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Cesáreo Moreno – Visual Arts Director and Curator for the National Museum of Mexican Art (Part 2)

Interview with Cesáreo Moreno – Visual Arts Director and Curator for the National Museum of Mexican Art

Interview and transcription by Rachel Clarke, edited for print by Hillary Marzec.

Juan Angel Chavez "Jonesville Cherry" (2007)

RC: How do you find your artists? What is your mode of location and/or instruction?

CM: It’s always a two-way street. I’d like to say that a majority of the artists find us–they gravitate toward us, and for a number of reasons. They contact us. But here’s where it gets tricky: we are community-minded, but also nationally-minded. I have always focused on community as being not something regional, but as something a little more conceptual. In other words, the borders of Pilsen do not define our community. It is not even defined by Chicago, nor by the U.S., nor by Mexico. There are now Mexicans who live in Paris, who live in Canada. The idea of community is something–like identity–that is very complex, huge, and elusive. It escapes us as soon as we attempt to define it. Having said that, as of 2006, we changed our name to the National Museum of Mexican Art, and so now our audience is basically our community, and our community is transnational. We didn’t just arbitrarily decide to go national: the new name is basically a recognition of the work we’ve been doing for more than 8 years. For me, finding artists is not just a matter of going to local galleries, no matter how great a source they are. Looking for artists now means flying out to see an opening in Los Angeles, going to see a show in San Antonio, keeping up with my peers in Albuquerque or San Francisco, looking for art in the far corners of our expanded community. Now, this all sounds great, but it is difficult to put into practice. We do rely heavily on word-of-mouth and other artists finding us. The Day of the Dead show is an excellent stepping-stone or foot in the door for a lot of artists. Many of our featured artists began their exhibitions with us in the form of group shows, and usually the Day of the Dead. It is a wonderful opportunity for us to enter into creative dialogue with the artists: we get to know them, they get to know us.

RC: Are there any issues, good or bad, that you are currently having with any artists?

CM: By definition, the museum field is an institution that collects history as it is happening. When new media and art forms are transformed, you will always see museums struggling to answer such questions as, “Do we collect it? Do we not collect it? How do we make this decision for the future? Do we just say we want it now, and let future generations have the option to throw it away if it is no longer valid? Is a ‘bad example’ not relevant also?” I’m especially referring to digital art, and I am not alone in considering this issue of fine art and art prints. With art prints, you basically have a very high quality, high resolution digital print on archival paper: on one hand, we could say that this is a fancy photocopy, but on the other hand, we could say that it’s archival. It’s not ink, it’s pigment, and it’s therefore closer to the art form. As a museum, we must have these discussions of what constitutes a valid art form, and we must consider works in this light. Another example is with digital photography. Is it the actual CD or DVD that is to be stored somewhere? Or is it the concept or the image or the photograph? I think that the one art form that has really been discussed most recently (in the past 10 years or more) would be the issue of photography. The word “photography” is being completely re-defined now: perhaps in the future, the term will become obsolete, eclipsed by the far more accurate word “image.” Photography, imaging, and the ability to reproduce and reprint quality images are complicating the art world in the most beautiful way. It’s a fortunate complication, though: sometimes the “wrench in the workings” is the most refreshing thing. I embrace that whole idea.

RC: So the idea is: what do we keep, what don’t we keep, and why? It’s a good thing that everything can be reproduced if it needs to be in terms of digital art, but it’s also complicating because…

CM: It is complicating because it changes your definition, and it changes your approach. As a museum, you set up a system to collect and preserve artwork; what happens when you are confronted with something that makes you question that system? You adapt. The museum adapts itself to the artists. It is complicated, but it is beautiful. We naturally have the two expected camps: “Yes, it’s art,” and “No, it’s just a fancy poster.” That argument has been a part of the design world since it started. With designers, the challenge is whether or not to define yourself as a “designer,” or just a talented person in graphic design. Digital art opens a whole other can of worms in terms of maintaining value with increased reproduction. For example, if a print gets destroyed, the museum could simply call the artist and ask for a reprint. Is the value of the piece really in the artist’s autograph signed at the bottom? It certainly raises a lot of questions about the value the art market is going to place on such art pieces. And naturally, the art market also depend on what the museums say, and it’s always to their advantage to say, “It’s in a museum collection,” or “it’s a museum piece,” or “it’s archival”—which then, of course, raises the price.

Juan Angel Chavez "Jimshoe" (1996)

RC: Does there seem to be a popular style or medium that you have seen used more frequently by your artists?

CM: There has been a lot more digital imaging in all art forms. Even today’s sculptors are utilizing digital imaging and information to create their art. One of the best examples of this cross-over from “old” technology and art to “new” is silkscreen printing. The artists work with images, they scan them, they can manipulate them on the computer, and then they can do the color separation right there. They just burn the screens from each one, and then it becomes a hand-screened process, and it becomes inseparable. The digital and the manual parts of the silkscreen process are like coffee and milk. They have found each other, complement each other, and have made each other better.

RC: Do you see a lot of video?

CM: I do see a lot of video, though I think that this is a whole other realm of art. When I see video in the museum context, it’s more a part of an installation. With projections and DVD players, you see a lot more easily (and simply a lot more of) what the artist is trying to convey, compared to when video was not as available as it is today.

RC: I understand that the medium tends to be digital, but what about themes? What are the popular themes you’ve seen?

CM: Working at the Museum of Mexican Art, I have naturally seen the issue of immigration in a lot of recent exhibits. Immigration, border-crossing, transnational ideas: these all seem to be at the forefront right now. I think that this is a reaction to the way the country has used Latino immigrants as scapegoats for a number of concerns: the economic crisis; global terrorism; the American educational system; insurance problems and emergency room costs; etc. I think that because Latinos have been portrayed in a negative light due to immigration issues, a lot of artists use their art as a way to push back and shout more loudly about this theme.

Juan Angel Chavez "Burt Clouds" (2003)

RC: Is there an artist you’re particularly interested in right now?

CM: Yes, but I hesitate to single out anyone. We all have artwork toward which we gravitate. I’ve been particularly interested in Juan Angel Chavez. The way he has tackled his role of “artist” is, I think, very traditional, yet fresh in a lot of ways. The way he was educated–both on the streets and in school–is where we need to be right now. I think that most individuals who are considering art as a career need to go to school, not necessarily to pursue an MFA at the Art Institute or RISD, but because they need to learn about the past in order to understand the present. I think the artists of today have to learn a lot more than just their own cultural history and how it figures into the narrative fabric of the United States. I think they need to learn a whole new vocabulary, and I think Juan Anhgel Chavez gets it. He completely gets it, and he is dedicated to what he does. It is more about hard work than talent when it comes to being a really good artist, but I think he has both talent and a good work ethic. He’s got a great website, a studio in Pilsen, and he also has a great urban aesthetic, which particularly suits my personal tastes. It’s out of the graffiti/skateboard movement, and I think there were a lot of great things that came out of that.

RC: What does your museum and its program try to accomplish?

CM: We try to appreciate and encourage appreciation for the beauty and richness of our culture and our history, whether it be inspired by a 2,000-year-old ceramic pot from an ancient Meso-American civilization, or the most recent installation created in Mexico City, Los Angeles, or Chicago. We are trying to get people to understand the connection we have with our past and the depth—the profound depth—of history and culture that is a part of who we are.

RC: What are your future plans down the line? Tell us about your upcoming show in February.

CM: Translating Revolutions is the show in February, and we’ve also been traveling around a few exhibits, and will touch on the African presence in Mexico at the DuSable Museum of African American History. We also just helped work on a Benito Juarez exhibit at the Chicago History Museum. As for future goals, it must first be recognized that we are not the only quality Mexican Art Museum in the Midwest. We don’t feel that we have an exclusive right to this identity, or that we are the only ones to do this. We think that our artists should be shuffled into the deck of cultural institutions and museums all over this country and the world. Hopefully, with 2010 being the year of Mexico, people will get to see different Mexican artists in different contexts and understand how we fit into the whole scheme of things here in the United States.

RC: How would you describe the museum to people who aren’t interested in it? How do you or would you entice them?

CM: With a Chicago audience, we live in such a diverse and beautiful city that Pilsen and the Mexican Museum are just a couple of “shoulds” for all Chicagoans wishing to get to know their city better. It truly is a “must see.” I think that as the Mexican population grows and more people have friends, neighbors, co-workers, or workers that are Mexican, I think it will really add to your appreciation for your neighbors in Chicago, and enrich your interaction with them. I would hope that if you can learn just a little bit more about their culture, where they come from, and why they do the things they do, you can appreciate them and this city just a little bit more than you already do.

RC: Thank you so much for taking the time for this interview.

CM: No problem. It was my pleasure.

Edited for print by Hillary Marzac .