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Curatorial Practices
Interview with Diana C. du Pont, Curator of Modern & Contemporary Art, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, California.
by Bill Kelley Jr.

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BK: The Santa Barbara Museum of Art recently acquired the Siqueiros mural, Portrait of Mexico Today. Siqueiros painted this work in the home of filmmaker Dudley Murphy while he was a political refugee in Los Angeles in 1932. This mural is one of three he painted during that period and is the only one to survive intact. How important was it for the Museum to acquire this work, especially considering Santa Barbara, not to mention southern California, has a long tradition of mural painting?

DD: It was always important to the Museum, but it is nice, in retrospect, to hear people in the community say that this was a milestone for this Museum and for Santa Barbara. The mural is situated in front of our Museum entrance on a street with a lot of pedestrian traffic so people can always see it. To see people appreciating the mural and reading the text and understanding why it was important to bring this artistic landmark out of a private home and into a public space is very gratifying. It's serving the community, and I believe that is what Siqueiros would have wanted.

BK: What was the first motivation to acquire the work and later what was the first step taken to make it happen? It must have been a Herculean task considering it was installed in someone's backyard?

DD: It went through several chapters and was five years in the making. We did a show called Point/Counterpoint: Two views of Twentieth-Century Latin American Art (1996), then we did the Marí­a Izquierdo show from The Americas Society, followed by the Siqueiros exhibition from MUNAL, organized by Olivier Debroise and James Oles - an absolutely fantastic show! It was at this time that people started to think, "Ok, they're showing some interest in this area."

The first contact was from an individual asking if we would like to take a look at the mural. At the time, we were working on the acquisition of a major Torres-Garcí­a painting (Composition, 1932), and after successfully following that through, we decided to focus on the mural. When I drove down to see it for the first time, it was an instantaneous recognition that this was something of enormous value and that we needed to see what we could do to bring it to Santa Barbara, if at all possible.

The next step was to bring the Museum director at the time, Robert Frankel, to see it, which we did, and his appreciation was also instantaneous. For a curator, that's ideal because you need that collective energy to support the whole process, because it took a lot of work to make this happen. As they say, "It's 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration." We later began a viability study that took about a year and brought together a world- class group of conservators and gave them no restrictions in figuring out the best way to possibly move the work. We wanted to consider all the options and all the ramifications. This mural was especially delicate, because, unlike a traditional fresco where the paint is sealed into the wet plaster and becomes part of the drying plaster, this painting is on cement, so the pigment is lying on the surface, and, hence, more fragile. In the end, it turned out that the best way was to move it intact, meaning moving the entire building in which the mural was housed. Once we knew that, we had two angels come forward to say that they would pay for the entire conservation project and then the owners of the mural, realizing the enormous commitment we were undertaking, donated the work to the Museum. It was a perfect marriage of a donor and museum. At that point we sought the help of the city and county of Santa Barbara and worked through the thorough review process to see how it might impact the city, since we are in a historic district and the mural would be placed in the front of our Museum where people could see it. We had the community behind us through this very long process and it was important that we had the funding necessary to complete the job and not cut corners.

There were two great moments in getting the mural up here. One was watching the intact building, with the artwork inside, riding along Sunset Boulevard to the 405 Freeway in Los Angeles. I thought that was such a great moment! The second was after the mural arrived in Santa Barbara, when the conservators removed the protection and then turned to me to say that there was no visible damage - that this "was a success!" As a curator, I knew we were taking a calculated risk, and so hearing this was music to my ears! I say this, because we had so thoroughly studied the situation and had worked so hard to minimize any negative outcome that we were assured and convinced that nothing would happen, but it's always wonderful to have all the pieces fall into place as you planned them. What drove us was our thorough preparation and our belief in the cause of bringing this work to the public forum.

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