum shop. In 1990 the museum remodelled part of the brewery to house the Ewing Halsell Wing for Ancient Art, and the following year renovated an old warehouse in the brewery complex to become the William L. Cowden gallery, resulting in over 69,500 square feet of exhibition space. A 2½-acre sculpture garden graces the museum grounds; other buildings in the complex house a conservation laboratory and offices. The San Antonio Museum of Art opened to the public on March 1, 1981 with Real, Really Real, Super Real: Directions in Contemporary American Realism, an exhibition that proved to be a critical and popular success.
The museum originally intended to focus acquisitions on art of the Americas, but the collection's scope has changed to accommodate the interests of local collectors and donors. In 1986 Gilbert M. Denman, Jr. gave the museum a highly regarded collection of Greco-Roman vases and marble sculptures and later donated Egyptian artifacts; the museum's ancient collection was further strengthened when Robert and Margaret Pace Willson underwrote the museum's 1986 acquisition of a large collection of ancient glass from the Stark Museum of Art. Lenora and Walter F. Brown have given the museum a number of pieces from their renowned collection of Ming dynasty and early Ch'ing dynasty porcelains. The museum's holdings in Asian art have been further strengthened by donations from Susan and James E. Breece III, T. T. Tsui, Elinor Appleby, and Gilbert M. Denman, Jr. The Robert K. Winn collection, famed for its array of rare textiles, and the Nelson A. Rockefeller collection, which includes strong examples of Mexican ceramics, form the core of the museum's extensive collection of Latin American folk art. Other major donors to SAMA's collection of Latin-American art include Joe Nicholson, Marshall and Patsy Steves, David T. and Rowena Dillon, and the Robert J. Kleberg, Jr., and Helen C. Kleberg Foundation. Plans to construct the Latin American Art Center, adjacent to the original building were underway in 1994. The museum's collection of Texan art, accrued by the San Antonio Museum Association over the years, has continued to develop, with emphasis placed on the acquisition of works by contemporary artists. Nancy Negley Wellin has been a major donor to the museum's contemporary art collection. SAMA's permanent collection also includes European and American paintings, prints, drawings, and sculpture from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries; photography; pre-Columbian objects; and Spanish Colonial paintings, sculpture, and silver. All of the museum's collections are owned by the San Antonio Museum Association, which has a permanent collection of approximately 300,000 objects.
The San Antonio Museum of Art presents approximately ten exhibitions a year, generally focusing on shows that complement the museum's permanent collection. SAMA has continued to showcase challenging contemporary art, presenting solo exhibitions of work by painter Edward Ruscha (1982) and sculptor David Smith (1983), and group exhibitions such as Mexico: the New Generations (1985), which examined abstract, figurative, and neo-Expressionist trends in contemporary Mexican painting. The museum has promoted the work of regional artists by organizing exhibitions such as Off the Wall (1981), which featured installations by twelve Texan artists, and The Perfect World in Contemporary Texas Art (1991). SAMA has responded to San Antonio's large Mexican American population by printing bilingual signs and labels and cosponsoring with the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center Art Among Us: Mexican American Folk Art of San Antonio (1986), and Influence: An Exhibition of Works by Contemporary Hispanic Artists Living in San Antonio, Texas (1987). The museum has mounted major traveling exhibitions such as Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries (1991), a comprehensive overview of Mexico's cultural achievements organized by New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art, which drew 265,000 visitors to the San Antonio installation. The CARA exhibition (1993) presented a survey of the nation's leading Chicano painters and sculptors.
The San Antonio Museum of Art is owned and operated by the San Antonio Museum Association, which is governed by a board of trustees of no more than thirty members. The museum's daily operations are supervised by the director. The museum's founding director, Kevin E. Consey, served from 1980 to 1983; he was followed by John Mahey (1984–89) and Paul Piazza (1990–92). Douglas K. S. Hyland became the museum's fourth director in August 1993. The museum is financed by the San Antonio Museum Association, which operated on a budget of $3.5 million in 1992. The museum association receives federal, state, and city funding; grants from corporations and foundations; and private donations. Endowments, shop revenues, and several annual fund-raising events also provide income for the museum association. The San Antonio Museum Association sponsored a number of educational programs for both the Witte Museum and the San Antonio Museum of Art. Major programs include tours for school children, curriculum guides and teacher training workshops, and the Museum School, which provides a variety of learning experiences for children, families, and adults. The museum also presents gallery concerts, an Asian New Year Festival, film series, and educational workshops for students and teachers. The museum's START gallery invites museum visitors to participate in informal hands-on activities. SAMA is affiliated with the Texas Association of Museums and the Association of American Museums. In 1994 the San Antonio Museum of Art ended its association with the Witte Museum. Subsequently the San Antonio Museum Association ceased to exist.