Art museums in Latin America
Art museums in Latin America
- Abigail Winograd
Museums have played a central role in the cultural life of Latin American countries from independence to the present. Art museums in particular have featured prominently in civic, nation-building discourse throughout the region, with the opening of such museums often occurring concurrently with major economic and political changes. Museums, wherever they were founded, helped shape collective and social understanding; they were the institutions par excellence in which hegemonic cultural realities could be defined and reflected.
1. Creating a usable past: New museums for new republics in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
In the 19th century, countries across the Americas gained their independence from European colonial powers. The newly founded republics urgently felt the need to distance themselves from their colonial pasts and endeavored to establish and construct new national identities. Latin American artists and governments began a concerted effort to celebrate their independence through arts and culture. Both paintings (the preferred form) and cultural institutions aimed to create and promote a usable past: a history replete with heroes, founding myths, and “indigenous” symbols of patriotism. These founding myths favored large-scale history paintings, portraits of liberators, and romantic landscapes, housed in museums built by local elites and governments who understood cultural institutions (art museums as well as encyclopedic museums) to be ideal locations to enshrine the project of a cohesive national identity.
And so newly built national museums opened their doors to an emerging middle-class audience across the Americas, including but not limited to the Museo Nacional de Colombia in Bogotá (1823), the Museo Nacional in Montevideo (1872), the Museo Nacional de Pinturas in Santiago (1880), and the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Buenos Aires (1895). This trend continued in the beginning of the 20th century with the founding of national museums such as the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (now the Museo Nacional de Artes Visuales) in Montevideo (1911), the Museo de Bellas Artes in Caracas (1913), the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Havana (1913), the Museu Nacional de Belas Artes in Rio de Janeiro (1937), and the Museo de Artes Plásticas in Mexico City (1934).
The aesthetic and curatorial choices made by national museums reflected local and/or governmental cultural values. The urban elites who promoted, funded, and donated their collections to newly established museums considered European culture to be synonymous with good taste, a predilection further cultivated during Latin American versions of the European Grand Tour. Wherever they were built, museums became important meeting places, educational tools, and topics of discussion for artists and emerging avant-gardes.
2. Modern museums for modern nations: The postwar museum boom.
In the years following World War II, many Latin American governments embraced developmentalism as policy. The result, particularly in resource-rich South American countries like Argentina, Brazil, and Venezuela, were massive postwar economic booms that resulted in rapid urbanization, the expansion of the middle class, and investment in public works. As the push to develop and modernize extended to the cultural sphere, dozens of museums opened from the late 1940s through the 1970s, often occupying purpose-built structures designed by Modernist architects. They include the Museu de Arte Contemporáneo in Santiago (1946), the Museu de Arte in São Paulo (1947), the Museu de Arte Moderna in São Paulo (1948), the Museu de Arte Moderna in Rio de Janeiro (1948), the Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico Ciy (1953), the Museo de Arte Moderno in Buenos Aires (1956), and the Museo de Arte Moderno in Bogotá (1962). At the same time biennials such as the Bienal de São Paulo (the first edition of which opened in 1951 under the auspices of the Museu de Arte Moderna, São Paulo; see Art biennials in Latin America), non-collecting institutions such as the Instituto Torcuato di Tella in Buenos Aires (founded in 1958), galleries like Galería de Arte Contemporaneo and Estudio Actual in Caracas, as well as regional museums outside of the capital cities proliferated. As had been the case in the preceding century, the founders of these new institutions sought to counter the notion of their respective countries as cultural backwaters by touting their urbanity and sophistication (i.e. their “modernity”). Much like their 19th-century predecessors, finally, museums of modern art were modeled closely on European and North American models and aesthetics, embracing abstraction as the dominant language of internationally relevant modern art.
It should be noted that simultaneous with the establishment of museums of modern art, Latin America became an important front in the Cultural Cold War. Cultural institutions became important points of connection between international artists but also international political interests. Fearing the spread of communism, the American government and cultural institutions in the United States used art as a diplomatic tool to publicize the positive value of democracy and its economic pendant, a market economy. International actors advocated abstraction, a form deemed synonymous with individuality and self-expression, over figuration, a style corrupted by its association, at the time, with Soviet socialist realism, propaganda, and Fascism. In Brazil, for example, Nelson Rockefeller, board member and donor to the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York and Undersecretary for Inter-American Affairs, was instrumental in the establishment of the museums of modern art in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. He also facilitated touring exhibitions of works from MOMA’s collection across Latin America. Despite this external support or influence, the new museums were nevertheless deeply rooted in the communities they served, facilitated the flourishing of local artistic discourse, and were supported by local artists and patrons.
3. From private collection to public museum: New spaces for the 20th and 21st centuries.
In the 1990s and 2000s, Latin America, like the rest of the world, saw the rapid proliferation of private museums. This shift was facilitated by the tremendous accumulation of wealth amongst elite global art patrons as neoliberal monetary regimes transformed the global economy. This phenomenon occurred in telling concert with the decline of public funding for the arts across the world. In the course of this new gilded age, two significant private museums, the Museo Soumaya (1994) and the Museo Jumex (2001), opened in Mexico City alone. Both display the artworks of billionaire collectors, the former that of Carlos Slim and the latter that of Eugenio Lopez. In September of 2001, the Argentine collector Eduardo F. Constantini donated the 220 works from his collection to a foundation created in his name. Upon its opening, the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires (MALBA) became the first museum solely dedicated to the art of the region to open in a Latin American country—a distinction it still retains. The role these new museums play in local and global artistic circuits, positive and/or negative, remains a topic of ongoing debate.
4. Important considerations.
The history of museums in Latin America is still being written. The complex and varied stories behind the institutionalization of art across the Americas is vital to understanding art historical developments in the region. Not coincidentally, the largest and wealthiest nations, such as Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico, have produced the most literature on the topic. This does not mean that smaller nations across the Americas do not have museums—rather, theirs are histories waiting to be fully explored still.
- Balfe, Judith Higgins. “Artworks as Symbols in International Politics.” International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society 1 (1987): 195–217.
- Duncan, Carl. “Art Museums and the Ritual of Citizenship.” In Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display, edited by Ivan Karp and Steven D. Lavine, 88–103. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991.
- Andrea Giunta, ed. Museos y coleccionismo ante el desafío del bicentenario: Temario, selección de panelistas, conducción, y conclusiones del Auditorio 2009. Buenos Aires: arteBA Fundación, 2010.
- Greet, Michele and Tarver, Gina. Art Museums of Latin America: Structuring Representation. New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2018.