From Sweet Briar to Europe to Texas: The success story behind Céleste Wackenhut’s French & Michigan

Posted on December 18, 2018 by Janika Carey

Celeste Wackenhut F&M Céleste Wackenhut at a presentation for an education program during the F&M exhibition “Lisa Qualls: A Collection of Silence” (2015)

Arts and humanities majors often fight the misconception that their degrees don’t prepare them for the real world, or a “real job.” Like so many Sweet Briar graduates, Céleste Wackenhut ’08 proves that stereotype wrong. As curator and co-owner at San Antonio’s cutting-edge French & Michigan, a hybrid space founded in the research of art and design, Wackenhut has established herself in the city’s art scene.

The company’s purpose is twofold: Wackenhut runs F&M Projects, a nonprofit arts organization, while her husband, Billy Lambert, is in charge of F&M Workshop, a design and fabrication practice. According to F&M’s website, the company started as a “small, nameless design studio” at a house in San Antonio’s Southtown neighborhood, an area known to the local art community as “the Compound.” In 2012, the studio moved into a Spanish Mission-style building on the corner of French Street and Michigan Avenue in the Beacon Hill neighborhood. And just like that, it had a name. One year later, the studio expanded and opened French & Michigan Gallery.

French& Michigan French & Michigan’s first location in San Antonio’s Beacon Hill neighborhood

Today, F&M is renovating a new building back in Southtown. They now carry an eclectic portfolio, from design and fabrication services on the F&M Workshop side to exhibitions and a residency program on the F&M Projects side. Wackenhut’s isn’t your typical art space: Instead of starting with the display and creating a catalogue to accompany the show, French & Michigan focuses on the printed piece first.

“As a nonprofit, our primary effort is a publication program where we work with researchers and writers to create catalogues of an artist’s work,” Wackenhut explains. “I manage the artist applications, work with a curatorial panel to select artists, collaborate with the artists selected, identify and work with writers, designers and printers for the publications, and organize the resulting book releases and exhibitions.”

Wackenhut also manages some smaller programs for the organization, and she takes care of the nonprofit’s general operations, finances and fundraising. Over the years, F&M’s staff has ranged between two and 12, so she’s used to wearing a lot of hats.

Exhibit at F&M Exhibition for “Cornelia White Swann: Fugitive Color I” (2015) with an F&M Workshop bench

How did she get here? That’s an easy one for Wackenhut.

“Certainly the answer to this is Sweet Briar College and its faculty. I believe that my professors were uniquely positioned to identify my interests and strengths and lead me to opportunities that made sense for me,” says the former art history and Italian studies double major, who also completed an Arts Management Certificate. “While my work experiences after graduating provided great insight and continued education, my current work all leads back to Sweet Briar and the domino effect it can have on your life.”

Wackenhut fell in love with Sweet Briar long before she could attend — in 1994.

“Both my sisters went to Sweet Briar, Anne-Claire Wackenhut Kasten, Class of 1998, and Sophie Wackenhut Szymanski, Class of 2002,” Wackenhut recalls. “Our mom was a French exchange student at Mount Holyoke and encouraged Anne-Claire to look at all-women’s colleges. They were driving up the East Coast looking at schools. After a stormy drive and a hard time finding shelter due to power outages in the area, the visit at Sweet Briar under the sun the following morning had been enchanting. Anne-Claire toured the campus and had an impromptu interview with the dean. She was convinced.

“I remember the first time I visited SBC was for Parents’ Weekend her freshman year in 1994. I was in the second grade. We pulled through the gate and drove through SBC’s iconic drive and I literally said, ‘This is where I’m going.’ My parents still laugh at the memory. I did apply to other colleges my senior year but knew it had to be SBC in the end.”

Graduation 2008 Sweet Briar Céleste’s sisters Anne-Claire ’98 (left) and Sophie ’02 make final adjustments to her commencement attire before graduation in 2008.

While at Sweet Briar, Wackenhut took advantage of every opportunity that came her way: She studied abroad during her junior year in Urbino, Italy. She worked as an art history research assistant and as a gallery guard. She was involved in the Academic Affairs Committee and sat on the Advisory Council, serving as the modern languages student representative.

“As a result of being part of the arts management program, I received many internship opportunities, including working at [the nearby] Virginia Center for the Creative Arts,” she says.

Italy Céleste and Billy at the 2018 wedding of a friend Céleste studied with during her junior year abroad in Urbino, Italy

“During an internship, I was asked to interview for a summer position at VCCA and was able to begin working even before graduation day. This experience and perspective on artists and art organizations led to an internship at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, Italy, and then to graduate school at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.”

And Wackenhut’s drive didn’t stop in grad school. During the 12 months it took to earn her master’s (in modern art: history, curating and criticism), she landed an internship at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, and while writing her thesis, she began applying for jobs and found a post-graduate 10-month internship at McNay Art Museum in San Antonio.

“I was hoping it would be my last internship and my last temporary post,” Wackenhut admits. And her diligence was rewarded. “At the end of my 10 months, they hired me for a new position as curatorial/communications assistant.”

Wackenhut spent three years at McNay before starting French & Michigan. Now in her early 30s, she’s built a visionary, thriving nonprofit that enriches her community and supports up-and-coming artists. With so much passion, it’s no surprise that pretty much every part of her life has to do with the arts. She’s also an independent curator and has been on the board of directors for the Sweet Briar College Friends of Art since 2016. Currently, she serves as the board’s vice president.

“I feel lucky to have been nominated and to be able to use my professional experience and interests to give back to Sweet Briar in this capacity,” Wackenhut says.

F&M dinner A dinner in 2018 to benefit the publication program in F&M’s new space

And she means it. In spring 2018, she initiated the Friends of Art’s VCCA summer internship for other graduating seniors — inspired by her own experience as an intern and admissions assistant at the VCCA. This fall, she served as guest curator for Sweet Briar’s show “La Jaula de Oro.”

“Sweet Briar gave me the ability to lead and participate in all areas of my life,” Wackenhut explains. “I was astonished to sit in meetings at my first jobs and observe colleagues who didn’t know how to speak up. Being at a college — a small environment where every leadership position is occupied by a woman — taught me to speak, to ask questions, to share ideas and thoughts. This certainly has influenced my life, both professionally and personally. SBC taught me the benefits of being engaged and seeking out research to become informed as events come up in life.”

That knack for research might come in handy in 2019.

“My husband and I are expecting our first child early next year, so our spare time is spent wrapping our heads around this next phase of our life,” Wackenhut says.

We love checking in with our recent grads to see what they’re up to! This is the fourth in a series of profiles featuring Sweet Briar’s young alumnae across various disciplines and job fields.