San Antonio’s McNay Art Museum has had some work done. Again. Like a plastic surgery addict, the state’s first official home for modern art is set to reveal yet another upgrade. But unlike the previous seven additions, the latest is no mere tweak: The 45,000-square-foot Jane and Arthur Stieren Center for Exhibitions, which nearly doubles the McNay’s size, is a profile-changing improvement that signals a new era for the 54-year-old institution.
As makeovers go, this one may well raise a few eyebrows. The expansion, created by Jean-Paul Viguier (the first French architect to design a U.S. museum or museum expansion, if you can believe that), is unapologetically modern. Low-slung and rectangular, with a flat, translucent roof, the Zen-like building juts out in stark contrast to the Spanish Colonial Revival—style mansion that was once founder Marion Koogler McNay’s home. Yet tucked into a grassy slope, it doesn’t overpower the original structure. Director William J. Chiego calls the wing “dramatic yet subtle,” a seeming contradiction that is surprisingly accurate.
It isn’t vanity, however, that has been the driving force behind this latest add-on, but rather necessity. With the recent spate of museum openings and renovations across the state, keeping up with the Blantons is a must if you want to remain relevant in Texas’s ever-advancing art scene. The Stieren Center should allow the McNay to do just that. For starters, the museum will now be able to show more of its permanent collection, well, permanently; no longer will its French Impressionist masterpieces and American Modernist gems have to be hauled off to storage to make room for temporary exhibits. Plus, it will now be better equipped to compete for those large touring shows (“the lifeblood of a museum,” says Chiego) that it has been losing to its more spacious counterparts in Dallas and Houston.
Better yet, this face-lift will allow the McNay to play up its best features—like a rapidly growing collection of twentieth-century sculpture, part of which will now reside in the Stieren Center’s accompanying outdoor sculpture garden. Divided by gray-green stone into three “galleries,” the site makes sublime use of a portion of the McNay’s 23 acres. You’ll see old favorites, like Joel Shapiro’s blue walking man (which now climbs a wall on the east end of the space), and recent acquisitions, including the Philip Grausman commission Victoria, a fourteen-foot-tall likeness of one of the artist’s studio models.
Other strengths—op art and geometric abstraction, to name two—will be revealed in the Stieren Center’s debut presentation, “American Art Since 1945: In a New Light,” which shows off the McNay’s full collection of postwar art for the first time, as well as new purchases (like Alexander Liberman’s Duration, a narrow enamel-on-aluminum painting, and Ernesto Pujol’s “By the Waters,” a photograph of a robed figure in a Civil War cemetery). The McNay’s ambition—namely, to raise its profile in Texas and beyond—finally has all the room it needs. Opening in San Antonio on June 7; 210-824-5368, mcnayart.org
The Secret Garden
Even when you’re in its midst, the Shangri La Botanical Gardens and Nature Center seems to be a fantastic dreamscape. A lush 252 acres filled with intricate matrices of native and exotic flora, this modern-day Eden is as unexpected as a mirage—especially given its location in Orange, a small East Texas town that kisses the Louisiana border and is better known for plants of the petrochemical sort. But as any longtime resident can attest, this out-of-the-way idyll may just be the most beautiful natural area you’ve never heard of.
Situated along Adams Bayou, Shangri La first opened in 1946 as a pet project of local timber baron H.J. Lutcher Stark. Curious visitors came each spring to see the larger-than-life philanthropist’s prized azaleas, as well as one of the oldest living things in Texas, a pond cypress that is now 1,232 years old. But a freak snowstorm in 1958 decimated the gardens, and Stark locked the gates. Sneaking into the off-limits grounds (or at least bragging that you had) quickly became a local rite of passage.
You don’t have to scale the fence anymore. A fully restored Shangri La opened in March, and it’s even more breathtaking than before. Nine formal gardens—organized by shape, texture, and color—bloom with rain lilies, coral honeysuckles, dendrobium orchids, trumpet creepers, and yes, azaleas (41 varieties). The prized heronry on Ruby Lake—home to great egrets, roseate spoonbills, cormorants, and other winged beauties—is outfitted with cameras high above for a true bird’s-eye view. Electric boats motor out to the farthest reaches, providing access to three educational outposts, a bat house, and that elderly cypress tree, known as the Survivor (an apt moniker considering it lived through Hurricane Rita, which hit just as construction on the new Shangri La was beginning). It should also be noted that the center is the first project in Texas to receive the prestigious LEED Platinum certification for its green design.
There’s debate over whether Stark would approve of Shangri La’s renovation (in fact, theories still abound as to the real reasons he shuttered the place to begin with). One of Stark’s estranged sons—who spent years disputing an inheritance and died on the morning of Shangri La’s reopening—once intimated that a tourist