After more than six months away from the public's view, the San Antonio Museum of Art has relaunched their contemporary galleries. Until recently, the space was taken up by the traveling exhibition 28 Chinese from the Rubell Collection, one of the largest private contemporary art collections in the world. This was an opportunity to freshen up and polish the space, and for Anna Stothart to begin making her curatorial mark on the museum’s collections.
We have seen Stothart in action thus far with her installations of 28 Chinese, and Corita Kent and the Language of Pop, the latter currently on display through May 8. She was also a key player for Luminaria 2015, serving on the Artistic Advisory Committee. The SA Museum of Art served as the epicenter of that festival.
We are beginning to see how this curator will interact with the holdings of the museum, as well as works on loan from individuals and institutions such as the Linda Pace Foundation. This isn’t as simple as rearranging the furniture, so to speak. This is the museum’s voice, specifically that of the contemporary collection. This is a glimpse into how this new voice will begin to resonate with art aficionados and patrons in the greater San Antonio community and beyond.
Stothart joined the San Antonio Museum of Art in February 2015 as the Brown Foundation Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art. Anna served as assistant curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, where she organized the solo exhibitions of Mickalene Thomas, Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg, Adriana Varejão and Meleko Mokgosi. She has also acted as presenting curator for critically acclaimed exhibitions Ragnar Kjartansson: Song; LaToya Ruby Frazier: WITNESS; and Jim Hodges: GIVE MORE THAN YOU TAKE.
Stothart previously served as curatorial associate and curatorial assistant at the ICA, during which time she coordinated and assisted on multiple exhibitions, including Swoon: Anthropocene Extinction and Isaac Julien: Ten Thousand Waves. She received her Master’s degree in Art History and Museum Studies from Tufts University, with an emphasis on Contemporary Latin American Art.
The role of curator is critical. Stothart’s appointment fills a serious void in the museums's contemporary program left after the departure of her predecessor, David S. Rubin, in Feb. 2014. The transition from the veteran Rubin to the relatively youthful Stothart is representative of a generational shift in curatorial theory.
Rubin arrived at the SA Museum in 2006 from the Contemporary Arts Center New Orleans, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. During his time at the museum, Rubin was responsible for the permanent collection, exhibitions and programming. In addition to bringing visceral and compelling programming to the museum, he also collected deeply in the local arts community. His Artist Conversation Series was a significant contribution to the city's arts scholarship. Today, Rubin continues work as an arts writer, consultant and independent curator, based in San Antonio.
“This is the new collection," Stothart said. "I’ll continue to rotate in this way. I tell people, there will be times that you don’t like it, there will be times that you love it, but it will always change.
“With a contemporary collection there is so much happening all the time. Trends, new explorations of specific genres, new exploration of ways of making. I feel that the installation of the collection has to be representative of that as well. There is a way to engage with what artists are making today with new acquisitions and ways to engage with what people are collecting in San Antonio.”
There are now more than 2,500 works in the museum’s contemporary portfolio. At any given time, 90% of these works are in storage. While there may be a few pieces on loan at City Public Service headquarters and the UT Health Science Center, that practice is relatively rare. Stothart’s goal is to circulate more of the collection in-house on a nine to 12-month cycle, creating a kaleidoscopic range of possible visual conversations.
Working closely with Lana Meador, the Contemporary and Modern Curatorial Assistant; Erin Murphy, Assistant to Chief Curator William Keyse Rudolph; and Assistant Registrar Kimberly Mirelez, Stothart approached her task by combing through the collection, really working at a gut level.
During this process, Stothart noted many smaller works that are rarely on view at the museum. These are of quality but, due to size, they don't have the gravity to hold a large space, so the staff "decided to make a selection of works that are in conversation with abstraction and do this salon-style hang just to bring out some of these works that haven’t been seen,” she said.
Located in the passage to the larger contemporary galleries, this is an effective approach. It allows the viewer to have an intimate conversation with these small works, including a Rauschenberg light sculpture, Shades (1964), a piece that Stothart hadn’t previously known about. “In the future,” she said, “we will continue to use the space in this playful way as a comment on what is going on in the larger galleries.”
For example, a small Larry Bell sculpture is included in the passage collection, commenting on the larger mixed media on canvas. The Double X (1989), is on loan from the Margaret Pace Wilson Collection of Contemporary Art. There is also a small piece by Linda Pace. These are the kinds of conversations and nudges taking place.
My first impression of Stothart’s installation approach is a cool restraint. She subscribes to the philosophy of “less is more." More specifically, she gives works in the larger galleries significant breathing space. As you exit the passageway, entering the Margaret Robert Wilson Gallery, you encounter a serious study of the monochromatic. “This gallery is about minimalism, about line and about the absence of color or using black and white as color,”Stothart said.
Throughout the collection, she has chosen to borrow work to fill out and give context to the stories that she is seeking to tell. For example, the aforementioned canvas by Larry Bell stands as a counterpoint to the only existing collaboration between Catherine Lee and Sean Scully – eponymously named Collaboration (1979) – each half a study in black and white, each as different as night and day. A teachable moment.
Which leads to my second first impression. Stothart likes a conversation. She enjoys the invisible – but essential – aspects of contemporary art. Process, the root of an artist’s practice, are all intellectual exercises that are often lost on the public because they are not strictly visual pursuits. This is what makes contemporary and modern art the thorniest part of the museum business. These are necessary conversations because knowledge of where an artist was going with a concept does impact enlightenment, understanding and appreciation of contemporary art. These days, discussion of process has become essential. In the past, the requirement was that art be able to speak for itself without verbal props or discussion. This is a marked change in theoretical approach.
“What I want to show visitors is that 1) artists don’t work in a bubble, and that 2) contemporary artists, though they are pursuing new modes in the world and new ways of thinking about art and making art, they are still very much looking to their predecessors,” she said.
As we cross the gallery, the conversation shifts to color. We stop to take in the latest acquisition, love seat (2015) by Sarah Cain, brought into the collection with funds provided by the SA Museum’s Friends of Contemporary Art.
“I’m not really interested in artwork that you understand instantly,” Cain said, in reference to her approach to art. “If I know what I’m doing or know what the painting is going to look like, there’s no point in doing it. It’s about embracing the unknown and learning from the unknown.”
Cain was in town recently to join Stothart for the first Art History 201: Contemporary Art event. The four artist talks build on the success of the Art History 101 series, delving deeper into specific areas of the museum’s collection. No papers, no exams, just a thoughtful conversation and a glass or two of wine as you head into the weekend. These discussions will take place every third Friday of the month.
Stothart has an easy style. She laughs easily, can take a joke and is quite disarming with a self-deprecating sense of humor. She can dive into an intellectual conversation about why contemporary art is as important as the art of ancient Egypt or the fine portraiture embraced in the Museum’s American Collection. Stothart makes the connections to help a skeptical viewer begin to understand all the threads that connect the full range of the museum experience and she does it in a way that is very non-threatening. She is a curator for a new generation.
Continuing further into color study, Stothart brought in another piece on loan from curator A. Kate Sheerin, Mark Flood’s exquisitely lush Scholar’s Rock (2006). It stood stalwart in relation to the blue chip holdings of Diebenkorn, Stella, Frankenthaler and Hofmann. A rather quiet color field abstract by Matt Conners, a recent artist-in-residence at the Chinati Foundation, lingered to the side. This piece is also a recent acquisition purchased with funds provided by the Contemporary Art Acquisition Fund and the Contemporary Art Visiting Committee Acquisition Fund.
There is a reason and rhyme to this pattern. The strategic placement of new acquisitions and borrowed works seek to create excitement. What better way to establish a yearning for a particular artist as yet not collected? You stand them up against the all-stars as well as the new kids on the block and see how they hang. Again, this is approaching the collection as an ongoing conversation.
“This is not only visually pleasing with more information about our collection," Stothart said. "But also there is a discussion about what artists are continuing to create today.”
The final space significantly changes the course of the conversation with the theme Performing Identity Through the Portrait. The collection is very strong in portraiture.
“Portraiture can make the relationship between race, identity and class more complicated or it can be used as a tool to tease these issues out,” she said.
Anchoring the space is Kehinde Wiley’s David Lyon (2013), purchased in honor of Harriet O’Bannion Kelley with funds provided by the Walter F. Brown Family. Since the early 2000s, Wiley has been painting portraits of African-American and Latino men in the style of old master portraits, debunking traditional negative stereotypes. The work is technically immaculate, vibrant and thought-provoking.
Again, Stothart and her team takes the viewer through a succession of portraits, most of them unconventional in some regard. There are works by Cortor, Warhol, Arbus and Mapplethorpe. We also see works by San Antonio-based artists Chuck Ramirez, Vincent Valdez and Kelley O’Connor, whose collage work is being shown at the museum for the first time.
The scholarly uptake on this particular gallery is the power of the portrait genre to mirror or question contemporary culture. Each and every work challenges the status quo in some way. From the exhibition notes, “These portraits thus become complex portrayals of contemporary life and identity and encompass a more holistic representation of our time.”
Stothart sums up her approach very simply: "What I want people to do is to draw their own connections and come to their own conclusions.
"I am providing a starting point to engage with the work and the gallery and the collection. The collection is a representation of the history of this institution and the history of contemporary art in San Antonio."
Stothart acknowledged the importance of "every curator, director, major collector and patron. It is important to show the significance of this work that has been done to this point," she said. "All I am doing is picking and choosing and identifying possibilities for the work and the direction it could take in the community.”
*Top image: David Lyon (2013) by Kehinde Wiley (right) and works by Morimura, Julien and Katz (left to right). Photo by Page Graham.