VERO BEACH — In his five years as curator, Jay Williams has quietly served up some spectacular art at the Vero Beach Museum of Art. That’s how he views his role at the museum, looking back as he prepares for retirement with his wife to a little cabin in the North Carolina mountains sometime before the snows settle in.
“I think of myself as being a really lucky waiter in a good restaurant, who gets to serve really good food, and it’s so much fun to see people enjoying eating it,” says the ever-modest Williams.
The impact of the impending retirement of Lucinda Gedeon as CEO and executive director, announced in the spring, is being compounded by the just-announced retirement of Williams, the museum’s curator and Gedeon’s right-hand man.
Williams’ Oct. 28 departure leaves incoming CEO Brady Roberts to name a new curator, whose role will include helping select and budget for exhibitions, adding to the permanent collection, and writing and researching exhibit labels and catalogues.
Williams still remembers the interview process that started him on his career here. He was asked to give a power-point talk as part of the selection process.
“I figured the search committee members would be sitting around some table and I’d just set up my laptop,” he says.
Instead Williams was escorted to the Leonhardt Auditorium where he found “a whole crowd” waiting for him.
“They’d invited all the docents and a bunch of board members. I was like, ‘Wow – I’ve got an audience for this!’” he recalls.
His talk was about American artist Elliott Daingerfield, a subject he’d discoursed upon a year or two earlier for a show of that artist’s work at Nashville’s Parthenon.
“It was fine,” he says. “Wind me up and I talk about art.”
Apparently, the committee liked not only Williams’ aptitude for electronic show-and-tells, but also his unflappable knack for speaking about art to a range of listeners. That was more than five years ago, and Williams has given plenty of power points since then.
It was when he announced his retirement plans to Gedeon in the spring that Williams learned she too was planning to retire.
“We agreed to try to coordinate things to the point where I said I’d stay through the end of the year.”
But then Williams and his wife Penny talked to the movers who would be bringing their belongings up to their new home, located at the end of a two-mile gravel road in the mountains of North Carolina. The movers said their cabin might be inaccessible to the moving van in January, and Williams realized he had to leave the museum by the end of October to be in the cabin by Thanksgiving.
The search has not yet begun for a new curator, but Williams will be in email contact with the museum exhibition committee for another month. That’s because he is in the process of making proposals for future shows to committee members, who may not all be back in Vero before he departs.
“There are some things that we have talked about in principle, but need to finalize for next year,” he says.
The major shows have already been planned through the summer of 2018.
“There isn’t going to be any hiccup between now and a year from now,” Williams says with assurance.
“By that time the new curator will be on board and the shows for the smaller galleries will be filled with no problem. Most curators have a wish list of exhibitions they’d like to do,” he says with a smile.
That means the VBMA won’t have a new curator until after new Executive Director Roberts initiates a search for one – a task he is well prepared for, having served as chief curator at the Milwaukee Museum of Art before coming to Vero.
“Because the curator and director work so closely together, Cindy didn’t think it would be right for her to choose someone for the new director to work with,” he says.
In his mountaintop existence, Williams does not expect to give up the curatorial life completely.
“I’m not going to be punching a clock, but I’m going to have a few projects to do,” he says.
That includes writing some bios for a collection catalog to be published by the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta, where Williams was the curator from 2004 to 2008. He has also been contacted by a South Carolina artist who wants Williams to catalog and write about his work. Williams knows many artists in the region from the nine years he worked as chief curator at the McKissick Museum in Columbia.
What he will miss is the camaraderie he has enjoyed working at museums throughout the South. From the sound of it, he has especially enjoyed his tenure at the Vero museum.
“I think this museum is in as good a shape as any place I’ve ever worked,” he says. “Everybody works well together. It’s a real professional team.”
He also praises the museum’s secure footing in the community.
“There is real grass roots support here spread out among so many individuals and that gives this museum stability,” he says.
The generosity of the museum’s supporters is a “luxury,” Williams says. It meant he could plan two years in advance for major exhibitions because he knew the funding would be there.
Williams also credits Gedeon for bringing stability and big-city professionalism to the museum. With her background at university museums including the Neuberger Museum of the State University of New York, Gedeon enlarged and brought more focus to the educational and interpretive aspects of the collection and exhibition programs.
“We’ve done something here that wouldn’t be unusual for, say, a museum in Atlanta or New York or Chicago or St Louis – we’ve really been trying to emulate a bigger-city model of how to operate,” he says.
Williams chuckles remembering that 35 years ago when he was head of education at the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, a delegation from Vero Beach came to visit.
“They said, ‘We’re going to be building an art center in Vero Beach,’” Williams recalls.
“We talked to them about lighting and all that stuff. It was some of that core group of people who got things started.”
“So it’s kind of odd – I’ve made a full circle.”