American Studies
American Studies

Alumni Interviews: Sean FitzGibbons

Tue, January 2, 2018
Alumni Interviews: Sean FitzGibbons
Sean FitzGibbons

Throughout the 2017-2018 school year, we've been conducting interviews with UT AMS grads who utilize their American Studies degrees in different ways in the world outside the 40 Acres. Next up in our series is Sean Fitzgibbons, Director at the Meadows Museum of Art. 

Gaila Sims:When did you graduate from American Studies at UT, and with what degree?

Sean FitzGibbons: I received my BA in American Studies in May 2006.

GS: What is your current job, and how did you decide to enter into your chosen field?

SF: Currently, I am the Director at the Meadows Museum of Art in Shreveport, LA, and I took an interesting path to my current position after my graduation from UT. Months after getting my degree, I began working for the Texas State Senate as a Constituent Services aide in Senator Troy Fraser’s office. After the legislative session ended, I got involved in a grass-roots level of community engagement, and was hired as Youth Education Director for a San Antonio local council office. However, even in this position, I found my focus always shifted back to art. During this time I created an art education program for juveniles who had been entered into the Bexar County juvenile probation system for graffiti offenses. The focus of this program was not so much anti-graffiti, as it was teaching the children to direct their talents towards a marketable art practice.

In my spare time, I created and directed LoneStar Studios, an alternative art space in San Antonio. Every second Saturday, the gallery hosted art events featuring performance art, live music, food trucks, and conventional art exhibits. I left politics eventually, but I had already begun noticing many parallels between the political sphere and art. In politics, I spent significant time and effort ensuring the success of another person, and I realized I needed to focus the same amount of energy on myself and my family.  I decided to enroll in the Master of Fine Arts program at Washington University in St. Louis, which allowed me to consolidate and apply the knowledge I gained from my political, community engagement, and gallery management experiences. After graduating with my MFA degree in 2014, I returned to Texas to serve as Senior Management Analyst for the City of San Antonio’s Department of Art & Culture. In this role, I coordinated visual arts exhibitions and established curated programming, which gave me the experience necessary to move to my current Director position

 GS: What projects or people have inspired your work?

SF: My father is an artist, and I grew up in artist studios, galleries, museums, and behind the scenes of performance art pieces. My entire life has been immersed in art. Additionally, my mother has always been involved in community engagement. Together they have worked on international artist-exchange programs, neighborhood educational programming in the arts, and municipal art awareness projects.  Most recently, my parents and a stellar team of artists and art patrons, co-founded the Lone Star Art Alliance, which is a non-profit focused on artist exchanges between Texas and countries like Germany, India, Peru, Italy, and Mexico.

Other artists who have engaged in using place, community, or art collectives to generate their artistic practice and have inspired me are: Joseph Beuys’ and his theories of social sculpture, Allan Kaprow’s “Happenings,” contemporary poet Jessica Baran and her work in St. Louis, and artist lead movements like the Dadaists in Europe during WWI. Institutional critics such as Fred Wilson, William Pope L, Mierle Ukeles, the Yes Men, the Guerilla Girls, and Tom Sachs have also inspired a passion for engagement through institutions.

I must credit the DIY mentality of San Antonio’s artistic community for much of my inspiration. Running an alternative art space meant that I was responsible for all tasks, from writing the press releases and calling artists to hanging artwork and mopping floors. In the real world, there are no deus ex machina plot devices that swoop in and make things happen for you. 

Want an article in the paper about your art collective? Write it.

There isn’t a “scene” that you are into? Create it.

No one will shoot your music video? Use your iPhone.

 GS: How does American Studies inform your work? How does your background in American Studies help you in your work in the museum field?

SF: American Studies informs my work by bringing a “non-art-centric” context to the artwork and curatorial process. A lot of what I do is invigorating community collaboration with the Meadows Museum of Art, and then individually engaging the viewer after they walk through the museum doors. I need to know how to make the artwork on the walls relevant to people. My American Studies degree taught me how to research, and how to think creatively about innovative possibilities regarding the presentation of visual artwork. Many directors who have spent years studying art theory and art history may find themselves in a rut of curating highly pedantic and abstruse exhibits. These shows can be stellar examples of high art theory and receive the highest academic accolades, but no one from the community shows up to see them because they are not culturally relevant. On the other side, as a director it can be just as easy to pander and present an insubstantial exhibition that would diminish your credibility, but will “put butts in the seats.” This is where the American Studies background helps someone in my position, as it provided me with the ability to research and contextualize, and then format the information in a way that is culturally relevant.  American Studies taught me to think critically about history and culture, and enabled me to apply that thinking to a myriad of real-world professional situations.

 GS: How do you see your work fitting in with broader conversations in American Studies?

SF: I have always understood American Studies as the answer to most “why” questions in American history.  In other words, it is the critical study of the cultural aspects of American society throughout our short history. During my time as an American Studies student, I thoroughly enjoyed learning about how animals influenced American culture, zoot suits, Austin’s blues music scene according to Clifford Antone, Professor Meikle’s course on the Beat generation, Professor Bush’s History of the American Teenager course, America’s first daredevil Sam Patch with his pet bear, and so much more about how our culture was forged throughout history. Working in an art museum fits within this umbrella of cultural understanding through the lens of historic happenings. Not many people know how interconnected the formulation of our American identity is with American art history. The centuries-old and contemporary contributions of Native American artists, advertising, and our military culture are all steeped in art history. For example, The Ghost Army were artists at the front lines of WWII fabricating false camps and staging fake attacks to confuse and redirect the Axis Forces. Jackson Pollock's paintings were used as American Cold War propaganda to prove to the Soviets that capitalism and democracy created a much better quality of life for our citizens. The CIA used modern art as a weapon in the Cold War.   

 GS: Do you have any advice for students in our department about how to get the most out of their experience at UT?

SF: Do as much as possible. Find what you think you want to do and make it happen. Get involved. Do work. Fail. Get back up and do it again, but better.

Do you have any advice for students in our department who are interested in pursuing work outside academia, but still want to utilize the training they've received from American Studies?

American Studies is more than a cultural history research degree, it is a skill that enables one to understand. Researching history, identifying catalysts of major cultural events, and exploring the context of history are vital elements of an American Studies degree. It is an excellent foundation for any career, as employers are often in desperate need for applicants with writing, researching, and critical thinking skills that go beyond the face value of the task at hand. Due to experiences during school, American Studies graduates know how to accomplish these tasks with ease and creativity. For example, non-profits from all professions need skilled grant writers, and marketing agencies need cultural and historic context embedded into their advertising campaigns.

Sleepless nights at the PCL. Writing, editing, and rewriting a 12-page paper. Weighing the innumerous viewpoints regarding the influence of Tex-Mex culinary traditions on Texas’ fight for independence. While mileage will vary, these experiences are common to an American Studies degree, and will award a graduate of this program with well-earned advantages in whatever career they find themselves. The creativity in research technique is unique to American Studies, and it is something you don’t realize you have until you are out in the professional world and your skills are above and beyond those of your peers.

 

 

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