Interview with Gerardo Mosquera

Madrid, 30 June 2017

HMH: Let’s talk about the abundance of Latin American art collections emerging around the year 2000: Daros Latinamerica; Jumex in Mexico; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, thanks to Mari Carmen Ramírez; Halle in Phoenix, Inhotim in Brazil, Malba in Buenos Aires…

GM: Coppel in Mexico is also very important. There sure have been many. 

Amazing how most of them began around the same year. And then, Tate Modern, the Pompidou, the MoMA also began to dedicate more resources and attention to Latin American art. All of this coupled with fairs and biennials. What is your assessment of this new turn? How did the art scene change in your view, and why?

It has to do with a change in consciousness. In Latin America and Europe, contrary to the United States, culture is thought of as a human right that the state must guarantee. This has established very different conditions. In the United States, all patronage has fallen into private hands. Museums and collections belong to very rich people with a typically Protestant mindset, who believe they ought to reinvest part of their wealth in a social good. At the same time, since it’s a country of the newly rich, a country without aristocracy, this investment has also given a sort of cultural veneer or dimension to all of these great fortunes that were acquired in the grand style of unrestrained capitalism. 

In Latin America, the public sphere was expected to take charge of culture, for the most part. And so, it did, with more or less success and more or less money, as in the paradigmatic case of Mexico, where the state still plays a very important role today. But the economic crises and the emergence of neoliberal thinking, not only in terms of the economy, but also in the conceptions of how society should be organized, greatly affected Latin America. A very interesting phenomenon has taken place: the private sector has stepped up not only to create collections, but also to manage culture. And the most important benefactors see it as a social mission. Not just to collect as an investment or for the pleasure of having this or that in their houses. No. They are determined to fulfill a social function that is also made manifest in the creation of museums that don’t just display the collection, but also produce activities, all manner of exhibitions, educational events, conferences… This has produced a notable change in the map of the visual arts throughout the continent, since private collectors committed to patronage are replacing the weakened role of the state. 

This, of course, has its problems, as was the case with Televisa, an early collection created before the boom we’re talking about. An excellent collection that wound up in a very dynamic museum in Mexico City. Then, the owner died, his children lost interest, and it disappeared. The same thing happened with Daros Latinamerica, although not for the same reasons. That’s the risk involved in whatever is in private hands. Often it all depends on the decision of one single individual. The state is a somewhat more secure bet, unless private individuals organize themselves under a serious foundation.

Another interesting factor is that some of the best collections are not exclusively Latin American. This has established a watershed. As you know, in Latin America the tendency has been for critics, curators, and collections to focus exclusively on Latin American art.  

That’s not your case.

Precisely. I’m one of the first Latin American curators that worked in an international way from very early on. Carlos Basualdo is another example. Notice that some collections are exclusively Latin American: Houston, Austin, Malba… And other collections such as Jumex, Coppel, and Inhotim, are heavily focused in Latin American art, but they’re also international. This marks an interesting change in the way Latin American art has stepped out of the ghetto to circulate further beyond. In the upcoming issues of ArtNexus magazine, an article of mine on the subject of art collections will be published in two parts. I examine some of these matters, including the Daros disaster and the dangers that private collections entail. 

Without a doubt, you are a pioneer in circulating Latin American art throughout the world. 

Since the 1980s, I have worked with art from everywhere, which Latin Americans never did and still don’t do much. Naturally, this practice has expanded by now, but at that early date I was the absolute exception. 

What did people say at the time? How did they interpret it? 

They didn’t even comment on it. There was no awareness. 

How do you recall your time in New York? During what years were you there?

In 1995, I started working with the New Museum and I left around 2007 or so, when it moved to the Bowery building and took a curatorial shift. 

What was your focus? 

Dan Cameron and I designed a program with the goal of offering comprehensive, well-curated solo shows with important catalogues dedicated to artists possessing a solid career, but who still had not exhibited their work in a New York City museum. They were perfect strangers there. We’re talking about 1995. Notice this paradoxical New Yorker provincialism: we organized the first Mona Hatoum show. She was totally unknown there! And the biggest show—for which I requested the entire museum because I believed his work deserved it—was dedicated to Cildo Meireles. Another stranger in New York. I don’t mean to say that these artists hadn’t been in a group show or gallery before, but nothing this important. Ah, and Doris Salcedo! Her international debut took place at the New Museum. And it was beautiful.

This type of exhibitions helped to turn New York into an international city in the truest sense of the word, and not only in the sense dictated by mainstream galleries. I’m proud of that. Of having contributed to expand the mentality of the hegemonic center of power in the visual arts. Sometimes they were not even artists from other countries, but from the West Coast, like Paul McCarthy.

I admire those accomplishments and that stance. It’s what I, too, always tried to do: to expose the unknown. Not another facet of someone we already know up-and-down. However, if one dares to go a step too far, people won’t understand. 

That’s what I remember from your work at Daros. You always took risks with artists that were out of the radar. For example, with the Colombian Rosemberg Sandoval, a precursor to Santiago Sierra and Teresa Margolles. It was you who launched him. You also brought international attention to the work of Luis Camnitzer. Despite its importance, it was largely forgotten. 

Returning to New York, you are absolutely right when you say that in the 1990s it was a provincial city in terms of art. Traveling to biennials around the world, talking to people, and seeing all manner of exhibitions, I have begun to notice that the city was regressing towards a new provincialism. There’s a need for an eye that transcends the local context. As you say, it’s appalling that New York City, the hub of the 1990s, still lacked so much visual arts information in terms of exhibitions. Now, 20 years later, it seems as if New York is almost regressing.

I’m more optimistic than you are, perhaps because I’m older and have witnessed a time when art was very segregated. Now, even with all the existing limitations, there’s a much more global circulation. Whenever we talk about art’s internationalization, we tend to think: “There are 200 biennials and countless international exhibitions.” Okay, that’s one part of the equation. But what I find to be more significant is the practice of what we call “contemporary art” all over the world. To me, that is extraordinary.

Take, for example, China, where this is a very recent phenomenon. China skipped modernism. It jumped from social realism and the traditional arts such as calligraphy, to a contemporary-art practice. In all the Islamic countries of Central Asia that were part of the Soviet Union—quite an isolated geographical context—you see contemporary art and interesting artists. Central America is another amazing phenomenon. Coño! Places so afflicted with civil wars, repression, dictatorship, drug cartels, violence, natural catastrophes… And yet, a vibrant scene has emerged, which even dares to confront the establishment which is dedicated to nationalistic, decorative, and folkloristic art. Contemporary art serves like a banner for making critical art.    

But I do understand your point of view. Returning to China, its art market works merely at a national level. Just imagine, with the amount of money circulating and the size of the country over there. The majority of those wealthy collectors buy Chinese art, and only exceptionally something else, so they have raised the prices of Chinese artists to the point where they are fetching higher fees than a Picasso.

Wow! 

But only in China. Those same artists have a low value in international markets. No one cares about them. It’s impressive: that level of localism in a country that represents one fourth of humanity and is the second world power!

I like the term “localism.” One can work with it in the context of art fairs as well. By the way, I’m not a great friend of art fairs or the market. In fact, I steered away from them until I realized how important they are for Latin America. Often, they’re virtually the only platform for the works to be seen. 

It has been said that art fairs are becoming more and more like biennials and vice versa.

For a long time now.

As a result, fairs are concerned about offering a decent cultural program in order to raise their prestige and so that they are not seen as mere markets for luxury products. Very well-organized conferences are being held and well-curated project rooms, with more inquisitive, critical, interesting artists. This applies to biennials too, of course. Okwui Enwezor said that in authoritarian, closed countries with little international circulation, biennials introduce fresh air and ideas, and movement and networking for local people. In other words, they are useful.

Photography: Roberta Vassallo

Sometimes I am wondering about the quality of international art production. Art has become chic and sells well nowadays. Who knows how long the current state of affairs will endure? In some fifteen years, this boom will probably burst.

You know what it is? I understood this when I was curating PHotoEspaña. Loewe has always financed an exhibition for the fair. When the crisis exploded here, I went to ask the manager if Loewe was willing to continue, and he replied: “Sure!” Luxury is never in crisis. Crises affect the middle classes downwards. In fact, many rich people are richer now. Unfortunately, art is an expensive product, a luxury merchandise. Perhaps this is what keeps it interesting beyond trends. It’s what I call art’s original sin. The visual arts differ from the rest of the arts in that they are based on the creation of unique and sumptuous products. By contrast, cinema, music or literature are based on massive commodities designed for a wide market. This means that in the art world we have to depend on collectors and rich people. 

Art itself has curbed the dissemination of forms such as video or photography, by limiting art’s reproducibility. It has turned Walter Benjamin on his head. What he predicted did not occur because art says: “I’ll make a video, but only with five certified copies. And that’s it. I’ll limit it.” In other words, video art is not made for YouTube or Vimeo. It’s made to be sold as an original. The same goes for photographs and prints. 

Is there any remedy for this?

There are other sectors that seek something else in art and don’t have a mere luxury or commercial interest. Alternative spaces, university galleries, art residencies… Take for example the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam, which has been able to maintain a progressive stance. There are also some biennials and spaces launched by artists, which often have a fleeting existence, but play an important role. These other landscapes are also having an impact.   

What has happened to art criticism?

In general, there has been a weakening of criticism in favor of curatorship. In Latin America, almost all the cultural supplements of the big newspapers disappeared due to budgetary problems. Talingo in Panama, for example, was a luxury. Or the cultural supplement of El Espectador in Bogotá. These publications offered a larger space to exercise criticism. They built a truly deep, positioned critical discourse. In other words, the lack of spaces in which to exercise critical discourse logically diminished it. Very many magazines went to hell. I admire Celia de Birbragher for her tenacity in keeping her magazine ArtNexus alive for so many decades.

Where does one mostly find criticism today? Online? 

Yes, but not as much as there should be. The internet asks for speed, for brevity. 

What about academic journals?

The problem with those is the excessive erudition demanded by academia. I’m more interested in what the Spanish-speaking world considers to be an “essay”: a reflective, yet freer form of text. What Octavio Paz did when he wrote about art, for example. Essays of great depth. All this has been greatly diminished in favor of curatorship. Curatorship has turned the exhibition into a discourse. And that is a good thing.

I’ve always had a problem with what I call the deductive method. My curatorial focus is based on the inductive method. I inform myself through the works and the artists themselves, and only then do I begin to build the exhibition, technically speaking. I assemble an idea on the basis of what I have observed very carefully. To my mind, a good exhibition should be born from that process. In recent decades, I’ve been seeing more and more colleagues coming up with an idea and then finding examples to illustrate it. That’s awful. Mere illustration. As a curator with so much experience, what thoughts do you have on this practice? 

I think that all curating must proceed from the artworks to the exhibition, and not the other way around This doesn’t mean that the exhibition itself should not sustain a significant discourse beyond the works that it gathers. If we select a number of works, give them their proper space, and respect the artists, but leave out an underlying discourse, it will not be a good exhibition. On the other hand, if we use the artists and their works, like you say, simply as signposts for the construction of a discourse, that’s not a good exhibition either. There has to be a balance. That’s one of the great challenges of curating. 

It seems to me that a very positive thing about our contemporary practice is that it has made us aware that every exhibition is a construction. It’s never neutral. Before, one went to see an exhibition of eighteenth-century English landscape thinking that’s all one was looking at. Now we know that it’s the vision of one person or an institution or a group of people about this or that subject. That gives curators an authorial responsibility that I find beneficial in terms of transparency. But there’s the risk that the curator will become a kind of czar. All exhibitions must offer enough space for the spectator to communicate aesthetically and intellectually with the works. A space that is often violated. 

I’m very intrigued by the differences between places. And by what’s happening now versus what was happening in the past. There are explicit or unspoken rules that differ from place to place, and that constitutes vital information for curators. What is your take on this? What has been your experience in all your travels? 

It is said that globalization brings the danger of homogenization, of the McDonaldization of the world. At the same time, traveling makes one aware of how diverse the world still is, and how much it varies from one city to the next. It’s true what you say: for our curatorial work it is very important to contextualize the exhibition. It’s absurd to think in abstract terms. We need to know how to connect with the people that will be visiting the show. It’s what I call curating with the ears and not just with the eyes. 

Something interesting happened to me in this very city many years ago. For Casa de América I curated a show about displacements, migrations, cultural shocks, and the changes brought about by immigrants. The debate on all these processes was still a novelty here in Spain. The country was not yet involved in that whole affair, but was rather seeking to become Europeanized. That was what Spain was really interested in. To overcome the backwardness of Franco’s regime and integrate with Europe. So I said to myself, this is going to be a hit because these themes will be exposed here for the first time. It was a total failure. No one was interested. 

Gerardo, please give me your impressions of Cuba as a Cuban. 

A disaster. The situation is worse than ever. Despite Obama’s significant rapprochement, the Cuban leadership has not realized that changes are needed for the country to progress. It doesn’t care. We have had no Deng Xiaoping. Things haven’t developed as in Vietnam. The government is absolutely centralized, authoritarian, with a state-controlled economy. When it opens up a little and private businesses begin to make some progress, the regime panics and closes them under various pretexts. Repression has increased. The economy is a disaster, Hans. Supply is terrible. I was there in January and was appalled at the prices. It’s much cheaper to buy fruits and vegetables here in Madrid than in Cuba. Not to mention the quality.

Then there’s the nepotism. Raúl Castro has placed his whole family in positions of power. He says he’ll retire next year, but it doesn’t make any difference. He’s no longer the most powerful man. The most powerful man is his son Alejandro Castro Espín, for whom Raúl created a position that didn’t exist before: the authority that controls the Armed Forces and the Ministry of Interior. Another relative is now the leader of the military conglomerate that runs the economy. And so on. In the future, the entire military elite will become a mafia, just as in Russia.

Fidel Castro could have led a social movement towards the so-called Third World, but by opening up. His Stalinism and caudillismo, in the best Latin American tradition, kept him from playing that role after the fall of the Soviet Union and its Communist bloc. Even Franco here in Spain facilitated a transition. Not these people. It’s terrible. And yet, notable artists continue to emerge. Only that they emigrate.

Once again. 

That’s right.

Gerardo Mosquera is a curator, critic, art historian, and freelance writer based in Havana, Madrid, and the world. He received the Guggenheim Fellowship in New York (1990) and for many years has been an advisor to the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten in Amsterdam and other international art centers. Cofounder of the Havanna Biennial (1984-1989), curator of the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York (1995-2007), and artistic director of PHotoEspaña in Madrid (2011-2013), he has curated numerous biennials and international exhibitions: the Guangzhou Image Triennale in Canton, China (2021); the XXI Paiz Art Biennial in Guatemala (2018); the Third Today’s Documents in Beijing (2016), and the IV Poly/Graphic Triennial of San Juan in Puerto Rico (2015) were the most recent. Author and editor of a large number of texts and books on contemporary art and art theory published in different countries and languages, his latest volume, Arte desde América Latina (y otros pulsos globales), was published in 2020 by Ediciones Cátedra in Madrid. He is a member of the advisory board of several international journals and has lectured on all five continents.

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