A sketch of the McNay by Jim Lenahan of our office

A new exhibition opened at the McNay yesterday: Chuck Ramirez: All This and Heaven Too. Seven years after his accidental death, this will be the first comprehensive retrospective of his work. While his loss was tragic to all who knew him, it was additionally tragic for admirers of his work–his ingenious visual storytelling abruptly ending before we thought it would, leaving a gaping void in the San Antonio art community. I think it is wonderful and fitting that this comprehensive exhibit is opening at the McNay–the first modern art museum in Texas–and a museum that has a colorful story of it’s own.

Muy Borracho, Acenar series 2004

MFAH (Cynthia), Purse Portrait Series, 2005

Suitcase Portraits, by Chuck Ramirez, a series of 11 on display at the San Antonio airport

The McNay began with a woman named Marion Koogler. Orginally from Ohio, her family relocated to Kansas and struck oil which led to a fortune she inherited when her father died. Marion firsted visited San Antonio with her first husband–a man with the last name she would return to through a series of marriages–Sergeant Don Denton McNay. When Don McNay died from the flu shortly after they were married, Marion moved to San Antonio.

Marion Koogler McNay (1883-1950)

Often called the “Gertrude Stein of S.A.” Marion was an artist and teacher who began collecting paintings as well as a few short lived husbands. In the 1930’s she married Dr. Donald Atkinson, they commissioned the reputable Atlee Bernard Ayres, his son, as well as their partner Robert Ayres to work on a spanish colonial mansion –  the project would later become the museum.

The fountain and gardens at the McNay when it was their home


Atlee drives a car in the battle of Flowers parade in 1917

McNay director John Palmer Leeper with and architect Atlee B. Ayres

After her death in 1950, the mansion would become the core of the McNay museum that opened to the public just four years later in 1954. Sitting on 23 acres, the house museum remains and was further expanding with the Jane and Arthur Stieren Center for Exhibitions, designed by Jean-Paul Viguier, thus creating even more space for major exhibitions and classrooms.  She was said to have been very involved with the selections of the tile and finishes.

Wonderful tile and ceiling details throughout

The collection is truly impressive, and over time it had continued to expand to include more 20th-century European and American modernist work as well as medieval and Renaissance works. Marion who was an artist herself, went to the Art Institute of Chicago, reportedly spent time and care in the design and selection of finishes while working with the Ayres.

For a while, Ayres was the state architect of Texas and–with his partners–worked on residences and commercial projects all over the state, he became associated with many in the Spanish colonial revival style.

The Tobin center while under construction, an original facade by Ayers that was preserved

A Spanish colonial revival in the Monte Vista neighborhood by Ayers

They designed what is now the Tower Life Building, I never tire of looking at it as I walk on the river

Marion McNay was a big fan of the Pueblo Indian arts in New Mexico and went there often. She even married an artist from the Taos Society of Artists for a short time, William Victor Higgins. Not as well known as some other New Mexican painters, he also studied at the Chicago Art Institute and subsequently traveled around the world working with many great painters before he settled in Taos.

William Victor Higgins

Two colorful regional pieces by Higgins

William Victor Higgins (1884 – 1949)

When you lose people, it is easy to wonder what could have been. For artists, the new work that might have emerged is, I imagine, like unwritten chapters in an unfinished novel. In retrospective I may be left to wonder what could have been, but something very precious will be on display–his work, his sensibility and social commentary told through his work–what IS.

Chuck in front of one of his pieces from the Candy Trays series from 2002

Exhibition information: Chuck Ramirez: All This and Heaven Too at the McNay September 14, 2017 to January 14, 2018