SAN BENITO — Col. Sam Robertson’s development of the irrigation system that turned the region into an agricultural hub, accordionist Narciso Martinez’s lightning riffs that helped christened the city the birthplace of conjunto music and Freddy Fender’s classic hits.
Nearly 25 years ago, a group of local historians began pushing city officials to build a museum to showcase San Benito’s rich past.
Despite years of setbacks, they eventually helped the city qualify for grants to fund the project.
More than 18 months after the $1.7 million San Benito Cultural Heritage Museum opened, the San Benito History Museum and the Texas Conjunto Hall of Fame and Museum are still cramped in the city’s Community Center.
“We’re anxious to move in there,” Olivia Rivas, president of Friends of the San Benito Cultural Heritage Museum, an organization representing the two local groups, said yesterday. “We can hardly wait.”
However, city officials have set no timetable during which to move the two museums into the new 7,000-square-foot building.
Apparently, the Freddy Fender Museum will remain in the Community Center’s 1,000-square-foot room.
“If and when this moves forward, it would move forward in phases,” Luis Contreras, the city’s cultural arts director, said yesterday.
Since the building opened in late 2017, Contreras has showcased revolving exhibits depicting the region’s rich cultural legacy.
“It’s starting to draw an audience,” Rivas said. “The traveling exhibits are attracting attention.”
Before the two local museums move in, they have to raise thousands of dollars to build showcases in which to display their exhibits.
“We’ve got a lot to prepare for,” Rivas said.
Based on the city’s original plans, the local groups are charged with funding showcases to display their exhibits, Contreras said.
“There was no fundraising being done and that was a setback,” he said. “The fundraising is going to be a major endeavor. The museums need to step up with that.”
Money might help determine the two local museum’s prominence within the new building.
“It all depends on the layout, the fundraising,” Contreras said.
While about $65,000 has been raised to fund the local museums’ showcases so far, Southwest Museum Services, a Houston-based consulting firm, has estimated it could cost about $800,000 to build the display areas.
But Contreras believes the two local museums could start moving in without funding their entire showcases.
“You don’t need to have $800,000 right off the bat. That’s really difficult to raise in this market,” he said. “You can work toward that.”
Once inside the new building, the two local museums might have limited space.
“This museum is not just about exhibits but a museum building (offering) museum services,” Contreras said.
So-called “revolving” exhibits are expected to take up significant amounts of space in the new building.
“When you have a museum you need a revolving space,” Contreras said.
According to Contreras, the changing exhibits help draw steady flows of visitors to the museums.
“You’re going to need a revolving space to keep bringing people in,” he said. “With 7,000 feet, it’s a real challenge.”
However, the two local museums could also revolve their own exhibits, Contreras said.
“You would need your fixed exhibits to tell your story,” he said. “What’s representative is your history, conjunto and Freddy Fender.”
Since the local museums moved into the Community Center in 2008, the Freddy Fender Museum has been a major draw.
But the small museum honoring the homegrown Grammy-award winning singer will likely not move into the new building.
Last year, Vangie Huerta, Fender’s widow who owns legal rights to his artifacts, said city officials had not responded to her request for an agreement stipulating her husband’s name would be prominently displayed outside the new building.
“We can’t move forward without her,” Contreras said. “We just wish we could do more.”