PRINT Summer 2010

Inés Katzenstein

Sandra Gamarra, The Erased Art Museum (d’aprés Emilio Hernández Saavedra, 1970), 2008–2009, oil on canvas, 86 5/8 x 78 3/4". From Micromuseo.

THE DICHOTOMY between the traditional museum and the “new” museum is not the same everywhere in the world. In Buenos Aires, one of the most culturally active cities in South America, for instance, a museum with a consistent exhibition program, a curatorial department, an education department, and professional management—things that would be taken as givens at any art institution in Europe or the United States—is still a novelty, a genuine accomplishment, something to strive for.

Thus, it was an enormous step in the historical development of local and regional arts institutions when Eduardo F. Costantini, the most important collector of Latin American art in Argentina, founded MALBA (Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires) in 2001. (I worked as a curator there from 2004 to 2008.) With its professional staff, coherent schedule of high-quality international exhibitions and careful exhibition design, and an acquisition program that is truly exceptional in Argentina, MALBA set a new standard for contemporary art institutions here. But if institutional or curatorial experimentation is what you are after, MALBA might not be the answer. In other words, despite being relatively new, it isn’t a “new” museum. Still, whatever faults and limitations it may have, MALBA has single-handedly raised the standards of the city’s art institutions; in any case, pretty much the only alternative to its museological approach in Argentina and other Latin American countries is that of the major public museum, typically beset by severe budgetary constraints and the pessimism and bureaucratic sluggishness that tend to pervade state-run institutions in this part of the world.

The past two decades have witnessed the opening of any number of “new” museums in Latin America. But, like MALBA, these institutions largely emulate the modern international museum rather than pioneer an institutional model geared to reflect recent artistic practices. Although these museums are welcome additions to our cultural life, they tend to accept the established institutional model as if it hasn’t for years been subject to questioning and critical revisions from within.

Another familiar problem is the new museum as crown—or cenotaph—of its founder. This model dictates that a fortune be spent on a major, emblematic building to house the donor’s personal collection; the museum will figure in the city’s tourist guides but may not matter culturally. In Argentina, for instance, one of the richest people in the country, María Amalia Lacroze de Fortabat, built a spectacular museum designed by Rafael Viñoly to house a collection of works acquired—and now exhibited—without any discernible criteria. To those who would argue that such vanity projects are harmless, one must point out that the resources could have been put to better use elsewhere; there’s also the fact that within institutionally weak contexts, like this one, such projects tend to mislead audiences in terms of what they should expect of a museum.

Despite such discouraging trends, a few innovative projects have emerged in Latin America that attempt to combat the institutional vacuum of their contexts. Strategically, I have chosen two examples in peripheral situations within the periphery itself, both of them achieved with little or no money. The Ferrowhite museum, located in the abandoned port of Bahía Blanca, an Argentine city that was once the principal point of departure for agricultural exports, documents the history of the region’s now-defunct railway system in relation to the country’s political history. It may seem beside the point to speak here of non-art museums, but given the critical tint of Ferrowhite’s curatorial vision, the intelligence and unexpectedness of its exhibition devices, and the heroic nature of such an unlikely endeavor, I believe it is eminently worth mentioning.

Peruvian critic Gustavo Buntinx launched his Micromuseo initiative in the 1980s, at a moment when the city of Lima had neither a museum of modern art nor a museum of contemporary art. Buntinx advocated for a “passionate conception of the museum not as a treasure chamber or paragon of—social or academic—prestige, but as a critical agent of a new citizenship.” Combination curatorial office, publishing house, improbable collection where popular and contemporary art intersect, website (, and device for the crossing of disciplines, Micromuseo is built on the idea that “to be truly contemporary, a museum must give up any exclusive commitment to art.” Anthropology, art history, and politics are bound into the interest of thinking critically about the current world of images.

One hopes that the region’s major museums will draw on these ideas and impetuses, since though our art institutions seem able to attract interesting artists, they often fail to harness their innovative spirit. At a moment like this one, a time of growing professionalism in the art world and growing populism in its institutions, what ideas might be capable of breaking the complacency of artists and the boredom of audiences? Perhaps the cultivation of curiosity, as opposed to the rigid pursuit of major “projects,” might give rise to a form of management conceived as investigation—that is, a management transformative by virtue of itself being constantly transformed by its cultural context.

Translated from Spanish by Jane Brodie.