in a good light

Luminaria Contemporary Arts Festival lights up San Antonio with radiant new vibe

Luminaria Arts Festival lights up San Antonio with radiant new vibe

Luminaria Contemporary Arts Festival
One of San Antonio's biggest arts events is returning with new ideas after a research-led overhaul. Photo by Sarah Brooke Lyons

The lights are coming back on again for 2021’s Luminaria Contemporary Arts Festival. After 2019’s 25,000-person draw and 2020’s cancellation, this year’s walk-through represents an opportunity for a forceful return from the dark.

Artists from the skipped year are rolling over the works they created in a simultaneously quiet and tumultuous year, with other, more recent works also on display November 13.

“I think the energy that the artists have brought, and their excitement is going to really feel different than previous festivals,” says executive director Yadhira Lozano, who was appointed in 2020 and will experience this year’s festival as her first in the role.

The new director is especially looking forward to the large installations that light up the night, including one projection across a giant screen on a 26-foot stage.

A few things have changed for the nonprofit since its last festival. It still offers a unique spread of art across the spectrum, from visual, to audio, to movement, and even literature. The way audiences will connect with those works is evolving. Luminaria used its pandemic-forced time inside and funds from the National Endowment for the Arts to launch an inquiry into public perception of the festival.

Since its inception in 2008 by former Mayor Phil Hardberger, the event has been free for attendees and completely driven by public interest, connecting San Antonians to the arts within the city. This time, a consultant helped the organization search for areas of improvement.

Strategic planning among artists revealed a desire for more local support and finding diversity at home instead of seeking it elsewhere. Ideas tumbled together and Luminaria is considering an artist exchange program that continues its global connections of past years while ensuring that San Antonio artists are benefiting equally.

One consensus was clear among attendees: The festival had to be an in-person event. People are tired of livestreams. Logistically, there were reports that some artists’ works had been hard to find at past events, so the festival has done away with its more conceptual programs and adopted straightforward maps. With only one path through the completely outdoor installments (another two new additions for 2021), it will be hard to miss any artist’s work.

Luminaria presented another influential finding in a paper published by the National Review of the Arts: During the pandemic, families have stuck together more than ever when going out. Instead of opening the familial “pod” to friend groups and babysitters, families are keeping their distance as independent units.

Most importantly, Luminaria learned that attendees were intrigued by art they hadn’t been interested in before, proving that the festival is doing its job. The starting point is furtive glances at weird displays, and each artist’s presence offers a portal to better insight for those willing to ask questions.

Lozano is paying attention to what’s important to both artists and audiences, hoping it will unite the entire arts scene in San Antonio. What they want is very attainable.

“People moved here from other places because they just like it here, is what they’ve been telling me,” says Lozano. “It’s no groundbreaking, inspirational quote, but it works for me.”

Tourism and military, Lozano points out, are the city’s most profitable industries, with the latter supporting the former when families come to visit. She hopes audiences will follow the artists at the festival on social media, and keep up with their work past the one-night celebration.

Particularly in 2020, Lozano’s goal is to show audiences that artists are essential workers that need support. The art scene is a nearly inexhaustible fountain of what makes San Antonio so likable. It’s a core belief that will secure funds for arts nonprofits to keep diversifying and bring communities together for what they ask for. One thing they’re asking for, revealed the outreach, is more nights of Luminaria.

“What do we turn to in the pandemic when we’re sitting on our butts at home? We’re reading books, we’re watching Netflix, we’re listening to music,” says Lozano. “Take [entertainment] away, and then what? It’s just you and your imagination. And then you become the artist. It’s part of our life force.”

Every year, the Luminaria Contemporary Arts Festival is free for all, and does not require an RSVP.  The path snakes through Hemisfair, the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, and the San Antonio River Walk on November 13 from 6 pm to midnight.