Graduating UAB student curates show of modern art at BMA

Bethany McClellan just completed a yearlong stint as the 2012-2013 UAB/Birmingham Museum of Art Curatorial Fellow that culminates with the show “Vanguard Views.”

Lovers of early 20th century modern art should make a beeline to the Birmingham Museum of Art, where “Vanguard Views,” a show curated by University of Alabama at Birmingham fall 2013 Art History graduate Bethany McClellan, is on display through March 23, 2014.

art bethanymcclellan sMcClellan, of Birmingham, just completed a yearlong UAB/Birmingham Museum of Art Curatorial Fellowship that culminates with the show. The fellowship is available for Art History graduate students at UAB who have had at least one year of coursework under their belts. Jessica Dallow, associate professor of Art History in the UAB Department of Art and Art History, says this collaborative fellowship is a unique opportunity for UAB Art History graduate students to gain professional curatorial experience.

It was one of the reasons McClellan chose UAB for her graduate work.

“This opportunity isn’t available in most universities around the country,” McClellan said. “It’s very rare to have a curatorial fellowship. I was just very, very thrilled to have been chosen.”

The 12-month appointment is much like a part-time job, with the student spending about three days a week at the BMA. Responsibilities include tasks assigned by the museum’s curators, updating object files, doing biographical research and organizing an exhibition from the museum’s permanent collection.  

“They gave me a lot of freedom to choose whatever topic I wanted, which was a little intimidating at first,” McClellan said. “But then I just dove right into it and began researching through the museum’s relational database used to manage the collection. You can type in keywords to pull up different objects, so that’s how I started becoming familiar with everything the museum had.”

The show focuses on international works created from 1900 to 1940. It began to take shape once McClellan began to find objects like the Wassily Kandinsky print “Little Worlds VII” featured in the show.

“That was very exciting,” she said. “I am very interested in Kandinsky’s work as an abstract artist. And then I just started building on the concept.”

“The Green Apple” by Georgia O’Keeffe, “Corn Set” by Russel Wright and “Pepper #30” by Edward Weston are also included.

Of the show, McClellan wrote that the early 20th century offered an era of new experiences, as technologies like skyscrapers, cars and electric streetlights transformed cities. Avant-garde artists were inspired by the fast-paced urban experience to develop visual languages that communicated energy, simplicity and functionality, according to the show summary. Artists incorporated industrial materials like plastic and tubular steel into their work and embraced mechanical techniques like photography. To express the energy of modernity, artists emphasized dynamism and movement in their forms and used abstraction to capture the essence of a subject. The pure, geometric beauty of machinery was something modernists sought to replicate in their art. This sleek aesthetic translated easily into the design of mass-produced wares, collapsing distinctions between high art and everyday objects.

The process of choosing works for the show involved presenting her concept and getting it approved by museum curators, then involving many different museum departments, from education, budget, installation and programming. She also visited local collections to secure three free loans of works for the exhibition.

“That was a very fun and interesting aspect of learning about curating, visiting the collectors and learning about their collections and what they are passionate about,” she said.

From this experience, McClellan said she became very passionate about the museum field and is now applying for curatorial jobs across the country.

“I found that curating is a really nice balance between creativity and more scholarly based research,” she said. “It’s a multifaceted career path. From researching and writing, to educating and giving gallery talks and docent trainings, and visiting collectors and artists, it’s just exciting.”