SAN BENITO — Days after finalizing their contract, city officials and community leaders are disputing the key clause specifying whether two local museums will move into the new $1.7 million San Benito Cultural Heritage Museum.
For years, organizers of the San Benito History Museum and the Texas Conjunto Hall of Fame and Museum pushed for the $1 million federal grant used to help fund the new building’s construction while exhibiting their collections in a cramped room in the city’s Community Center since 2007.
After nearly two years of negotiations, officials and the group known as the Friends of the San Benito Cultural Heritage Museum finalized the contract last Tuesday.
“User will be permitted non-exclusive use of the space,” the contract states, referring to the two local museum’s rights to display their collections in the new building’s exhibit area.
Under the contract, the museum group will share the building’s 7,000-square-foot exhibit hall.
“During the term of this facilities use agreement, (the museum groups) understand and agree other events such as special community programming, concert events and/or outdoor exhibits may be held,” the contract states.
The renewable contract runs through Sept. 31.
After city commissioners approved the contract, Luis Contreras, the city’s cultural arts director, said officials will allow the history museum and the conjunto museum to display portions of their collections as rotating exhibits in the building that opened more than two years ago.
Meanwhile, he said, the two groups will continue to house their permanent exhibits in the Community Center’s 1,000-square-foot room.
“These are more long-term exhibits that will go up to three months and change,” Contreras said in an interview. “They can be out for three months and you exchange them then you have a totally new exhibition.”
At City Hall, City Manager Manuel De La Rosa stated he met with the museum group to help clarify questions surrounding the contract.
“The facts are that the museum group reviewed the proposed agreement,” De La Rosa stated. “They met with me for clarifications. The agreement is a straight-forward government document that speaks for itself.”
But Olivia Rivas, president of the Friends of the San Benito Cultural Heritage Museum, said De La Rosa and Contreras told her the group could move its collections into the new building, where they would be permanently housed.
“I want to make it clear we are moving into the new building,” Rivas said. “We haven’t been in negotiations for two years to stay in the space we’re in. I have been working in good faith with the city manager. There’s a section (in the contract) to cancel. I’m not sure if we’d consider.”
Rivas said the U.S. Economic Development Administration’s grant used to fund the new building’s construction stipulates the history and conjunto museums would permanently display their exhibits there.
“They used the names of the existing groups,” she said, referring to the grant. “The intent of the building was to create a museum.”
Plaza’s cultural hub
As part of the city’s plan to draw tourism to town, San Benito Plaza will become a cultural hub featuring the Cultural Heritage Museum, the Community Center located next door and other buildings including the old public library, Contreras said.
“I’m really looking forward to the evolution of the plaza and working with our museums,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for the community to become more eclectic, more diverse.”
Contreras said the history and conjunto museums will help draw “heritage tourism” to town.
“When it comes to tourism, heritage tourism is where the significance comes in,” he said. “The conjunto museum — there’s nothing like it in the state of Texas. The history museum is a resource for research and an educational resource for the community.”
While the museum group’s rotating exhibits draw tourists to the new building, they will visit the Community Center to view the permanent collection, Contreras said.
“It’s just one more venue for them,” he said. “For the museums here in San Benito, this is an opportunity to utilize these venues to showcase these special collections. They are vital when it comes to the tourism component.”
Contreras said rotating exhibits draw more tourism to museums.
“It’s a way to bring in tourism. It’s a way to promote that exhibition,” he said. “It’s nice to go to several facilities. The vision is there’s always something different.”
What about Freddy Fender?
Since the city’s museums opened in late 2007, the Community Center has housed the Freddy Fender Museum along with the history and conjunto museums.
Through the years, Fender’s legacy and hit songs have turned his exhibit into a big draw for the local museums.
But it remains unclear whether the city will display the homegrown Grammy-award winning singer’s collections in the new building.
“I get asked all the time — what’s going to happen to Freddy Fender,” Contreras said. “That question is still in the air.”
As officials worked on the contract, negotiations stalled with Vangie Huerta, Fender’s widow who owns the rights to his artifacts.
“The conversations I’ve had with her have been progressive,” Contreras said, referring to Huerta.
In 2018, Huerta said city officials had not responded to her request for an agreement stipulating her husband’s name be prominently displayed outside the new museum.
Last week, Huerta didn’t respond to a message requesting comment.
Under the contract, the local museum organizers are required to fund an insurance policy providing as much as $1 million worth of coverage.
But Rivas said the group won’t fund insurance policies to cover museum collections in two buildings.
“Obviously, we’re not going to buy insurance to be spread out over those buildings,” she said.