Representations of Latinos and Mainstream
Museums in the United States
the PDF version
Museums are important venues in which a society can define itself and present
itself publicly. Museums solidify culture, endow it with tangibility, in a
way few other things do.
Steven C. Dubin
Culture forms our beliefs. We perceive the version
of reality that it communicates. Dominant paradigms, predefined concepts that
exist unquestionable, unchallengeable, are transmitted to us through the culture.
Culture is made by those in power.
are privileged vehicles for the representation of individual and collective
identities, whether they consciously set out to be so or not.
Mari Carmen Ramirez
This paper focuses on the conceptions,
interpretations, and representations of Latin Americans and Latinos as denoted
by mainstream art museums in the United States. I believe that one cannot address
these institutions' practices with regard to Latinos without taking into consideration
the treatment of Latin Americans, because attitudes about Latin Americans are
often transferred onto Latinos and vice versa. Through an examination of the
structures and practices that exist within government policies and U.S. mainstream
art museums, I intend to illustrate the continued disparagement of Latin
Americans and Latinos by these institutions.
 I focus on the Smithsonian Institution's collection and exhibition
practices as a means to illustrate persistent subversive conventions affecting
Latinos on a national level. I also analyze the Smithsonian's exhibit Arte
Latino as an example of one of the most recent attempts to represent Latinos
in the U.S.
The United States has a long history of aggressive
foreign policy with regard to Latin America.  This history attests to the colonial
practices of the U.S. and emphasizes the regularized censure of Latin Americans.
Propaganda associated with the U.S. government's operations in Latin America
has created conceptions of Latin Americans and Latinos. The U.S. government
has exploited art exhibitions to further its own goals, while countering negative
responses to its activities in Latin America.
 Art and cultural events related to foreign policy implies strong
ties between mainstream art museums and the political, military, and corporate
powers in the U.S., henceforth referred to as the power elite.
 These types of events also demonstrate how the power elite
constructs what and how information is disseminated to the North American public.  This complex and conflicted relationship
between the power elite, mainstream art institutions, and the public leads me
to question what the true functions of these institutions are and who they are
really meant to serve?
Whoever constructs and represents culture, affects
the conceptions that are formed about that culture. Art functions within a
matrix between auction houses, art dealers, collectors of art, museums, art
critics, art historians, and universities. This matrix affects standards and
practice and manages art what the public has access to and how it is perceived.
Public museums have the power to form ideas about
art and culture through their collections and exhibitions. Ivan Karp explains:
"The sources of power are derived from the capacity of . . . institutions to
classify and define peoples and societies. This is the power to represent:
to reproduce structures of belief and experience through which cultural differences
are understood." 
The objective of exhibitions is disseminated through the display of objects
(by theme, the didactic information, color, arrangement of objects, etc), which
direct the viewers' experience. Display methods attempt to interpret for the
viewer the message and intention of the artist and object as perceived and interpreted
by the curator(s). The issue that arises here is that when an object or experience
is displayed and interpreted, it is the interpreter's perspective that is presented
and communicated. While this may be a virtually accepted cliche within the
art world, the general public may lack the knowledge and confidence to disagree
or challenge information presented; therefore what is dictated is accepted as
The Smithsonian Institution is one
of the largest museum, research, and educational complexes in the world. As
a national institution the Smithsonian defines, through its collection practices
and exhibitions, what is valid and valuable for North American culture and history.
Willful Neglect, drafted in 1994 by the Smithsonian Institution Task
Force on Latino Issues  asserts:
The Smithsonian Institution almost entirely excludes and ignores
the Latino population of the United States. This lack of inclusion is glaringly
obvious in the lack of a single museum facility focusing on Latino or Latin
American art, culture, or history; the near-absence of permanent Latino exhibitions
or programming' the small number of Latino staff, and the minimal number in
curatorial or managerial positions; and the almost total lack of Latino representations
in the governance structure. 
Although improvements such as the
development of the Smithsonian Center for Latino Initiatives have occurred,
I maintain that most of the issues addressed by Willful Neglect have
Scholars and supporters of Latino
art, as opposed to institutional initiatives, have made an impact on the inclusion
of Latino objects within the Smithsonian Institutions various collections of
objects. Marvette Perez played a key role in coordinating the acquisition of
3200 Puerto Rican objects from the Vidal Collection for the Smithsonian's National
Museum of American History. Andrew Connors worked at the Smithsonian American
Art Museum (SAAM) approximately between 1992 and 1999 and focused his efforts
on the acquisition of Latino objects and the preparations for an exhibition
of Latino art, which would later become Arte Latino.
 Connors created a wish list of artists and objects to be included
in SAAM's collection. Objects were targeted based on their historical significance
within American history. In 1998 Helene Lucero joined Connors in the task of
acquisitions of Latino objects for SAAM and the planning of the exhibition.
Arte Latino, Treasures from the
Smithsonian American Art Museum consists of many of the objects that Connors
and Lucero worked to acquire for SAAM, yet neither was involved in the exhibition's
final form. The U.S. tour of Arte Latino began in September of 2000
and will come to an end in January of 2003.  Although the exhibition catalogue
touts the importance of telling the story of America through the visual arts
the viewer is provided very little information that would serve to contextualize
the objects in the exhibition within their specific cultures nor within American
society or history. Except for a video that is part of the exhibition, in which
some of the artists speak about their work, there is nothing that reflects the
hours of interviews Connors and Lucero had with artists in relation to their
work and the piece acquired for SAAM. Most of the didactic information created
by Connors and Lucero, which was meant to address issues of place, history and
culture was not incorporated into the traveling exhibition. The catalogue briefly
describes each artist and his or her work individually, but neither is related
to the concept behind their acquisition or place within the exhibition.
The objects included in Arte Latino
are relevant to the history and experience of Latinos in the U.S., but the
public must be educated about their significance in terms of their place in
U.S. history, in terms of the specific maker and their unique cultural heritage
and experiences, and in terms of their being a part of a larger collective,
which in this case is the exhibition and SAAM's collection. Here was an opportunity
where information could have educated the museum visitor, and addressed Latinos'
places in American history, but it was deemed unnecessary to provide.
Although the intended meaning or
message behind Arte Latino may have been well intentioned, it is necessary
to consider how the interpretive audience perceived and interpreted what was
presented. It cannot be assumed that messages are received in the intended
spirit they were projected, especially if these coded messages do not include
enough information to form an independent and educated opinion. Since mainstream
museums participated in the construction of misconceptions and negative portrayals
of Latin Americans and Latinos over time, I maintain that it is now their responsibility
to educate the North American public about the relevance and contributions of
Latin Americans and Latinos in the U.S.
Highlighting Latino art through an
exhibition is a method utilized to (re)introduce Latinos to the North American
public and acknowledge Latinos' contributions to the arts, but is it a sufficient
effort? Too often representations of Nuevo Mexicanos, Chicanos, Puerto Riquenos
(to name a few) are offered and received as representative of the entire Latino
population. Although Arte Latino is meant to: ". . . highlight more
than 200 years of Latino art from across the United States," the majority of
the sixty-six paintings, sculptures, and photographs are works by artists that
live and work primarily in the Southwest and Puerto Rico. The exhibition suggests
through its title that the diverse reality of latinidad in the United States
would be presented, when in actuality it would be impossible to do so when the
objects shown are limited to artists from a very specific region.
Additionally, a temporary display of Latino art that
travels around the country exposes the public to Latino art, but only for a
brief period of time. These types of exhibitions neither provide nor guarantee
a sustainable presence for Latinos within museums. It could also be argued
that the separation of Latino art objects from other objects produced by North
Americans reinforces that Latinos and their art are not considered part of the
weave of the social fabric of the United States. Inclusion of Latino art in
permanent exhibitions of U.S. mainstream museums would illustrate Latino presence
in the U.S., which could educate the public and stimulate the recognition of
Latinos' contributions to this country. As Arte Latino is now at the
end of its tour, I wonder how many of these objects will be incorporated into
the permanent exhibitions at SAAM. Currently SAAM remains closed due to renovations,
so we can only wait to see if and how Latinos are included in the story of our
Cultural dynamics that may be foreign, both to those
in the museum field and the audience must be acknowledged, incorporated, and
made accessible if everyone is expected to benefit from the encounter.
 One possible method that could work to reverse the adverse
attitudes towards Latin Americans and Latinos is the establishment and development
of Latin American and Latino art collections. Inclusion in U.S. mainstream
museums collection and permanent exhibitions validates the objects' historical
significance. It creates a space in time for those objects and all that they
represent. This is where and how the object, and the culture it represents,
gains power. This is a space that Difference must occupy, yet is too often
it has been devalued and eliminated.
That Latinos are not a priority on
the agenda of the Smithsonian is evident, not only by limited exhibitions of
Latino art, but also by the lack of Latinos in high-level program and management
areas. Perhaps this is due to the low priority of Latino art on the agenda
at the Smithsonian Institution, which may imply that administrators see no reason
to hire Latinos for these positions. It is also possible that Latinos and those
interested in Latino art are not drawn to apply to the Smithsonian because of
its history and ideology, which implies limited professional opportunities.
The Smithsonian is directed and operated
by individuals. It is these individuals that set policy. It is they that set
the tone and establish the ideology put into practice. It is their conceptions
and projects of interest that are endorsed. I maintain the Smithsonian Institution
does not represent the nation, instead it demonstrates the ideology of its current
staff. Which leads me to wonder, How can we expect change if the same people
continue to operate in the same manner?
Who interprets, constructs, and presents art and
culture is significant. Political and economic policies towards Latin America
have stimulated fear and encouraged intolerance towards the peoples of that
region, as well as towards Latinos. Currently most individuals in positions
of power in museums, government, or corporations have been educated and conditioned
by a model that promotes Euro-American superiority over that which has been
defined as the "Other." The emphasis on and privileging of Euro-American aesthetics
continuously produce a condescending approach to Latin American and Latino art.
 U.S. mainstream museums have bolstered these attitudes through
their collection practices and the low number and deficient nature of exhibitions
of Latin American and Latino art. None of this allows for a balanced consideration
of elements and issues that are significant to non Euro-American cultures.  When Latin American and Latino art is stereotypically
categorized, presented as exotic or as an example of the "Other" it constructs
and reinforces negative attitudes about those communities and their art.
Public art institutions assert their place in society as educational resources,
but I maintain that what is taught does not necessarily correspond to the needs
and reality of the community at large. This paper asserts that mainstream museums
in the U.S. have and continue to serve as components of the communications apparatus
of the political, military, and corporate powers' of the United States. The
power elite continue to manipulate these institutions as long as they continue
to be managed by an administration that is educated and accustomed to operating
within a structure that continues to favor the Euro-American model and aesthetics;
as they continue to be directed by advisory boards who are most often of the
power elite; as they continue to be dependent on private support, which most
often comes from those in the power elite; and as they continue to become increasingly
dependent on corporate sponsorship. Thus, that which is presented by mainstream
art institutions more often than not represents the conceptions, attitudes,
opinions, and interests of the power elite.
The deficient nature and numbers of Latin American
and Latino art collections established in and exhibitions produced by U.S. mainstream
art institutions have compounded the issue of the lack of support in the nation
to educate and develop scholars and professionals interested in pursuing the
fields of Latin American and Latino art. Although the Latino population is
acknowledged as the second largest ethnic group in the United States, they have
historically been discounted.
 Peter C. Marzio, director of the Museum of Fine Arts of Houston,
identified, in 1991the absence of resources for scholarship and publications,
the cost of preparation, and issues of revenue as reasons behind the deficient
treatment of Latino art. Marzio states:
Since [Latino] art is not studied in many universities or reviewed
in professional or mass-circulated periodicals, information about the artists
and their works is not coherent or easy to locate. . . . [F]ew . . . museums
have the funds needed to carry out basic research or to expand into new program
areas. . . . [The] pressure to earn revenue has many ramifications for minority
The relative lack of interest in
or acknowledgement of Latin American and Latino art in museums suggests that
it is considered insignificant, which in turn minimizes its appeal and leads
to an attitude of disregard. Following suit, most universities in the U.S.
have not developed a curriculum related to interest in Latin American or Latino
visual art. This perpetuates the lack of human resources in the field, which
in turn undermines the development for support elements for scholars, such as
publications and professional opportunities, etc. 
Museums should work towards representing
the complexity of culture in the shared space, as well as representing our shared
and differing experiences in the United States. Yet the responsibility for
higher quality exhibitions of Latin American and Latino art does not solely
lie with museums. Latinos must get more involved in the representation of their
culture! Gloria Anzaldúa writes:
Individually, but also as a racial entity, we need to voice our needs. We
need to say to white society: We need you to accept the fact that [we] are different,
to acknowledge your rejection and negation of us. We need you to own the act
that you looked upon us as less than human, that you stole our lands, our personhood,
our self-respect. We need you to make public restitution: to say that, to compensate
for your own sense of defectiveness, you strive for power over us, you erase
our history and our experience because it makes you feel guilty—you'd rather
forget your brutish acts.. . . To say that you are afraid of us, that to put
distance between us, you wear the mask of contempt. . . . And finally, tell
us what you need from us.
Exhibitions of Latin American and Latino art could
prove to be a service and an educational resource to the cultural s they celebrate
and explores, but more importantly to individuals who are not part of those
Ignorance breeds intolerance, yet through art, we
can gain an understanding of the unique cultural beliefs and histories of the
many different people that make up this planet. Art exhibitions that foster
cultural awareness could stimulate dialogue that leads to understanding and
acceptance of those who are different. Additionally, these types of exhibitions
could serve as a necessary component of recognition that encourages self-pride.
Through this paper I attempt to challenge statements
about the improvement in the treatment, conceptions, and conditions of Latinos
in the U.S. How to dismantle the current model and how to integrate more culturally
responsive and community building exhibitions is addressed, but by no means
resolved. I work towards the rethinking of the representation of Latin Americans
and Latino culture in the U.S. These groups must seek to educate themselves
and others, through higher learning and then through the varied possible applications
of the arts. We must assert our place in the institutions, in the Nation, and
in the consciousness of those among whom we live.
 Since the discovery of America we
have wrestled with the issue of conceptions, interpretations, and representations
of the indigenous cultures of the Americas by Euro Americans. I am aware
that in the last thirty years scholars and professionals have written about
the history of oppression of Latin Americans and Latinos in the U.S. referencing
museums' collection and exhibition practices as evidence. Mine is not a new
approach, instead I hope to contribute to the current evaluation of U.S. mainstream
art museums' representation of Latin Americans and Latinos in the hope that
if these issues are continuously brought to the forefront, they may be more
difficult to deny, which might lead to change.
 As early as 1823 The Monroe Doctrine established
the United States' right to "protect" Latin America from European powers.
Peter Rosset and John Vandermeer, The Nicaragua Reader: Documents of a
Revolution under Fire (New York: Grove Press, 1970) 101.
During the nineteenth century, an aggressive expansionism was added to the
defensive paternalism of the Monroe Doctrine. . . . The United States came
to believe that it had been singled out for a special mission: to carry its
particular brand of economic, social and political organization initially
westwards within North America and later throughout the Western Hemisphere.
 The 1933 "Good Neighbor" Policy asserted the
U.S. government's opposition to direct intervention in Latin America and generated
an exchange of art between the two countries. Jenny Pearce elaborates on
the intention of the "Good Neighbor" policy, see Rossett and Vandermeer 1970,
108-109. The "Good Neighbor" Policy exemplifies the type of links that exist
between politics and culture in the United States. The Rockefellers were
directly involved with the development of the "Good Neighbor: Policy, and
have a long history of interests affiliated with Latin America. See Waldo
Rasmussen, ed., Latin American Artists of the Twentieth Century; MoMA
Exhibition Catalogue (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1993) 12.
Nelson A. Rockefeller became a trustee of the Museum [of Modern
Art] in 1932 and served as the Museum's president from 1939 until 1941, when
he resigned to work full-time as President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Coordinator
of the Office of Inter-American Affairs. (Later he would hold the office
of Assistant Secretary of State for Latin American Affairs.) The Rockefeller
family's commitment to Latin American art and culture . . . coincided not
only with their business interest in Latin American countries (Standard Oil
of New Jersey's operations in Venezuela and Mexico, for example) but also
with the official United States wartime "Good Neighbor' policy, which Nelson
Rockefeller had a hand in elaborating through his government appointment.
The policy was intended in large part to influence Latin American countries
toward the Allies rather than toward the Axis powers. Among the projects
undertaken by the Inter-American Affairs office were exhibitions of American
art sent to Latin America and reciprocal shows of Latin American art circulated
in the United States. The organization of a number of these exhibitions was
contracted to The Museum of Modern Art.
The self-appointed task of the U.S. to protect the world from evildoers often
coincides with capitalistic interest. I would argue that the interests of
the Rockefeller's in Latin America made it equitable to assist in the development
of projects that would smooth relations between the U.S. and Latin America.
Conveniently they were able to protect their financial interests in Latin
America while appearing philanthropic through their own image salvaging efforts.
Despite the Rockefeller's possible good intentions towards Latin America,
the negative impact on the communities of those nations related to their actions
outweigh their intent.
During WWII the United States' concerns about Latin American allegiance to
the Allies stimulated the promotion, collection, and exhibitions of Latin
American art by North American galleries and museums. See Mari Carmen Ramirez,
"Brokering Identities: Art curators and the politics of cultural representation,"
Thinking About Exhibitions, Eds. Reesa Greenberg, et. al. (London and
New York: Routledge, 1996) 27. Ramirez discusses the wave of Latin American
exhibitions in the United States that occurred in the 40s. She informs that
the Pan American Union was founded due to concerns over Latin America's potentially
subversive role during WWII. See Eva Cockroft, "The United States and socially
concerned Latin American art," The Latin American Spirit: Art and Artists
in the United States, 1920-1970, ed. Luis cancel (New York: Bronx Museum
of the Arts, 1988) 194 for more discussion regarding the Pan-American Union's
exhibition program. Ramirez links MoMA with U.S. foreign policy when she
writes: "In its role as [a] recruit in Uncle Sam's defense line-up' the Museum
of Modern Art organized eight exhibitions of Latin American art and began
collecting efforts during this five-year period." (1996, 27).
John F. Kennedy conceived of the United States Alliance for Progress policy
after the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Through participation in the economic
and cultural development the U.S. meant to prevent the spread of communism
in Latin America. These efforts incorporated monetary support for the Organization
of Latin American States (OAS), which aided the development of Latin American
exhibitions in the U.S. The Organization of Latin American States (OAS),
previously know as the Pan American Union, has provides Latin American artists
an opportunity to show work in the United States and became an important place
to show for those seeking international recognition. See Cancel, et al. 1988,
During the 1980s the Regan administration was involved in subversive activities
in Central America while at the same time asserting its commitment to cultural
exchange between the U.S. and Latin America. Refer to Shifra Goldman, "Latin
Visions and Revisions," Art in America 76:5 (May 1988): 199. For a
discussion of the Regan administration's activities in Central America during
the 1980s see Rossett and Vandermeer, The Nicaragua Reader: Documents of
a Revolution under Fire (New York: Grove Press, 1970) 27. A surge of
Mexican art exhibitions in the United States followed the approval of the
North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1993. See Ramirez 1996, 27.
 See C. Wright Mills, Power Elite,
(Publisher Unknown, 1960s) 6. Mills explains the structure and mode of operation
of the power elite:
Within American society,
major national power now resides in the economic, the political, and the military
domains. . . . Religious, educational, and family institutions are not autonomous
centers of national power; on the contrary, these decentralized areas are
increasingly shaped by the big three . . . Families and churches and schools
adapt to modern life; governments and armies and corporations shape it; and,
as they do so, they turn these lesser institutions into means for their ends.
. . . And the symbols of all these lesser institutions are used to legitimate
the power and the decisions of the big three.
 Education and the media are other
methods utilized by the U.S. government to spread propaganda and shape opinions
of the masses. See Mills, 310- 317.
 Victor Burgin argues, ". . . the canon
is what gets written about, collected, and taught; it is self-perpetuating,
self-justifying, and arbitrary; it is the gold standard against which the
values of a new aesthetic currencies are measured. Victor Burgin, The
Endo of Art Theory: Criticism and Postmodernity (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.:
Humanities Press, 1986) 159.
 Ivan Karp, Christine Mullen Kramer,
and Steven D. Lavine, eds, Museums and Communities: The Politics of Public
Culture (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992) 1-2.
 The Task Force formed as a result
of the Latino Working Committee, which formed in the 1980s. The Working Committee
consisted of employees from the Smithsonian that were upset about issues relevant
to Latinos and the lack of representation of Latinos by the Institution.
Andrew Connors, Personal Interview (4 October 2002). The Task Force was a
citizens' committee. Smithsonian Institution Task Force on Latino Issues,
Willful Neglect: The Smithsonian Institution and U.S. Latinos (Washington,
D.C.: Smithsonian Insitutions, May 1994).
 Smithsonian Institution Task Force
on Latino Issues, Willful Neglect: the Smithsonian Institution and U.S.
Latinos (Washington, D.C.: The Smithsonian Institution, 1994) cover letter.
 SAAM's purchased acquisitions
of Latino art are a direct result of the efforts made by the Smithsonian Institution
Task Force on Latino Issues. The funds utilized to acquire many of the pieces
included in Arte Latino were allocated by The Smithsonian Center for
Latino Initiatives from their budget. Funds provided by the Center were also
utilized to pay for the salaries of those working on Latino art oriented projects,
such as Arte Latino. Helene Lucero, Personal Interview, 12 October
Arte Latino was intended to open at SAAM before going on tour.
The version intended for D.C. would have been more inclusive of the nearly
500 Latino objects in SAAM's collection. Due to unforeseen structural issues
SAAM closed its doors earlier than planned for renovations and the show never
opened in its intended form. Instead the traveling exhibition is the only
version known and seen by the public. Andrew Connors, Personal Interview,
4 October 2002.
 On the whole Latino art and
Latinos continue to be discounted at the Smithsonian. They are left out of
permanent exhibitions on display at the different museums that make up the
Smithsonian complex. Presently there are few advocates for the permanent
display of Latino art within the museums, thus the scenario promises to remain
the same. Connors, 2002. See also Noriega 2000,45. Additionally, conversations
regarding the Smithsonian's collection and exhibition practices with regard
to Latino art were a regular topic of discussion during the Smithsonian Institute
Latino Initiative Two Week Summer Seminar in 2001.
Ramirez develops this idea:
A more accurate approach toward the representation of Latin
American and Latino art implies a thorough questioning of the centrality of
prevailing curatorial practices and the development of exhibition criteria
from within the traditions and conventions of the many countries that make
up Latin America or the different groups that make up the Latino population
of the United States. . . . Such an approach, in turn involves expanding the
expertise of museums with the incorporation of professionals versed in the
Latin American [and] Latino heritage, experimenting with innovative exhibition
formats and installations that will allow for the presentation of the points
of view of those being represented, and ultimately revising the role and function
of curators as mediators of cultural exchanges. (Ramirez 1992, 67)
 Davalos describes the ways in
which art critics and art museums describe "minority art":
It is "emergent' (implying
that the cultural and artistic sensibilities are new and not a significant
part of the nation's past or art history), "colorful' (suggesting it is exotic
or fetish), "political' (implying that the work is parochial), and technically
inferior or lacking in aesthetic quality (claiming a standard beyond the artist's
reach and refusing to acknowledge that the standard is not universal). (Noriega
 Although modern Latin American
art stems from Euro-American ideals, there is a personalization
linked to identity and culture that occurs, which is completely
unique to Latin America.
 See J. Jorge Klor de Alva, "Aztlan, Borinquen,
and Hispanic Nationalism in the United States," The Latino Reader: Culture,
Economy and Society, eds. Darder, Antonia and Rodolfo D. Torres (Oxford:
Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 1998) 63 and George Lipsitz, "Their America and
Ours: Intercultural Communication in the Context of "Our America," Jose Marti's
"Our America;' From National to Hemispheric Cultural Studies, eds. Jeffrey
Belnap and Raúl Fernandez. (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1998)
 Karp, et al, 1991, 124.
Perhaps a solution to the lack of knowledgeable individuals in the
field of Latin American Art and the misinterpretation of Latin American art
is to bring in curators and museum staff from Latin American countries who
could be brought in as guest curators and educators.
Gloria Anzaldua, Borderlands La Frontera: The New Mestiza (San Francisco:
Aunt Lute Books, 1999) 107-108.
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