There is one private Black-owned art gallery in San Antonio, and it’s brand new. In the Eye of the Beholder, a showroom and studio space in the historic district of Government Hill, is opening to the public this Sunday, September 19, with artists present to explain their work. The gallery will champion Black artists, but will show work by anyone who represents the passion owner Maria M. Williams is looking for in creating a truly inclusive space.
In 2019, Williams started The Art of Four, a collective whose mission would birth the gallery. She was watching a news segment recognizing artists and bequeathing awards, and realized that none of the celebrated artists looked like her. She knew there were plenty around, and launched straight into problem-solving.
“I didn’t dwell on it. I just figured how can I change that,” says Williams. “How can they get the same notoriety or the same opportunities as other artists in the city of San Antonio?”
Williams emphasizes the timeline: The idea came about before the country was swept with belated and often performative media concern around the police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. She questions the authenticity of the apparent sudden awareness.
“I point out the date of when I founded The Art of Four because I had already noticed the void. These artists have always been Black, and they’ve always been talented and they’ve always been here — before all the tragedies. It should have been something that was noticed then, before everything that had happened,” she says.
The Art of Four began as named, with four Black artists that Williams knew personally. It has since grown to 15, all of whom Williams helps promote. The work of the collective centers around the Black cultural experience, using media from the permanent (visual, literature) to the ephemeral (theater, dance, and more). While the gallery focuses on supporting this group, Williams is open to representing all kinds of creators.
The youngest artist in the current Art of Four program is 19; the oldest is 70. Some are internationally based. Williams, an art lover with an events business and no previous experience in the arts, is living proof of what can be accomplished by centering on less-heard voices. She has lived in San Antonio for four decades and wants to hold the city to the standard it has created for itself in promoting its relative diversity.
“Diversity is one thing, but if there’s no inclusion, then diversity doesn’t really matter,” she says. “I want to hold true inclusion. And hopefully, the city of San Antonio will follow suit.”
Despite William’s skepticism, partnerships with larger institutions have impressed her with their commitment. Texas A&M University at San Antonio engaged The Art of Four for a showing in its Science & Technology Building, and will hold a reception for the collective on Wednesday, September 29. The group was also selected by Big Medium, a contemporary arts organization in Austin, for its 2021 Texas Biennial.
“The eye of the beholder,” in the gallery’s case, still refers to beauty as the original idiom, but it gives more weight to the audience. It’s not about redefining beauty, but bringing it to the people who need to see it. Williams has taken to calling her artists “ambassadors,” recognizing their active community work and hoping others can see them as allies, more than just inspiration. The Art of Four’s mentorship program gives this idea more reach, while the new open-plan guest studio at the gallery offers a venue for collaborative work.
“We definitely have very talented artists, but we also have very talented Black artists,” she says. “When the day comes that I can just say, ‘artists,’ I will be very proud and happy, hoping that I had some hand in that.”
In the Eye of the Beholder Art Gallery & Studio (1917 N. New Braunfels Ave.) will host a public opening on Sunday, September 19 from noon-4 pm. The space includes a large gallery, studio, and outdoor courtyard to be used for events. Everyone entering the gallery must provide proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test result.