Interviews

A Texas Museum Helps Pioneer an Appreciation for Latin American Art

Abstract , 1953, by Carlos Merida was recently gifted to the Blanton Museum in Austin (all images courtesy of the Blanton Museum)
Carlos Merida, “Abstract” (1953) was recently gifted to the Blanton Museum in Austin, © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SOMAAP, Mexico City (all images courtesy of the Blanton Museum)

Latin American art has become fashionable these days. As the global art market pushes works from the region into the spotlight, private collectors, galleries, art fairs, and museums like the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York and the Tate Modern in London have raced to collect and exhibit work by Latin American artists, cashing in on the new market while also rectifying the oversights of the past. 

Composição I [Composition I], 1950, by Brazilian artist  Lothar Charoux
Brazilian artist Lothar Charoux, “Composição I [Composition I]” (1950)

This trend has a pioneer in a small institution in Texas. More than 50 years ago, the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas at Austin began building its collection of Latin American art, which now includes nearly 2,000 works representing about 600 artists. In 1988, it even became the first museum to ever establish a curatorship of Latin American art.

Recently, the Blanton was gifted 120 modern and contemporary Latin American artworks (which will go on display there later this month), as well as a $1 million endowment contribution for the Latin America curator position. Hyperallergic spoke with Beverly Adams, who took over the post in January, about the Blanton’s history and future as a center for Latin American art.

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Laura Mallonee: How has the Blanton developed its emphasis on Latin American art?

The Blanton Museum of Art (photo courtesy the museum)
The Blanton Museum of Art (photo courtesy the museum)

Beverly Adams: The Blanton’s founding director, Donald Goodall, started collecting and exhibiting Latin American art in the 1960s and really was a pioneer. He brought artists and critics to the University to participate in programs and made the museum an important center for the field.

LM: Outside the Blanton, what is the landscape for Latin American art like in Austin? 

BA: UT Austin founded the first graduate program in Latin American art history in the country, and has endowed a professorship, as well as the Center for Latin American Visual Studies (CLAVIS), to further develop scholarship in the field. Considering these strengths and other great campus resources, especially the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection, the Teresa Lozano Long Institute for Latin American Studies, and the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, you would be hard pressed to find a greater concentration of material and minds focused on Latin America anywhere in the world.

LA: How does the recent donation complement the Blanton’s collection?

BA: The majority of the works from the Tates’ gift are works by modern masters, like Wifredo Lam, Pedro Figari, Joaquín Torres-García, Armando Reverón, Rufino Tamayo, and Carlos Mérida. There are also many significant examples of Argentinean and Brazilian Concrete art from the 1940s and 1950s.

This kind of work is notable on its own, but it is especially important for our collection because the Blanton, although it started collecting Latin American art in the 1960s, never actively collected historical works. The institution began with contemporary art — mostly painting from South America in the 1960s — and continues to this day focus on the recent art from the region. The historical gems from Tate collection will function as an important anchor and background to the Blanton’s contemporary holdings.

LA: Moving forward, how is the Blanton poised to contribute a deeper understanding to the study of Latin American art?

BA: Although there is greater knowledge and understanding of the region, there is still a great need for more scholarship. Many artists and ideas still desperately need to be researched and interpreted, and they are not necessarily the same ones that have occupied the market or the larger institutions. Many artists have still not been recognized.

As a university museum, the Blanton is in a unique position to take chances and try things that would not necessarily work for other institutions. University art museums are important sites for object-based research and teaching, but they also have the potential to be dynamic centers for creative interdisciplinary exchanges. Currently the mainstream institutions in the US with Latin American departments are focused on somewhat similar pursuits, but not paying attention to the depth and breadth of the field both in terms of period and geography.

One of my first priorities will be to look hard at the Blanton’s collection and identify where it can distinguish itself from other collecting institutions, both private and public, in what is now a fiercely competitive field. The possibilities of the Blanton once again changing the way the world looks at and thinks about art from Latin America are enormous.

LM: Do you have any thoughts about the labeling issue of “Latin American art” as a distinct category and the controversies it has provoked?

BA: The problematic yet unavoidable category “Latin American art” has been part of a much longer debate over the course of twentieth century. There was even a symposium held at the New School in 1966 that asked the question, “Is there such a thing as Latin American art?” This was a reaction to the tendency (which continued for decades after the debate) to lump all art from Latin America together, make it separate from and unequal to the art produced in the centers of power, and reinforce stereotypes. A famous case was an exhibition in 1987 called Art of the Fantastic, which was widely criticized for treating all art from the region as surrealist. Given the development of scholarship and more nuanced exhibitions since the 1990s, this type of general survey seems to be losing favor. As with artists from anywhere, there are many ways to look at their work. Sometimes geographic context is important to consider, and other times one might want to focus on other considerations tied to concept, material, period, etc.

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