AMSET’s Sarah Beth Wilson straddles past, present to present art to SETX
“Three Als” (1993) by Gael Stack, is an oil painting taking up most of the wall opposite Sarah Beth Wilson’s desk, with marks emulating chalk on a chalkboard. Her office includes a shelf with too many books — from early world art through living Texas artists, as well as a drawer overflowing with gallery guides from previous museum and exhibition visits.
Even though this is her working space, the art with which she surrounds herself provides a stimulus for creative thought, a veritable microcosm of the galleries she curates.
The Art Museum of Southeast Texas curator says she remembers reading about “liminality” and its application in the art museum, in Carol Duncan’s essay ‘The Art Museum as Ritual.” Liminality is the theory of putting the viewer into a different physical and mental space when they cross the threshold of a museum.
“As a curator, we are working to create a space that help builds a mindset while looking at works — that is something that is important to me,” she says.
Wilson, an Orange native living in Houston, has been commuting to Beaumont for the past two years after some friends sent her the job listing for the curator position at AMSET. Prior to that, she was working at a Houston gallery and teaching art history courses at Lone Star Community College.
“I wasn’t actually looking for a job at the time — I knew it was a dream job and I didn’t want to pass it up,” she says.
While working her master’s in art history at Texas Christian University in Dallas, her research interests focused on Italian Renaissance and Baroque. While her postgraduate work provided her the foundation in researching and curating a show, Wilson wanted more from the curatorial experience besides hanging pictures in a gallery — which turned her on to contemporary art.
“There’s nothing like getting your hands dirty and touching the art,” she said. “In grad school, I studied abroad and did research and such, but you are at looking at books, or something hanging in the museum. The advantage of working with living artists is you get to see their studio and feel what it is like to work with them.”
For Wilson, studio visits with artists around the state and across the country are pertinent when planning a show. While some curators may just correspond with the artist via phone or email, she makes sure she meets in person with the exhibiting artist, taking a peek inside the mind of the artist not only through what they say, but how they live and work.
“It is very important to me that at the first studio visit,” she says. “I start thinking about their aesthetics, even little things like fonts to use on the invitations — things start coming to mind on how I can put the exhibition together. You can tell a lot about someone by the way they live and how their studio looks. I think that is a key part in the curatorial process when working with contemporary artists.”
While the shows she curates may focus mostly on works produced by living artists, she still draws connections between her intensive studies in 15th- and 16th-century art. The most recent exhibit at AMSET, “Curtain Call,” is a case in point.
“Ann Wood’s process, for example, has a lot of connections to the processes in Renaissance workshops,” Wilson says. “I have been thinking a lot about these workshops while we are installing the work because we are all in there helping. It’s still her idea that she is bringing to fruition and she is overseeing everything — although technically she didn’t push every single pin.”
Many museums who show contemporary work focus on older, more established artists. Wilson hopes that by offering a breadth of work, AMSET can continue its reputation of showing artists engaged in the contemporary art world and local talent.
“It is really important to me that AMSET not only have our foot in contemporary art, but also give respect to the past and the history there,” she says. “I think it is important to have a mix of shows — variety not just in style and subject, but also the artist and whether they are a young, emerging artist or more established and mature in their career.”
Another important factor in determining shows is the audience, Wilson says.
“I want to bring new things here, but I also have to think about what the audience here is going to like and what is going to appeal to them,” she says. “I want to put up a show that people find intriguing, and are fascinated with and want to learn more. At the same time, it needs to be approachable — to know that your audience is going to relate to it. You can cultivate that over time, and there is also an art to that. I am working on this art and, overtime, that is something I can develop.”
In her effort to mix up the kind of shows the museum offers, Wilson says she is willing to step outside of her comfort zone.
“I want to challenge myself — we are actually going to have a photography show and look at different media and think outside the box with that,” she says. “I want to make sure we have a variety, and not just solo and theme shows. There is so much art out there and I want to tap into that. I keep a list of artists I want to keep on my radar — that list is always growing.”
Visiting artists and exhibitions outside of Beaumont and the state of Texas helps Wilson form a framework for her vision, but she likes the intimacy of working locally.
“Sometimes, I feel like in a big city with too much going on, you can feel stifled,” she says. “Beaumont has its perks of being smaller, but has an active arts community — I do think there is a lot of room for growth and original creativity.”
Tracking trends in contemporary art is impossible because it is always changing, Wilson says.
“I see some things that I think are so bizarre and I find fascinating, but I am not sure how it would relate everywhere,” she says. “I try to look at it with an open mind. Sometimes the building or place where you see the art changes how you feel about it at that moment. To me, that’s liminality — having the space altered and creating a work of art in that atmosphere.”
Story by Caitlin Duerler, ISSUE contributor