Carolina Ponce de León: Executive Director, Galería de la Raza,|
San Francisco, U.S.A.
Susana Bautista: former Editorial Director, LatinArt.com
LatinArt: Before holding your current position as Executive Director of Galería de la Raza in San Francisco, you were curator for El Museo del Barrio in New York. This was at a time when the museum was trying to shed its image as a predominantly Puerto Rican art center by organizing more exhibitions of Latin American artists from South America. Can you briefly describe that process of change that you were instrumental in developing at El Museo del Barrio?
Carolina: When I became curator at El Museo (1996 -1998), my main goal was to further El Museo's new "Latin American" mission. Since I had recently moved to New York City from Colombia, I was still unaware of the complexities of U.S. cultural politics. That quickly changed. On one hand, many of my Latin American colleagues objected to El Museo's Latino-specific mandate - they tended to consider it a cultural ghetto too closely tied to its grassroots origin and to "community" art. On the other hand, I was also confronted with the apprehension that New York Latino/a artists had for the "privileged" attention given to Latin American artists. This obviously became a conceptual and political minefield because of the conflicting understanding of "art" and "identity" held by Latino/a artists north and south of the U.S. border. Latin American art is more likely to be fashioned by the formal and conceptual models of the "international avant-garde" than by the discourse of identity politics that often frame U.S. Latino art. The main issue is that Latin American art's relation to dominant culture and colonial relations as well as to issues regarding class, race and ethnicity is perceived in a very different light than U.S. Latino/a art.
So with this in mind, one of my first goals was to design an exhibition program that could intersect these separate worlds in creative and productive ways and to close this conceptual gap. This implied acknowledging and embracing the Latino cultural Diaspora and the cultural politics in which it's involved, and to go beyond the preconceived assumption that there is an underlying class distinction between Latino/a and Latin American art. So thinking strategically, I established three exhibition series that would interweave different needs and goals and present alternately U.S. Latino/a and Latin American artists. One series was called Focus, a solo exhibition series featuring mid- and advanced-career artists whose main goal was to assert "non-Eurocentric" art into historical paradigms, to advance scholarship, and bring visibility to artists under-recognized by the "international" art world, yet were highly respected within Latin American or U.S. Latino art circles. The second series, Tandem, attempted to pair a U.S. Latino/a or Latin American artist with a non-Latino/a. The goal was to establish an artistic dialogue, to frame Latino and Latin American art within artistic rather than anthropological terms, to broaden the terms within which a Latino art center can understand its "cultural specificity," and eventually to bring a contemporary art audience to El Museo. Two exhibitions I had hoped to present, one pairing Kara Walker and José Bedia, and a second pairing Rosangela Renno and Shirin Neshat, unfortunately never took place, and the program was dropped after I left El Museo. The third series was called S-Files, an annual group show featuring New York-based emerging Latino/a and Latin American artists. This very festive series was an indirect means to create an inclusive Latino/Latin American program and context. It also attempted to revitalize El Museo with the energy of a new artistic community. This is the only series that El Museo has continued in the present.