FALL 2017
Recent Approaches in Chile and Mexico
By Claudio Hernández, Caroll Yasky, and Tom Learner
An installation by Colombian artist Doris Salcedo

In recent years, Latin American modern and contemporary art has attracted significant international attention. Renowned artists, including Fernando Botero, Marta Boto, Lygia Clark, Carlos Cruz-Diez, Frida Kahlo, Wifredo Lam, Julio Le Parc, Roberto Matta, Cildo Meireles, Hélio Oiticica, Gabriel Orozco, Doris Salcedo, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Jesús Rafael Soto, Joaquín Torres-García, and Adriana Varejão, have been widely exhibited, and some have become household names.

In addition to numerous important art collections growing in the region, many major museums in Europe and North America have established departments and curators dedicated to collecting, researching, and exhibiting Latin American art—MoMA, MFA Houston, and Tate, to name just a few.

Over the past decade, there has also been a marked increase in the inclusion of Latin American artists in international shows— for example, Beatriz González, Joaquín Orellana, Cecilia Vicuña, Ulises Carrión, and Sergio Zevallos in documenta 14, and Juan Downey, Nicolás García Uriburu, and Ayrson Heráclito in the central exhibition at this year's Venice Biennale.

But while the region has gained new recognition for its artistic output, it now confronts intricate challenges in the understanding, study, exhibition, and preservation of, as well as access to, these works. Although each nation in the region has public policies for culture and the arts, in addition to some private initiatives, a common difficulty for contemporary art is a lack of awareness about the importance of its conservation as a professional practice.

Even though museums and other institutions provide professional support for conservation in varying degrees, there is much to be done to generate the funding required to tackle the insufficiencies in infrastructure, legislation, research, and education. Since contemporary art conservators are few and work individually or in small teams, networking is essential to sharing limited resources and updating professional knowledge and practices. It is also necessary for increasing the understanding of its complexity as a field of work—one in which a multidisciplinary approach is fundamental to tackling ethical and material dilemmas different from those faced by traditional conservation.

The art installation Werken by Chilean artist Bernardo Oyarzún

The range of materials used to create modern and contemporary art in Latin America is as varied as elsewhere—and as completely overwhelming. In truth, there are few materials that have not been used in contemporary artworks. Each of these materials has its own, and often unique, set of aging properties and may require different environmental conditions for display and storage. Artworks utilizing modern technology (videotape, computers, light installations, etc.) run significant risks by incorporating components that can quickly become obsolete and unavailable. This is particularly acute in time-based media artworks, where rapid development of newer technologies means that older tape formats require either continued migration to newer formats or some provision for extending the life of older equipment. One particular issue is the impact of the environment, as many regions in Latin America are tropical; the high relative humidity and temperature often lead to conservation problems associated with mold growth. In addition, hurricanes, earthquakes, and floods are common, all of which can severely impact cultural heritage.

This article outlines some efforts under way to advance conservation of modern and contemporary art in Latin America, with a particular emphasis on two countries: Chile and Mexico. In both, it is possible to observe the endeavors undertaken, the goals achieved, and the work that still remains.


Although based in Los Angeles, the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) works internationally. Its research and professional activities are largely guided by the needs of the conservation field, although it unfortunately cannot respond to every need that emerges. The GCI's Modern and Contemporary Art Research Initiative (or ModCon) aims to advance the conservation profession's knowledge and practice for modern and contemporary art by addressing some of its most pressing needs. The initiative, begun in 2007, includes a broad range of activities and approaches, including scientific research into the stability and behavior of many modern materials, the dissemination of information via workshops and publications, and the promotion of dialogue between professionals through meetings and conferences.

Within three years of starting the initiative, the GCI organized a three-day meeting in Brazil to review the current state and future requirements of research on this subject, specifically in Latin America. Discussing conservation issues within a region, especially one as large and diverse as Latin America, is clearly problematic and open to criticism. After all, it is a vast territory with enormous variations in some factors that might at first glance appear to be common among its countries, including climate, language, politics, and economy. However, it was felt that ModCon should move beyond its initial focus on Europe and the United States to explore other regions. Latin America was of immediate interest because of its extremely rich and varied cultural heritage, the existence of ongoing partnerships with many of its countries, its (relative) geographic proximity, and the global attention its contemporary artistic production has recently garnered.

An experts meeting in Belo Horizonte, Brazil

The Brazil meeting was organized with the School of Fine Arts at the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais in Belo Horizonte and the contemporary art organization Instituto Inhotim in nearby Brumadinho. The thirty participants, with a range of conservation and related backgrounds, came from across Latin America, including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Mexico, Peru, and Uruguay, along with representatives from Spain and the United States who are active in the region. Although many issues were discussed, three areas were identified as priorities, in both the short and long term.


Given that many Latin American conservators work individually or in small teams, there was strong consensus among meeting participants that any method of improving communication between fellow professionals would be very welcome. Two approaches were discussed. The first and possibly ultimate goal would be formation of a large professional network for the entire region that would be integrated into INCCA—the International Network for the Conservation of Contemporary Art—with well-known resources that include an archive of artist interviews, catalogs of PhD research projects, bibliographies, and an active network of nformation sharing. This network would disseminate information and provide more visibility for the work and research developed by Latin American professionals, sharing their conservation approaches. The second and perhaps shorter-term priority would be to establish smaller regional and/or national professional networks, largely to facilitate information exchange. In developing local activities, individuals and institutions could also seek to foster partnerships with universities, contemporary art collections, nd research institutions to gain access to artworks, research students, and analytical facilities.


Participants felt that the training programs in the region should engage in greater dialogue comparing approaches to training conservators on modern and contemporary art issues and sharing resources and information. Student and professional exchanges could be promoted to cement this idea. One specific suggestion was to organize within Latin America short-duration workshops on various aspects of contemporary art conservation. High-priority subjects include documentation, climate control, research on modern materials, transportation, ethical proceedings, and legal issues.


Access to existing research and publications was thought especially problematic with respect to language and information platforms. Participants believed that seminal articles and publications about contemporary art conservation should be identified for translation into Spanish and Portuguese, and, likewise, Spanish and Portuguese publications should be translated and shared with English-speaking colleagues. A thesaurus or common vocabulary of conservation terms for contemporary art in English, Spanish, and Portuguese should be created, building on existing glossaries, and a series of international conferences on contemporary art conservation should be developed. Additionally, attention should be paid to disseminating research results throughout the region.

The 2014 reinstallation and restoration of Mexican artist Manuel Felguérez’s Iron Mural


One outcome of the Brazil meeting was the creation of RICAC (Iberoamerican Contemporary Art Conservation Network), a Spanish- and Portuguese-language website established as a regional group of INCCA, with the support of the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía's Conservation and Restoration Department, through Arianne Vanrell Vellosillo, in collaboration with Juan Luis Suárez and Fernando Sancho. One goal of RICAC was the creation of a network using Spanish and/or Portuguese as the main language.

The group was extremely active in its first two years, with RICAC meetings held in Spain and Mexico, and courses organized by its members in Brazil and Peru. At the Mexico City meeting, for example, general concepts of modern and contemporary art conservation were introduced to a broad group of professionals—not only conservators but researchers, curators, and students from the private and public sectors. Also discussed was the matter of who could fund and support this initiative.

Ultimately, it became impossible to continue international meetings with regularity, given that many of the professionals involved lacked institutional and economic support to participate to that degree. Nevertheless, contact between members has continued informally based more on fraternal liaisons than on programmatic planning.


After the Brazil gathering, informal meetings were developed in Chile, a country where colonial and pre-Columbian objects are the principal conservation concerns (along with heritage buildings, because of the constant earthquakes). These meetings included artists, curators, and conservation and museum professionals interested in the conservation of modern and contemporary art.

Between 2011 and 2012 the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo (MAC) of the Universidad de Chile hosted five open-discussion meetings with professionals from the Institut Valencià d'Art Modern (Spain), the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais (Brazil), and local conservators who presented and discussed case studies they had developed. A series of annual seminars followed from 2013 to 2015, organized by two public cultural institutions—the Gabriela Mistral Gallery and the Centro Nacional de Conservación y Restauración (CNCR)—in which professionals from Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Uruguay, and Spain shared their case studies. Other important initiatives, with public funding, were propelled by Chilean conservator Josefina López, who organized workshops in Santiago, including one by Richard Wolbers on cleaning techniques for acrylic paintings and a more general workshop by Bronwyn Ormsby and Rachel Barker from Tate in London on conserving modern and contemporary paintings. This workshop included visits to the Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende and MAC in Santiago to discuss case studies from those collections.

Richard Wolbers conducts a workshop on new cleaning techniques for painted surfaces

While these meetings to share professional knowledge and practices on contemporary art conservation represent a positive advance, they mostly reflect personal initiatives fostered inside institutions and, sadly, not institutional policies that have installed onservation as a permanently funded, regular line of work in their annual plans. This explains the discontinuity of these efforts. Unfortunately, conservation still is not considered a sufficiently important practice within the cultural sector—and even less so is contemporary and modern art conservation.

A significant and worrying paradox is that although the number of undergraduate art programs has increased in Chilean universities, there has been a serious retreat in university conservation programs since the only two undergraduate programs ended, and universities now offer only short postgraduate courses.

Important achievements by public institutions have been the translations from English to Spanish of the Getty's Art & Architecture Thesaurus, carried out by the Centro de Documentación de Bienes Patrimoniales, and the Canadian Conservation Institute Notes, by CNCR.

Modern and contemporary art museums in Chile are few and lack sufficient funding to conduct conservation research on their collections. Priority is given to restoration of works selected for exhibitions. Achieving international standards for climate ontrol and establishing professional protocols for managing the collections remain high-priority subjects. Since not all museums have conservators on staff and only a few have well-equipped laboratories, the most common practice is to use external restoration services.

Although public policies on museums and the whole cultural sector are being redefined administratively since Chile's congress recently approved a new Ministry of Culture, the country also needs to develop regional initiatives and collaborations that permit long-term engagement with the field and the exchange of information. Recent examples include international research projects on particular artists from the nineteenth century with major legacies: José Gil de Castro, Pintor de Libertadores (2008–15) and the ongoing Proyecto Monvoisin en América. Both involve leading museums of the region (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Peru) and have structured working plans that culminate in traveling exhibitions and publications of the research.


The situation is similar in Mexico, where most of the country's major public institutions are focused on the nation's rchaeological and historical heritage. Nevertheless, in the last decade Mexico has achieved some important advances in contemporary art conservation.

Professional conservation and restoration training in the country has been a stepping-stone in the care of cultural heritage. The National School of Conservation (ENCRyM-INAH) was set up in 1967 to create curricula and initiate education and training, with scholarships and support, for students from Mexico and other Latin American countries. Its first seminar on the research and conservation of modern and contemporary painting began in 2005, led by conservator Raquel Huerta. This seminar evolved in 2009 to cover the needs of current heritage, expanding to diverse materials, support, and media, and collaborating with different public and private institutions as well as artists to address the complexities of conserving contemporary art.

Participation in the RICAC network by professionals from Mexico developed into a small but cohesive Mexican professional discussion group, built with the assistance of Lizeth Mata and Jo Ana Morfín, which remains active. For example, in 2014 it organized two international meetings in Mexico City: Strategies for Contemporary Art Conservation and SIPAD (Simposio Internacional de Preservación Audiovisual y Digital: Archivos Contemporáneos), stressing the urgency of serious and permanent research and development. These events were organized by the National Restoration Coordination (CNRPC-INAH) and ENCRyM-INAH, with the Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo (MUAC) at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) and the Jumex Museum (a private collection).

<em>Sphère rouge</em> (2001-12) by Argentine-born artist Julio Le Parc

Learning from international initiatives and institutions, ENCRyM-INAH has played a key role in conserving contemporary art in Mexico through faculty support of specialized education for its students in contemporary art. At the same time, MUAC— Mexico's largest public contemporary art collection—has contributed to the growth of the professional field in Mexico through funding, internships, case studies, and workshops. Within the UNAM academic community, MUAC has united diverse institutes and faculties through interdisciplinary projects focused on the study and conservation of Mexican cultural heritage.

For example, the 2014 exhibition Defying Stability: Artistic Processes in Mexico 1952–1967 was conceived by UNAM's Institute of Aesthetic Research and MUAC to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the opening of the university campus. It synthesized for the first time, in the context of Mexican art history, a complete and critical review of the artistic processes of this period (1952–67), including painting, sculpture, architecture, theater, literature, and experimental cinema.

Included in this exhibition was a reinstallation of Manuel Felguérez's immense Iron Mural (Mural de Hierro), originally made in 1961 for the lobby of the new Diana Cinema in Mexico City. The mural, over twenty-eight meters wide, was made using metallic scrap, a reference to industrial production. For the 2014 exhibition, an interdisciplinary team reinstalled and restored the mural inside UAC's facilities through a long-term loan; a team of UNAM's curators, exhibition designers, restorers, and technicians, as well as the artist himself, worked to recover both the mural's artistic intention and its materiality. In 2017 Iron Mural was displayed again. This exhibition also included the restoration of a fragment of another Felguérez mural, Canto al Océano, donated to the MUAC collection, which was originally assembled in 1963 with mother-of-pearl, abalone shells, and metal. For both exhibitions, a highly nterdisciplinary approach was needed to reinstall the artwork, and it reflected increased interest in Mexico in preserving modern and contemporary artworks.


As in other parts of the world, modern and contemporary art clearly presents new challenges for Latin American conservation specialists in the areas of research, exhibition, and preservation. Even though a general lack of funding and resources persists, along with insufficient dedication to preservation issues in most major institutions, there clearly has been progress over the last decade in Chile, Mexico, and elsewhere in Latin America in raising awareness of the conservation challenges presented by contemporary art. Most conservators working in this part of the field are now in more regular contact with one another, both within their countries and across the entire region. This enables a far more informed dialogue on a variety of complicated conservation issues.

Claudio Hernández is head conservator at the Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. Caroll Yasky is head of collection at El Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende in Chile. Tom Learner is head of Science at the GCI.