I love horses and I love art. I especially love horses in art, as some collage prints hanging on my living room walls (purchased from the annual Toronto Outdoor Art show the first weekend in July) attests. But that’s as far as I put equine and art together until I visited the Briscoe Western Art Museum in San Antonio, Texas in April 2014. I expected paintings of noble cowboys riding through idealized frontiers and bronze sculptures of bucking broncos (which there are), but I didn’t expect to see saddles, spurs and tack under glass, revered as works of art themselves.
And why not? Many of the pieces are examples of fine craftsmanship, detailed stitching and leather engraving intended to be used during ceremonies and events of pageantry. Some are historically significant, such as the Pancho Villa Saddle from the 1920s, owned briefly by the Mexican revolutionary before his assignation in 1923. Others are ornate and impractical such as the silver parade saddle designed by Edward Bohlin (1895-1980). He’s credited as being the most famous saddle maker of the 20th century. Originally from Sweden, he was attracted to cowboy culture, came to the U.S. and eventually designed ornamental saddles that, according to the gallery, “were part of the urbanization of the west, as movie stars and equestrian parades gave town dwellers a glamorous glimpse of cowboy chic.”
“Other galleries combine art and artifacts, though none does it as well as we do,” said now former executive director Steven Karr in April. (Karr left the museum in May). “As far as I know, we are one of the few galleries showcasing saddles as art.”
The Briscoe Western Art Museum opened in October 2013, in the historic Central Library building in downtown San Antonio and adjacent to the city’s well-landscaped River Walk. Named in honour of former governor, the late Governor Dolph Briscoe, Jr. and his wife Janey, who donated $4 million dollars to get the project started, the museum is three floors and nine galleries celebrating the mystique of five centuries of the American West, from the Spanish conquest to present day. Horses play a major rule in this history, and the four-panel oil painting, called Wild Horses by Millard Sheets, hanging above the Wells Fargo & Co. stagecoach replica.
According to Karr, the west includes anything west of the Mississippi in the U.S., including California and Oregon, and parts of Mexico and Canada (although there are no Canadian artists in the collection yet, only a few Canadian items such as Blackfoot’s shirt in the Transportation Gallery).
The galleries are organized according to theme, rather than time period or artist, and it’s under the topic of transportation where you’ll find the wall of spurs: a visually rhythmical assembly of individual cowboy spurs symmetrically ‘pinned’ into a wall. Collectively, it’s a conceptual piece inviting viewers to stand back and take it all in; individually each spur is an example of unique handcrafted metal work.
“We are particularly proud of our spur display,” Karr said. “These pieces are art especially when you consider all are carefully crafted by hand with intent. We’ve had a good reaction to this display so far.”
What’s next for the Briscoe? There won’t be a lot of exhibition changes soon, especially considering the years of planning and building restoration it took to open the museum’s doors. “We are going to get our money’s worth of our collection and don’t plan to change it out for a least a year,” said Karr, whose immediate successor is interim executive director Jessica Erin Elliott. The intention is to acquire more pieces, create temporary exhibitions and keep the doors open for art, history, and even horse lovers visiting the San Antonio and wishing they could ride today.