Gently tucked in a bend of the San Antonio River in downtown San Antonio, the historic San Antonio Museum of Art houses the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Latin American Art — one of the world’s preeminent collections of its kind.
And it all started as a generous gift.
Though Rockefeller may be best known as Gerald Ford’s vice president and a four-term governor of New York, he shared a deep passion for Latin American culture. From his early days visiting Mexico as a child, Rockefeller developed a love for Mexican folk art. He amassed thousands of pieces from all over Latin America during his lifetime, many from local villages and flea markets.
After his death in the late 1970s, much of Rockefeller’s pre-Columbian and contemporary Latin American collections went to various museums in New York City, like the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, where he served as president in the 1930s. But his vast collection of folk art stayed largely within the confines of his personal properties.
In the 1980s, Rockefeller’s daughter, Ann R. Roberts, purchased this collection from his estate and set about finding a proper home for the collection. “Father’s interest was always in promoting the interrelationship between Mexico and America,” Roberts told the New York Times. “So I wanted the gift to go to a place where it would work toward furthering that interrelationship.” Rockefeller’s sons, Mark and Nelson Jr., who inherited their father’s South Texas ranch, donated money for a computer network to lead visitors through the center.
San Antonio felt like a natural fit thanks to its already deep-seated appreciation for its Latin community and Latino heritage. So Roberts donated more than 3,000 pieces of his Latin American folk art collection to the San Antonio Museum of Art in 1985.
The gift was particularly generous, because the museum itself had only been in existence since 1981. But museum curators and the public had a tangible passion for creating a one-of-a-kind art environment. Roberts’ gift of her father’s art was so large it actually inspired the development of a new wing. Voters soon approved a bond package that spurred a fundraising challenge, eventually resulting in an $11 million construction project in the mid-1990s.
In working closely with the museum and the Rockefeller, architects designed a world-class wing that maintains an authentic, non-linear representation of the Latin American collection’s different galleries. Each gallery’s entrance feels representative of that collection — for instance, the Spanish Colonial gallery feels like a basilica, while Rockefeller’s personal folk collection feels much more intimate (and is protected from natural light, which could deteriorate the art).
The three-story, 30,000 square-foot L-shaped wing wraps around a pair of 200- year-old oak trees. Upon its completion in 1998, the newly dubbed Rockefeller Wing won numerous awards for its thoughtful design that both highlights the vast Latin American art collection and conserves the area’s natural history.
In 2009, the city of San Antonio even extended the River Walk strolling path three kilometers to meet the museum’s front door.
The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Latin American Art now spans more than 4,000 years of history, with more than 8,000 paintings, sculptures, works on paper and other objects from all parts of Mexico, Central America, South America and the Caribbean. Its collection of folk art remains one of the most important collections of its type.