The San Antonio Museum of Art – Center for Latin American Art San Antonio, Texas | SAMA Center for Latin American Art   |   San Antonio, Texas   |   33,000 SF

The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Latin American Art houses the San Antonio Museum of Art’s renowned collection of Spanish Colonial Art, Folk Art, Pre-Columbian Art, and Latin American Modern and Contemporary Art. The largest of several projects in a master plan developed by Overland Partners for the museum’s gradual expansion, the Latin American galleries were designed to harmonize with the collection’s specific characteristics.

When A Museum’s Collection Outgrows Its Digs

Collecting museums sometimes experience growing pains. When they are successful at acquiring great works of art, they have a responsibility to care for them and to exhibit them. But the challenge comes when they continue to grow as an institution but begin to run short on space.

The recipient of many gifts from generous donors, the San Antonio Museum of Art found itself in this situation upon receiving the majority of the Nelson A. Rockefeller Folk Art Collection, the most significant collection of folk art in the United States.

Have A Strategy Before You Act
Upon examining the building, Overland quickly realized that the retooled brewery was a complicated structure with lots of compartmentalized spaces and multiple floors that didn’t line up. After some discussion, the museum agreed with the team’s recommendation that an incremental approach to expansion was the right solution for addressing the building’s challenges so that, in the long term, the museum spaces would be logical, fluid, and easy to navigate. After approval of the master plan, one of the first projects, of course, would be the design and construction of the new Latin American wing.
Start With The Art

One of the biggest challenges facing architects who design museum spaces is to ensure that the architecture does not overpower the art. Overland worked closely with SAMA’s curator of Latin American Art and the Rockefeller family to gain an understanding of the new Folk Art collection as well as the museum’s existing Latin American Art collection. In the planning of both the interior and exterior of the Latin American galleries, the design team drew inspiration from the collection itself. Since the Latin American collection represents four different genres that are not related chronologically, the gallery layout is nonlinear, which allows viewers the option of shaping their own viewing experiences. Positioned around a central atrium from which all four galleries are visible, each has its own unique entrance design and overall identity.

Overland satisfied the complicated requirements of being wedded to an older structure and the need to make a new and exciting architectural statement for our time and place.
Marion Oettinger, Jr. Director San Antonio Museum of Art

Occupying two floors, the Spanish Colonial gallery is a large barrel-vaulted space that mimics the aesthetics of the ecclesiastical art that it houses. Its centerpiece is a large altar that is set against brickwork. According to Principal in Charge Tim Blonkvist, visiting the space is like “being in a basilica with side chapels. . . . The theme, the architecture, and the works that are displayed in it are seamless; they just fit completely together naturally.”

By contrast, a compressed space with lower ceilings was chosen for the Folk Art galleries, which allows an up-close and intimate viewing experience. Additionally, natural lighting was not permitted because it will cause the objects to deteriorate. For the Pre-Columbian galleries, full open windows were selected since the objects are made of inert materials such as jade and stone, so natural ambient light illuminates the objects much in the way they would be seen outdoors. For the Modern and Contemporary galleries, “sizeable rooms permit optimal viewing of the collection’s larger scale paintings while allowing natural light to ease pressure on the eyes,” said Blonkvist.

In addressing the exterior, the Overland team maintained the essential pattern of the existing façade but modernized its accents and details. So as not to interfere with the property’s beautiful aged oak trees, slender concrete piers were employed as a means of floating the foundation over the tree roots. To integrate the surrounding landscape of trees and outdoor sculpture with the interior while retaining thematic continuity, a system of slanting windows based on Pre-Columbian pyramids was installed.

According to Blonkvist, “The Latin American wing is so important because it is a legacy reminder of those really indelible connections between South Texas and particularly Northern Mexico—culturally,  familially, and economically.  As such, it provides an important piece of historical continuity.”

  • San Antonio Conservation Society Conservation Award for Adaptive Use and Urban Enhancement 2000
  • Golden Trowel Award Excellence in Design 1999
  • Golden Trowel Award Outstanding Masonry Design Honorable Mention 1999
  • The Masonry Construction Association of America Honorable Mention for Excellence in Masonry 1999
  • American Subcontractors Association Outstanding Project 1998
  • Chiesa Oggi, “Museum Genius Loci,” January 2003
  • Americas, “Bajo el ala vital de Rockefeller,” October 1999
  • Southwest Airlines Spirit, “Arte Picante!,” October 1998
  • Veranda, “In the Region Connections – A Texas Abrazo for Latin American Art,” September 1998