The State of Latin American Art

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Dr Mari Carmen Ramirez, Wortham Curator of Latin American Art and Director, International Center for the Arts of the Americas at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, discusses Latin American Art at the Aspen Ideas Festival
 
What follows are my notes based on a talk given by Dr. Mari Carmen Ramirez at the Aspen Ideas Festival, July 10, 2010:
 
The ICAA:
The International Center for Arts of the Americas (ICAA) at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston is a unique resource center for the study of 20th Century Latin American and Latino Art. Established in 2001, its mission is to transform perceptions of Latin American and Latino Art and open new avenues of intercultural dialogue and exchange. The ICAA's signature initiative is the Documents of 20th Century Latin American and Latino Art: A Digital Archive and Publications Project whose web-based digital archive - which is scheduled to launch in the Fall of 2011 - will provide free universal access to key writings by artists, artistic movements, critics, and curators from Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean, and the United States.
 
The Problem:
Much of Latin American and Latino Art of the 20th century is poorly documented. The market, particularly the international market, for much of the work was not developed until relatively recently. For example, Sotheby's only created a category for Latin American Art in 1979 and there is no category or mainstream market for Latino art. An accessible resource that taps into the intellectual foundations of this art is needed.
 
The ICAA at Houston is now ten years old.
 
Our principal goals are to:

Recover and digitally publish primary and critical documents relevant to Latin American and Latino art of the 20th Century.
 
Provide open access to these documents for all those interested in 20th century Latin American and Latino Art.
 
Publish selections of these documents in the form of thematic anthologies that will complement the digital archive.
 
Establish a dynamic digital archive and research program devoted to providing a sound basis of scholarship for this work.
 
Recovery:
As part of our efforts we have initiated a systematic effort to recover original documents relevant to Latin American and Latino Art of the 20th century. This effort is encompassed by the ICAA's Documents Project. These include key documents from the artist's own papers and collections as well as contemporaneous press and art criticism. Our work is made difficult by a precarious infrastructure in many of the countries, poor distribution and lack of policies aimed at preserving books, archival material, and key documents.
 
Curate:
To address these and other issues we have created a "think tank" comprised of scholars and experts on the art produced along this cultural axis who generously contribute their expertise and are helping the ICAA further our goal to preserve and make accessible documents that will change perceptions of Latin American and Latino art. To date, the Center has published 11 books and catalogs and held 4 major international symposia.
 
Access:
We have established regional centers for the study of Latin American Art in 10 cities that include: Buenos Aires (Argentina), Santiago/Valparaiso (Chile), São Paulo (Brazil), Lima (Peru), Caracas (Venezuela), Bogotá (Colombia), Mexico City, Los Angeles, South Bend (Indiana), and Houston. The project also has research affiliates in San Juan (Puerto Rico), Miami, and New York. In each location we recover documents, scan and digitize them, catalogue and annotate them. Beginning in Fall 2011, we will make them all publicly available, free of charge, in the project's specially designed Website. Through this monumental undertaking, we are creating a "multinational super information highway."
 
This data is intended to provide a sound intellectual foundation for the long-term growth and development of the field of Latin American and Latino art. Our hope is that this archive will help fill gaps in the worldwide knowledge and appreciation of this art as well provide the necessary research tools for scholars, students, collectors, museum and arts professional, and anyone else interested in this art.
 
Scholarship:
At present we have over 100 researchers distributed amongst the ten project sites. Our headquarters are in Houston. The project's team members include senior and junior art historians, researchers, librarians, IT specialists, editors, translators, and administrators. We are governed by a 17-member Editorial Board and a 10-member steering committee. By the time we launch the project's website in Fall 2011 we will have a collection of over 10,000 critical document and more than 55,000 related images. We are committed to continue to expand this archive which, in theory at least, is limitless.
 
By art world standards, in which the perceived glamor resides in promoting artists and organizing exhibitions, the often tedious work of archiving and documenting is hardly enticing. The ICAA's work, in particular, is mostly behind the scenes and has an assembly line character. However, it fulfills the indispensable role of adding the crucial information and context to exhibitions and publications that enable a deeper appreciation of the art presented.
 
Several illustrations of the type of documents collected were shown in photos. These include photos artists at work, artists' notes, contemporary newspaper reviews, and gallery handouts.
 
Examples:
The profusely illustrated documents by Caracas' radical collective El Techo de la Ballena
-Luis Felipe Noé's art criticism of the 1950s (Argentina)
- Brazil's "Ruptura Manifesto"  
-Documentation of a series of debates between Antonio Berni and  David Alfaro Siqueiros in Argentina during 1933
- The precursory responses to a survey published in Havana's Revista de avance from 1927 to 1929 that debated the existence and definition of the concept of Latin American  art  
-The critical work of the Guatemala-born, Mexico City-based artist, Carlos Mérida that illuminates the work of other artists at a time when there was little established art criticism of their work.
-The recipes for colors and tonalities developed by Hélio Oiticica, the Brazilian avant-garde artist, for his Grand Nucleus installation (1960-68)
 
In 2011 we will launch the ICAA digital archive. The archive will be a free online resource for all. Simultaneous to the launching of the site, the ICAA will publish the first volume in the parallel Critical Documents of Latin American and Latino Art book series, 13 thematic anthologies that will provide English translations for documents from the online resource. Our hope is that the web-based archive and the book series will provide a visible space of Latin American Art in the United States and elsewhere and will transmit a rich legacy of knowledge to future generations.
 
Questions from the audience.
 
Q: Have we transcended the need for Latin American Specialists?  
MCR: Absolutely not. Latin American Art is now mainstream yet there are still huge gaps in our understanding of the thousands of artists and movements at work in the more than twenty countries that make up the region throughout the 20th century. There is a lot of information out there about the contemporary manifestations of this art  but very little serious historical scholarship. The field has grown horizontally yet lacks depth. This is what the ICAA's Documents Project is trying to address. We need a high degree of scholarship to support the understanding and appreciation of Latin American and Latino art in both its historical and contemporary manifestations.
 
Promoters of the global view argue that Latin American art is now global, yet we need to bear in mind that all art is both local and global. We cannot side-step the local and what it implies in terms of the contextual factors affecting the emergence and development of a particular form of art. Latin American art is no exception.
 
What is really at stake behind the "global" position  is a market-driven, economic process that has transformed the status of Latin American art in contemporary artistic circuits. Globalization has turned Latin American art into a strategic economic resource. Over the last 10-15 year this art has become a favorite commodity in the current market, providing additional justification for careful scholarship and documentation. Curiously, all this attention has created a movement to re-regionalize, a tendency which calls for expert knowledge such as the one that the ICAA is trying to provide.
 
A persistent issue in the field is that Latin American art has traditionally been considered to be derivative. Those of us working in this field over the last three decades have set out to prove that this is not the case. Since the early 20th century, Latin American artists have engaged in original research. They have made important theoretical contributions to art and aesthetics and have produced forms of art that in many cases have anticipated important developments in Europe and the United States. To understand these developments we need to get roots of this art and understand its development in depth. This can only be done through key writings and other documentation that shed light on the intellectual process that nurtured the art. This is the ultimate goal of the ICAA Documents project.
 
Q: What is Latin American Art and what is Latino Art? How do they differ?
MCR: Latin American Art is an operational term used to describe art actually made in the more than twenty countries that make up Latin America and that encompass Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean. Latino art refers to the work of artists of Latin American origin (usually by birth, family ties, or education) who work primarily in the United States.
 
Q: Doesn't the term Latino Art unfairly segregate artists? After all do we call Pollock a Polish-American Artist or de Kooning a Dutch-American artist? What do we call artists of Latin American origin who were born in the US?
MCR: I do not believe that the term Latin American or Latino Art is segregating as we use it.  As I have said, this is another pressing reason why we need to document this work and also, I believe, to study this art in the social milieu in which it arose, either in Latin America or the United States. We do want to understand the social context of the work. We do want to examine patterns of inversion or assimilation of received artistic tenets.
We call artists of Latin American origin living in the United States "Latinos." This is a political term that signals the largest ethnic majority in the United States at present. The use of this term does not segregate these artists, instead it brings attention upon their roots and cultural heritage. As an ascendant minority, these artists need legitimization. We do have Museums of African American Art in the United States and there is a National Museum of Women's Art. However, I believe Latinos are best served by displaying their art next to the art of other groups, particularly North American, European, and even Asian artists.

Q:
Does your center also include architecture as art? Are you collecting original drawings by Latin American architects as does MOMA for example?
MCR: No. At the moment our collection does not include architecture.
 
Q: Will you extend your collection and research to Colonial Art of Latin America?
MCR: We may extend our collection to include colonial art, but have no plans at present to expand our research and documentation work in this area. Other institutions such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and the Denver Art Museum have established programs dedicated to Colonial Art. We gain by dividing the effort.
 
Q: And Chicano Art?
MCR: Both our research and our collection include "Chicano Art" (the art of  Mexican-Americans, mostly  living in California, Texas and the Southwest). To that effect, we have partnered with other research centers devoted to Chicano Art, such as UCLA's Chicano Studies Research Center and the University of Notre Dame's Institute for Latino Studies.
 
Q: And Puerto Rican Art?
MCR: It is interesting that both Chicano and Puerto Rican art in the United States form an important part of the Civil Rights legacy and dialog. The Documents Project has actively collected documentation on both island-based Puerto Rican art as well as Nuyorican art in the United States through partnerships and researchers ceded at the University of Puerto Rico's museum in San Juan and Hunter College's Center for Puerto Rican Studies in New York City, respectively.

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William Haseltine is a former professor at Harvard Medical School, where he researched cancer and HIV/AIDS. He is the founder of Human Genome Sciences, where he served as chairman and CEO, and the president of the William A Haseltine Foundation for Medical Sciences and the Arts. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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