Our first day in Los Angeles presented us with the opportunity to visit the Getty Research Institute, an institution whose main ambition is furthering the research, knowledge, and understanding of our visual culture. The institute itself is housed in a spectacular facility designed by architect Richard Meier, who local Dallasites may recognize as the same architect who designed the Rachofsky House.
We attended a conference at the institute titled “Between Theory and Practice: Rethinking Latin American Art in the 21st Century,” which focused on issues relevant to the relationship between American and Latin American museums and curators, the role of the museum in our current society, and the role of Latin American art in both the United States and abroad. There were several topics of interest, and while many of the ideas presented were not necessarily new, the propositions raised in regards to putting these ideas into practice were of particular interest.
While all of the presenters and participants brought important issues and information to the table, there were a few who stood out. Those curators were Gustavo Buntinx of the Micromuseo in Lima, Peru, Alma Ruiz of the Museum of Contemporary Arts in Los Angeles, and last but certainly not least Guillermo Santamarina, an independent curator from Mexico City.
The “Latin American” label
Alma Ruiz’s presentation touched on the issue of Latin American art, the effect that the “Latin American” label has on artists’ careers, and methods that artists utilize to embed themselves in conversations regarding contemporary art. Ruiz suggests that there are certain assumptions and expectations that curators, historians, collectors, and audiences have when they consider artists who have been dubbed or are self-described as Latin American artists.
She states that these artists, some of whom dealt with certain aspects of their identity as Latin Americans, had to utilize techniques in the way they approached their art making to subvert the associations attached to the Latin American label, while still keeping with their initial intention or concept. By removing elements of their work that have been socially stereotyped as Latin American, the artists are refusing audiences the opportunity to box their work into a very specific context, and forcing them to view and consider the work within the framing of contemporary art as a whole.
The role of the museum
Gustavo Buntinx presented on a very important issue that has been part of a dialog among museums and artists for quite some time now: the accessibility, viability, and purpose of the art museum. Complemented by other presenters in regards to issues of audience attendance at museums, the issue of limited resources and accessibility, Buntinx brings up important questions regarding the role of museums and their relevance to the audiences they are attempting to reach.
Buntinx approached the podium with a candor that only rivaled his energetic presence and passionate declarations, calling for some contemplation and consideration of their audiences. Buntinx points at the politics of the museum, the question of patronage and the control these patrons exercise over the running of museums, the alienation that occurs within populations who can’t access museums due to circumstances that are out of their control, and a call for a sincere contemplation of the relevance of the museum in regard to audiences that have proven difficult to reach – a huge population that composes a majority in relation to those who do attend museums on a regular basis and typically members of the lower- to lower-middle class. Some of the ideas that he presents relate to the continual formations of alternative spaces for the viewing of art and a re-contextualizing of what we consider a museum; suggesting we break the current paradigms of the museum and art academy.
New approach of art making
Last but certainly not least was the presentation by independent curator Guillermo Santamarina. Santamarina began his presentation by praising the organizers and participants of the conference and warning them that what he had to say may not appeal to their ideas as curators and museum professionals. In breaking rank with members of his own professions, Santamarina essentially argued that the museum has become an irrelevant institution, with low attendance levels and approaches in exhibition that focus more on the intellectual and social elite without addressing the real-life concerns of its audiences and society’s current state in regard to the environment, class struggles, and realities of war.
He points at a new trend among artists whose practice falls under a new approach of art making, currently referred to as Relational Aesthetics; an approach that takes into account the whole of human relationships and their social contexts, rather than focusing on private and independent spaces that come attached to limitations for artists, audiences, and young curators, ever-growing focus on capital, and at times a disconnected or irrelevant dissemination of cultural production.
Essentially, Santamarina asks a questions that we as artists very seldom ask ourselves:
What exactly are you waiting for?
While it’s not explicitly stated within art academies, we as artists are trained as independent practitioners in our chosen media. We are then encouraged to fill up our resume with “relevant” lines by showing in galleries within our communities. There’s only one problem. There is an oversaturation of curators without spaces to organize their exhibitions, artists without spaces to show their work, and potential audiences whose lack of accessibility or whose assumptions of museums as venues for the elite keep them away from traditional institutions.
What exactly are we waiting for? Why don’t we organize exhibitions within communities in consideration to their potential interests or needs? Why don’t we utilize the creative thought processes that we learn through our mediums to not only point at problems and issues affecting society, but also to provide viable solutions to those problems? Why are we waiting for affirmation from institutions who cater to their donors, other museums, and intellectuals first before considering audiences who may not completely understand the highly theoretical underbellies of art being produced today?
I am not suggesting at all that museums don’t have their purpose. On a personal note, I know I have benefited greatly as an artist from having access to museums. For artists, curators, and historians, the museum provides a rich source of information and works to examine when concerned with technical and theoretical themes and approaches, and is an important source for those who do have a sincere interest and the ability to look at the art within the museum walls.
But the reality still is that not everyone has access to those walls, and while we wait we should all be encouraged to construct our own museums, produce our own exhibitions, establish audiences; and while we are it, we must utilize our abilities to directly affect the lives of these audiences. It’s not too much to ask for. We want to be relevant as artists but don’t want to acknowledge the relevance of our audiences or society.
An artist friend stated once that his concern was that there would be an understanding of his work among his art colleagues and that he couldn’t concern himself with a greater audience, adding that the responsibility of society and changes to it should not necessarily rest on him as an artist. Our hermit-like behavior as artists is the reason museums have become less and less relevant, why politicians are given solid ground to attack arts funding, why curators have now become the stars and artists simply the producers. What’s our next step as artists? Will we continue to sit in our studios without considering the intense realities we are living in today? Or will we participate in the continuing formation of our society in a more direct fashion, presenting ideas and approaches from a creative or artistic perspective?