FALL 2017
A Discussion about Latin American Contemporary Art

AMÉRICO CASTILLA is director and founder of Fundación TyPA in Buenos Aires. He recently served as secretary of cultural heritage of Argentina’s National Ministry of Culture and previously was the country’s national director of heritage and museums. As a visual artist, he has represented Argentina in biennials in São Paulo and Paris.

GABRIEL PÉREZ-BARREIRO is director and chief curator of the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros (CPPC). Previously, he was founding curator of the University of Essex Collection of Latin American Art, director of visual arts at the Americas Society, and curator of Latin American art at the Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas.

ARIANNE VANRELL VELLOSILLO is a conservator-restorer at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid, specializing in the conservation of installations and new media artworks. She has coordinated the Spanish group in the European research projects Inside Installations and PRACTICs (Practices, Research, Access, Collaboration, Teaching in Conservation of Contemporary Art).

They spoke with TOM LEARNER, head of GCI Science, and JEFFREY LEVIN, editor of Conservation Perspectives, The GCI Newsletter.

TOM LEARNER: Could each of you describe the type of work you do in the field of modern and contemporary art, and how conservation issues enter into it?

AMÉRICO CASTILLA: I’ve been involved with conservation in different ways—first as an artist, when I didn’t care much about the materials I was using. I used to mix oil with acrylics, and the whole thing was a mess. When I started running organizations, I got more interested in conservation. I was also on the board of the TAREA Foundation, which is the main research and conservation lab in Argentina and is now part of the University of San Martín. Created by Fundación Antorchas in the early nineties, TAREA worked mainly in the restoration of colonial painting and was also the main academic resource in the region.

As cultural manager of Fundación Antorchas and later working for government, I organized and was involved with conservation workshops with professors and heritage authorities around the country. In relation to contemporary art, we partnered with other institutions in 2010 to do a symposium we called Contemporary Art in the Emergency Room [Arte contemporáneo en (sala de) guardia]. In Spanish that title plays with the idea of art in danger, as well as with the need for it to be on guard. We were inspired at the time by the ongoing restoration of a piece by Marta Minujín, which was a telephone booth [Minuphone] she had made in the Pop art period that projected colors and sounds according to what the participant touched. It was very difficult to restore, and its restoration prompted a lot of discussion and new issues for the field. What could or could not be done? What did the artist think of it? What did philosophers think of it? What did conservators think of it? I liked this multifaceted approach very much. It was clear that conserving works of contemporary art was very different from conserving art produced up to the mid-twentieth century, with questions involving economics, ethics, et cetera.

GABRIEL PÉREZ-BARREIRO: Half of what I do is manage the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, which actually comprises five collection areas: ethnographic, colonial, nineteenth-century landscape images, modern, and contemporary. For the first time in my professional life, I’m also responsible for their physical care, a job that in a typical museum is in a completely different department. For me, and for many institutional directors, it’s a constant battle between conservation and the educational mission of our collection, which requires the art to travel as broadly as possible, particularly to museums within Latin America, many of which may not have what we might consider optimal conditions. The protest one typically hears from conservators is that so much exhibition of the objects in less than optimal conditions is damaging the very things you’re supposed to be looking after. We’re a collection without a museum—we have a storage facility but no permanent space. Therefore, if the collection is to be seen, it has to travel, and the price we pay is that the objects will, of course, suffer from being schlepped back and forth. There’s not much we can do about that. At the same time, the works need care, and we’re not willing to sacrifice that very important part of our mission.

An interesting moment for us came last year when the CPPC made a significant gift of artworks to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. These works are going into a museum that’s known in Latin America for its historical reluctance to lend—so to what extent will MoMA respect the spirit in which these works were collected? In our contracts, we have language that asks MoMA to be mindful of the donor’s intent in buying and showing these works—and, particularly, showing them in Latin America. But that’s as much as we could do. We couldn’t add language legally binding the museum to a future that it doesn’t know.

ARIANNE VANRELL VELLOSILLO: As the conservator in this discussion, I am, in some way, the person who says what you can’t do with artworks during an exhibition or in transport. But, as Gabriel suggested, we agree that if you are not able to show the art, it’s nonsense to conserve it.

I started to study and work on conservation around twentyfive years ago, and I’ve always focused on contemporary art. After my studies in Paris, I had internships at the Centre de conservation du Québec, the Natural History Museum of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, and at the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid. Then I returned to Venezuela where I was born. During the next six years, I worked at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Caracas, at the Cisneros Collection, and in other public and private collections in Venezuela. Afterward, I returned to the Reina Sofía Museum to work as a conservator-restorer.

Now I’m in charge of the collection of three-dimensional objects and sculptures dating from 1940 to 1980. This collection includes traditional sculpture and art installations with early technology that now is mostly obsolete. That means we are working with old-fashioned and fragile technology. It’s very complicated to find replacement pieces, which means we have problems in exhibiting it. In talking with Latin American colleagues, I find that these problems mean they do not often show their installation collections. They don’t have time or resources to study them or rebuild them as much as they would like. We all think that the idea is to conserve not just the material but the significance of the artwork in a specific context, including the tools, techniques, and cultural context of the artists and the influence of where they worked. The main issues concern the meaning of the artwork, or its impact at the time. These things are important to me, because these are not artworks we can restore in a traditional way. It’s related to memory or knowledge of the artwork in more than a physical or material way.

LEARNER: Is it meaningful or helpful to talk about the conservation issues in Latin America as a distinct region and separate from the rest of the world—or are they in fact the exact same issues as elsewhere?

CASTILLA: I don’t find a particular difference between Latin America and the rest of the contemporary art world. The concepts, the keywords, are ephemeral, time based. Of course, expertise is more developed in some regions than in others, and the conditions of museums are quite different from one place to the other. When I was director of the National Museum of Fine Arts and we started touring the collection to different museums in the country, our condition requirements were flexible. If we stuck to the conditions that a good museum should have in terms of humidity control, et cetera, we would not have had those exhibitions. Instead, we traveled with our own conservators and exhibition designers, which was also a way to train local museum professionals in what the museum’s conditions should be. I’m afraid there are only a few museums in Argentina that have the conditions needed to bring in a Van Gogh or a Turner. Your question is really the same as asking about the difference between people who are privileged and those who are underprivileged. It’s mainly a question of resources. Beyond that, I don’t see the difference.

Photo: Courtesy of Américo Castilla.
Conservation nowadays is a difficult profession. There are no patterns to be followed as there were in the past. It involves so many things. To be a conservator means to have a broad mind and approach the right experts with whom to establish a dialogue. That’s what makes the profession so interesting.
Américo Castilla

PÉREZ-BARREIRO: I can’t speak to the conservation world, but I can speak to museum practices. For example, there are commonalities in how challenging it can be to import and export work. Argentina, for example, is notoriously difficult. Brazil, also. That requires expertise, which we institutionally have. One thing I’m happy to see is how institutions in the North have become more engaged with Latin America and have made this a priority in their programming, their collections, and other areas. Many collections managers will call up ours and ask, “How can I get something in and out of Colombia?” or “What’s the situation in Brazil?” The difficulty of getting works in and out of Latin America—customs issues—is a challenge. It’s getting better, and it’s now more common for museums to lend to and from Latin America. But, yes, it’s still a region with those challenges.

VANRELL VELLOSILLO: In the last ten years, there has been great improvement in conservation in Latin America. For the traveling exhibitions, dealing with customs remains complicated, which we have experienced traveling as couriers. Fortunately, the paperwork and handling of artwork in customs is getting better, but we have a long way to go. On the other hand, we have to do everything possible to try to obtain works of art from Latin America for our museums. I’ve met many colleagues in the areas of conservation and registration in Latin America, and they have a high level of professionalism. In some cases, their museums lack huge facilities or large budgets, but their work is improving, so we must help them as much as we can.

LEARNER: Ari, you helped launch a Latin American regional group for INCCA, the International Network for the Conservation of Contemporary Art, shortly after the symposium Américo organized in 2010. Can you explain what that group aimed to do and how it was set up?

VANRELL VELLOSILLO: We called this group Red Iberoamericana de Conservación de Arte Contemporáneo [RICAC] because it has the same first letters for the name in Spanish as in Portuguese. It grew out of conversations I had after a talk I gave at the MALBA Museum in Buenos Aires about the Inside Installations project. Following that talk, I spoke with Alejandra D’Elias, director of the Fundación Telefónica in Buenos Aires, about the possibility of some case studies following the protocols proposed in the Inside Installations project. Suddenly, we built a little informal network with Argentina and Uruguay—supported by the conservation and restoration department of the Reina Sofía Museum—based in Rosario [Argentina] and Montevideo [Uruguay]. We worked one case study for each country, and after that experience we thought to do this in all Latin America. That was the beginning of RICAC. We tried for some years to make this network bigger and stronger, but the people involved did not have much time to work on it, and we had no money to support it. Two years ago I tried to restart the network with Alberto Tagle, and even though a lot of institutions like the idea, we have not had support to restart it. But we still think about it.

CASTILLA: You were able to make those contacts and find talented people from different countries in Latin America, because of previous work done in relation to conservation—which was not the case for exhibition design, for registration, and for other fields of the museum profession. Conservation is one of the few aspects of the museum profession that has evolved in most Latin American countries. In conservation, we have groups of people doing very good work. I agree that it’s hard to put them together. Networks seem easier now with technology, and the group may organize one or two follow-up meetings. But the third meeting is the one that fails, because additional resources are needed to keep the spirit growing.

VANRELL VELLOSILLO: When one of my colleagues is traveling to Latin America, they may say, “I’m going to Mexico—do you know somebody there I can talk with?”— and I link them up. It’s a network based on friendship, not a “real” professional network. It’s just a lot of friends around the world. I myself try to see colleagues when I travel, say, as a courier in São Paulo, but this way is not open enough for new conservators. With a real network, we could invite new people. This doesn’t happen now, which is a pity.

PÉREZ-BARREIRO: What Arianne said reminds me a lot of the curatorial community, or the academic community. These are communities based in friendship and affinity, in having fought certain battles together, and having certain enemies and friends in common. Américo also made a good point—you can arrange two meetings, but you can rarely get to that third one. We had, for a brief time, a project in our foundation to see if we could create a Latin American network of collections managers. It’s tricky. Who’s going to pay for it? Who’s going to spend time on it? Everybody’s busy, so it’s a problem not exclusive to the conservation community. It’s common to any professional group. I wish there were a more viable model, but I’m not sure there is. The other question is how knowledge can be shared. How can you detach knowledge from this tight network of individuals? It’s a valid project to ask what are the journals, websites, and professional forums in which people can deposit their personalized knowledge to share it. I don’t know that it’s possible to make an entire network work, but we can aspire to ensure that our own work is in a public forum.

JEFFREY LEVIN: Knowledge sharing strikes me as extremely important. Ari, Américo—do you have thoughts on how that might be facilitated?

CASTILLA: Well, I persevere and go on organizing. In October 2015 we at the TyPA Foundation had a conference called Reimagining the Museum, organized with the American Alliance of Museums. It was about issues that confront museums in all the Americas—from Canada to Argentina. We had about seven hundred participants, and it was well received. We didn’t want to do it a second time in Argentina, but rather share the know-how and success with another Latin American country. So next November we are holding it in Medellín, Colombia, with the Parque Explora museum as host partner. To persevere, we need to attract bigger cohorts of professionals, and we need a critical mass of people demanding it. It’s not for a few of us to go on organizing. We need a stronger demand.

VANRELL VELLOSILLO: When we have a problem as conservators-restorers, we often ask other colleagues who may have had similar problems to share information informally. Maybe we have to think about this in more structured and new ways to facilitate access to this knowledge. It would be interesting to open this network to others—not just conservators but curators or artists or whatever. Maybe that would be a smarter way to do it. We need to be open to new ideas. It’s why I tried to push people in Latin America to keep these networks open. It was not easy to do because it’s not easy to start a new project from nothing, but we will not desist.

LEARNER: Américo, could you talk a bit more about the Contemporary Art in the Emergency Room symposium? Do you think that anything has changed as a result of it?

CASTILLA: That was our intention—to raise these issues and see who picked up the challenge. We didn’t make headlines in the newspapers, of course, but, for example, the TAREA Foundation, which previously hadn’t been interested in contemporary art, became interested and attended some of the meetings. That was one extraordinary result. Also, in Rosario there is a group of conservators who felt reassured with our conference and picked up on these themes, and now whenever there is a contemporary arts conservation challenge in other provinces, they ask the Rosario people to help them resolve some technical or ethical questions. In addition, we invited to this conference people with technical knowledge of digital matters and who hadn’t thought about time-based art issues, and they started studying this and publishing things about it. We also had artists, who normally are not included in this type of conversation. We invited four artists, and they offered their opinions, which gave the conference a particular dynamic. The conference was open to practical issues—not only theory but day-to-day problems—and that attracted interest among museum professionals. As you said, Arianne, maybe it’s time to think about how to do a second round of these sorts of encounters.

Photo: Courtesy of Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro.
Most modern and contemporary work acquired these days is acquired privately and not by museums... A lot of these collectors are relatively new and inexperienced, and we haven’t thought through the conservation implications of this... [T]here’s a paucity of discussion about the conservation implications of this significant shift in the art world.
Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro

LEARNER: Earlier you all alluded to this balance that has to be constantly struck between access to and preservation of works of art. Do you think this balance is in any way less problematic for modern and contemporary works, because of the move by conservators away from focusing so purely on the state of the original materials used? In other words, should we worry less about sending contemporary pieces to museums that lack exceptionally stable conditions? And is this somehow taking care of itself, for the contemporary art that is being produced and shown in a region that lacks the history of implementing such rigorous environmental settings?

PÉREZ-BARREIRO: The contemporary art of the period was produced in conditions that everybody thought then were much more flexible than they think they are today. One of the great things about the São Paulo Biennial is you have over sixty years of continuous history. In one of the early biennials, they very famously included Picasso’s Guernica, and legend has it they carried it rolled up on their heads to protect themselves from the rain! But it wasn’t just Picasso—it was Calder, it was Klee, it was many of the great contemporary artists of their day. Nobody then could have foreseen that would be completely out of bounds today. Today, you can’t even move Guernica one inch to the left or right from where it’s now installed at the Reina Sofía.

After being invited to do the 2018 São Paulo Biennial, I’d thought of doing a biennial that was historical and bringing back Broadway Boogie Woogie, because of its connection to Brazil, and many revisionist historical narratives. But as soon as I walked into the Biennial pavilion it hit me—the building is not air-conditioned. So we’re doing contemporary art. I don’t have a choice. There are very important historical works in Brazilian private collections that are displayed with open windows and open doors, so the Biennial is actually a better location. But I also know that I can’t even dream of requesting works from certain important museums. If I want a Mondrian from MoMA, I can forget it. But if I want a Morandi from São Paulo, I’m probably going to get it. It largely depends on where you’re getting them.

CASTILLA: During the Argentine military dictatorship, I helped organize an exhibition at the National Museum of Fine Arts with works from MoMA. I was daring enough to ask for an exhibition titled Four Modern Masters: Magritte, Miró, Max Ernst, and de Chirico. When the MoMA conservator came to open the crates at the Museum of Fine Arts—I was diligent enough not to open them at customs—the conservator said, “Don’t you have gloves?” Nobody had thought about gloves to handle the works of art, but somebody was bright enough to say, “We just used the last pair. We’ll go buy some more.” Those were dangerous and unpredictable times. Ourselves and the works of art were all at risk. The show was an enormous success, but after the exhibition ended, and when the paintings were taken to the airport to be flown back to New York, the crates were opened in the middle of the highway by the police as they were looking for works stolen from the Museum of Fine Arts years previously. All the paintings were displayed flat on the road. It brought us close to a heart attack, ourselves and the MoMA curators, looking at these Mirós and Magrittes on the pavement. We couldn’t believe it. So, in those terms, we have come a long way.

VANRELL VELLOSILLO: I’m happy to hear Gabriel thinking about ways to find important pieces from the same area—say, in São Paulo, in a private collection. It’s a smart way to do it. It is also another way to discover other pieces that few people know about.

PÉREZ-BARREIRO: Conservation is one of the challenges in organizing exhibitions from and within Latin America, but there are many others. For example, the economics of those transactions can be very complicated. The practice of loan fees is extremely challenging. Museums will charge very high fees for the loans, and also for the photographic permissions in some cases. Conservation is just one of the factors that determine whether or not a work can travel. It’s not just a physical question. There’s also the legal side of it, the economic side of it, and the insurance side of it.

LEVIN: I’d like to return to something Américo said about bringing a variety of people and ideas into the conversation about conservation. Modern and contemporary art does raise a series of ethical and philosophical issues.

CASTILLA: Conservation nowadays is a difficult profession. There are no patterns to be followed as there were in the past. It involves so many things. To be a conservator means to have a broad mind and approach the right experts with whom to establish a dialogue. That’s what makes the profession so interesting. In the past, conservators were more closed in to themselves and didn’t want to discuss their discoveries with anyone, except maybe to a disciple. But it’s different now because they need to exchange knowledge. They need to consult chemists, for example, and also environmental experts, engineers, lighting specialists, and so on, in ways that weren’t thought of before. I would engage in that type of dialogue if I were conserving a piece or had to supervise a conservation department.

VANRELL VELLOSILLO: Sometimes we deny a loan, not because of the requesting museum but rather because of the type of artwork requested. For example, in an installation with vintage TVs, sometimes we loan an installation, but we don’t share the TV monitors. It’s not because we don’t trust the borrowing museum—it’s because we don’t trust this technology anymore and we are not able to remake this TV or buy it again. We frequently have that kind of problem at the Reina Sofía. Years ago it was still easy to buy obsolete pieces on eBay or from an official seller to rebuild an installation. Now we’re not sure we’ll ever be able to do that again.

PÉREZ-BARREIRO: Maybe this is a result of how much contemporary artwork has expanded, but we now have several works in our collection where an exhibition copy is already contemplated in the acquisition process. In video that is very common, and it’s increasingly common in installation and sculpture work. When we get a loan request, either we can send the original or we can send a series of instructions for the work to be realized locally. A growing percentage of our loans every year are done that way. It’s a contractual loan to basically construct a replica, and that’s becoming normal with a certain kind of contemporary art. It’s a result of all these issues that have had people pulling out their hair for so long. Everybody is trying to find efficient ways to avoid these problems, and exhibition copies are potentially a great solution for certain types of work, permitting them to go to places where they may not have gone before.

VANRELL VELLOSILLO: Yes. For example, if you want to recreate a Penetrable by Jesús Rafael Soto, the plastic tubes that make up the sculpture are not really the point of the piece. The point of the piece is the experience you have walking through it.

Photo: Courtesy of Arianne Vanrell Vellosillo.
When we have a problem as conservators-restorers, we often ask other colleagues who may have had similar problems to share information informally. Maybe we have to think about this in more structured and new ways to facilitate access to this knowledge...We need to be open to new ideas.
Arianne Vanrell Vellosillo

PÉREZ-BARREIRO: Penetrable is a great example, because at this point there are no original tubes left. Those plastic tubes disintegrate, and they get replaced. I don’t think any of Soto’s Penetrables still have every single piece of original material, except maybe the one in Ciudad Bolívar. They’re outdoor pieces, they disintegrate, and they get replaced. That’s a great example of an instance where the original is already a replica, and there’s no noticeable difference between one and the other. You could use exactly the same materials to make the original or to make a replica, and there are a number of works like that.

LEARNER: What can you say about the Latin American region regarding the resources that are available, or not, for conservation? Is the situation getting any better—or is it getting worse?

CASTILLA: There are few specific institutions really involved in conservation. That is why it’s very important that TAREA and the University of San Martín, in the case of Argentina, survive and grow. They have brought a big archive of art documents into the University of San Martín, so now they have a rich archive and a classified database. They also do practical conservation and research. So that’s a fantastic resource. In the Argentine provinces, there is the conservation facility in Rosario, and one in Salta that provides advice and services to the northwest region of Argentina. These initiatives have been reinforced officially by the Ministry of Culture, which is organizing a national conference on contemporary art conservation. I know that other countries like Paraguay, Bolivia, and Uruguay are not very strong. Chile is more conscious of these things and has some history of conservation—as, of course, does Brazil, mostly in scientific research, and certainly Mexico.

VANRELL VELLOSILLO: It’s a privilege to work in the Reina Sofía—and we have resources, of course—but we have not worked on any European research project for the last five or six years. For me, that’s a pity. Maybe it’s because of the economic crisis, but in my experience, conservation and restoration research is not a very important issue for government. In our department of conservation-restoration, we are carrying out an impressive research project on Guernica, which is our most famous masterpiece, so we do research and, of course, disseminate this information.

PÉREZ-BARREIRO: There’s an important phenomenon happening in the world in general—and the art world is a reflection of that—and that is the concentration of resources in private hands. Today, private collecting in Latin America, as in North America and Europe, has become hugely important. Most modern and contemporary work acquired these days is acquired privately and not by museums. This art may, as in the United States, find its way into museums, but so much cultural heritage is now in private hands. A lot of these collectors are elatively new and inexperienced, and we haven’t thought through the conservation implications of this. Within the CPPC, we spend a considerable amount of our annual budget on collections management and conservation, making sure the works are kept safely. But that’s not typical. We tend to talk about what can museums do, but the private collector is increasingly dominant in this ecosystem, and I see very little discussion about how to best look after these artworks. A lot of the discussion around collecting is focused on acquisition—on prices and the complications of acquiring a piece—and very little discussion about what it means to keep these works long term. There’s almost zero discussion as far as I can tell about what can be done to educate the private collector. It’s a question that’s related to resources and assets, because that’s where so many of them are right now, and there’s a paucity of discussion about the conservation implications of this significant shift in the art world.

LEVIN: Is artist engagement in issues of conservation greater now than it was in the past? Do you see an increasing conservation consciousness among artists producing today?

CASTILLA: I think artists today know what pH is, what type of paper they can work on, and the risk they run with ephemeral work. Before, artists didn’t care at all about that. Now even the commercial houses that sell these materials know which are—what they call—the museological type. So there is more knowledge and awareness. And even museums that might not have enough resources know what is good, what is bad, and what should be done or what should not be done—whether they do it or not. Yes, I think there is a greater awareness.

PÉREZ-BARREIRO: There’s a greater awareness of the physical qualities of the materials themselves and of the intellectual property issues. A couple of decades ago, few people thought about what happens if somebody editions a work, or what happens if I lend a copy. These questions now come up to the fore. Practicing artists today are much more aware of the 360 degrees of the world in which they’re functioning. It’s hard to think of an artist being this romantic, isolated figure who produces a work that just leaves the studio, and the artist never engages with it again. There’s so much in the way that images circulate that you can’t but be aware of the whole complication of the art world today.

VANRELL VELLOSILLO: When we work with artists reinstalling their works, we ask things that they’d never thought about—such as the circulation of people around it. These kinds of questions are very interesting for artists who haven’t shown a piece for a long time. When we ask artists to participate in an installation process for a piece that hasn’t been installed for ten years or more, they always find a new point of view that they’d never considered when they created the instruction for the piece. Working together causes both of us to think about whether we have to reinstall the work considering more issues—such as the experience of the public and the public perception. When we work with artists, sometimes they say to us, “I went back to my atelier and I started to work with this other material that looks more stable,” or “I’ve started to transfer all these Betacam videos to another support.” So the knowledge goes two ways. It’s nice to know that we are learning from them, and that they are also learning a little from us.