Patricia Phelps de Cisneros

For more than five decades, Patricia Phelps de Cisneros has ardently supported education and the arts, with a particular focus on Latin America. In the 1970s, along with her husband, Gustavo Cisneros, she founded the New York City and Caracas-based Fundación Cisneros (FC). Its mission is to help improve education and democracy throughout Latin America and to foster global awareness of the region’s heritage and many contributions to world culture. In line with this mission, Patricia also established the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros (CPPC) to enhance appreciation of the diversity, distinction, and range of art from Latin America, and to advance scholarship of the material cultures of the Ibero-American world that covers 500 years of artistic activities in the region.

Early influences, work, and education
Patricia Cisneros’s great-grandfather William Henry Phelps (1875–1965) undertook an ornithological expedition to Venezuela the summer after his junior year at Harvard University. During that trip, he fell in love with the country and, after graduation, settled there permanently. Phelps was an innate entrepreneur of his era who developed modern business practices and established many companies that ranged from founding the first television and radio networks to those that imported automobiles, refrigerators, Victrolas, typewriters, and introduced baseball to Venezuela. William Henry Phelps also established Venezuela's first foundation. Following his deep interest in natural science, he became a noted ornithologist who catalogued South American bird specimens and published his discoveries alongside his mentor, curator Frank M. Chapman, at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. As a supporter and scientific contributor to the AMNH in the following years, Phelps was awarded the position of Research Associate there in 1947.

Patricia has credited her great-grandfather’s meticulous attention to the classification of his tropical birds as the inspiration for her awareness of the high level of conservation and cataloguing needed to preserve a collection and make it available for study. Growing up in the cosmopolitan city of Caracas in the 1950s, she also had daily exposure to outstanding examples of public modernist art and architecture which influenced not only her aesthetic but her conviction that art should be shared with a broad audience. Her marriage to Gustavo Cisneros in 1970 gave her a partner with an infectiously international outlook, inspiring her to make connections through art and education beyond the borders of her native Venezuela.

Educated in Caracas and in the United States, Patricia was encouraged by her parents from an early age to expand her horizons through meaningful work. These experiences planted the seed for Patricia’s commitment to education and its inclusion as a core mission of the Fundación Cisneros. She worked for the organization Accion International, an NGO that supports the financially underserved population. From its inception, Accion’s volunteers have encouraged economic and community development by working with and within the communities they serve to identify needs and formulate solutions to improve the quality of their own lives. After her involvement with Accion, Patricia co-founded and became an instructor for Asociación Venezolana de Padres y Amigos de Niños Excepcionales (AVEPANE) that is still operational to this date. The organization advocates for the education of developmentally disabled children as potentially productive members of society and has not only created methodologies and training for teachers of Special Education, but has also established gainful employment opportunities for its older students. In her twenties, Patricia became the founder and director of the language department of the Simon Bolívar University in Caracas. There, in addition to her duties as an instructor, she developed an innovative audio-visual approach to teaching foreign languages.

Patricia received a BA in Philosophy from Wheaton College in Massachusetts with a particular interest in the educational philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. Whitehead’s view that education could improve lives by connecting thought and action in a nexus of knowledge—allowing imagination to illuminate facts, and taking into account an individual’s distinct proclivities—was one that deeply resonated with Patricia, strengthening her conviction about the transformative powers and vital importance of education for both individuals and societies.

In 2003, Wheaton College awarded Patricia Cisneros an Honoris Causa degree in Fine Arts. She was an MA candidate at New York University, and was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015.

Development and dissemination of the collection
Patricia and Gustavo Cisneros began collecting artworks soon after their marriage in 1970, and Patricia’s eye was drawn to the elegance, austerity, and rigor of geometric abstraction. Though examples were abundant throughout Latin America, they were under-appreciated at the time. Gradually, Patricia acquired the nucleus of what she would come to realize, with some surprise, was a significant collection of artwork and, with it, the responsibilities that such a holding entailed. By the 1990s, it became known as the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, or the CPPC for short.

Making the artworks in Patricia and Gustavo’s care available to the public through exhibitions and loans has been a critical component of the CPPC’s efforts to enhance appreciation of the diversity, sophistication, and range of art from Latin America. Over 60 exhibitions of the collection and countless short- and long-term loans to institutions throughout the world have taken place since 1999. With the ultimate goal of integrating Latin American art into the global art history canon, Patricia and Gustavo also began to informally donate works, beginning in 1997, to key institutions in the United States, Europe and Venezuela. This evolved into the very strategic and structured donations program in place today.

Exhibitions of the CPPC have won wide critical and popular acclaim. In 2008, the exhibition The Geometry of Hope: Latin American Abstract Art from the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Collection at the Blanton Museum of Art—which subsequently travelled to the Grey Art Gallery at NYU—was awarded Best Thematic Show Nationally by the AICA-USA. In 2013, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía and the CPPC were jointly awarded Best Institutional Show of the Year (Mejor Exposición Institutional del Año) by Spain’s Instituto del Arte Contemporáneo for the exhibition La invención concreta.

Although the CPPC is perhaps best-known for its collection of Modernist geometric abstraction from Latin America, the collection also comprises equally important holdings of work by traveler artists to and within Latin America and the Caribbean from the 17th to 19th centuries; furniture, objects, and art from Latin America’s colonial period; contemporary art from Latin America; and an important group of art and artifacts from twelve indigenous tribes from the Orinoco river basin in Venezuela’s Amazonas state (known as the Orinoco Collection) that has been the subject of fourteen exhibitions in nine countries and has been seen by more than seven million people.

On October 17, 2016, the CPPC announced a major gift to the Museum of Modern Art that comprised 102 works of geometric abstraction from the middle and second half of the 20th century. Thirty-seven artists, twenty-one of whom would be included in MoMA’s collection for the first time, were included in this roster. The works joined forty others previously donated to MoMA by the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros. An important additional component of the gift was the endowment of a research institute housed at MoMA and dedicated to the study of art from Latin America. Known informally as the Cisneros Institute, its full name is the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Research Institute for the Study of Art from Latin America.

In June 2017, 119 works from the CPPC’s Colonial Period collection were donated to leading institutions committed to the conservation and study of the legacies of art from the colonial and early republican periods in Latin America: the Blanton Museum of Art, Austin; Denver Art Museum, Colorado; Hispanic Society Museum & Library, New York; and the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Massachusetts. The institutions were chosen for their individual profile and research focus, and the donated works are intended to expand the museums' geographic and temporal horizons with the primary objective of encouraging a broader, more diverse and inclusive view of Latin American artistic production from the 17th to mid-19th centuries.

In January 2018, the CPPC announced a donation of more than 200 works from its collection of contemporary art to several international museums with whom the CPPC has developed enduring relationships through a shared mission of promoting Latin American art in a global context. The institutions, which include The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York; The Museo National Centro de Arte Reina Sofía through the Fundación Reina Sofía, Madrid; the Museo de Arte Moderno Buenos Aires (MAMBA); the Bronx Museum of the Arts, New York; and the Blanton Museum of Art, Austin, were selected for their established interest in studying and featuring contemporary art from Latin America; the regional influence of their art collections, exhibitions, and programs; and for serving as important references for an international artistic community. The artworks that were chosen for each museum are the result of a collaborative process designed to strengthen and expand each museum’s holdings.

A gift of 49 photographic works from the 20th and 21st centuries, created mostly by Latin American artists, was announced in December of 2018 to the Museo Universidad de Navarra in Spain. The photographs are studied by students in the Master in Curatorial Studies program at the university, the only postgraduate course in Spain for the academic training of art curators. Professors, researchers, and students from other departments at the university also have access to the donation, thus facilitating the investigation of artistic photography from different areas of knowledge. The gift adds to the university’s important photography collection, and the interdisciplinary findings of the university scholars will be published in articles and books.

In March 2019, a gift of 45 works of contemporary Latin American art was presented to the Fundación Museo Reina Sofía for the permanent collection of the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía. The works are by 33 artists, the majority of whom are from Brazil and Venezuela with others from Argentina, Colombia, Mexico and the United States. They comprise a generationally diverse group, characterized by the cultivation of a wide spectrum of artistic practices: painting, sculpture, installation, graphic works, artist’s books and photo collage, among others. The donation will support the Reina Sofía’s research on contemporary movements that have emerged in Latin America since 1990.

Education initiatives
In addition to loans and exhibitions, Patricia and Gustavo have promoted excellence in education through a number of large-scale initiatives supported by the Fundación Cisneros. In Venezuela, two programs with highly significant educational and social impact were developed in the 80s: ACUDE, a literacy program delivered through kits that included LP records, record players, and study guides, benefited over 300,000 Venezuelans throughout the country; and the Centro Mozarteum, which afforded scholarships to youth across the economic spectrum to study classical music in a Caracas-based school and also provided the most gifted of those students unique opportunities to further pursue their studies abroad. The Mozarteum sponsored visiting performances in Venezuela by internationally renowned orchestras and conductors, making them accessible to the general public and to schoolchildren. Starting in 1996, Patricia and Gustavo annually supported a scholarship for an outstanding student from Venezuela’s Mozarteum to attend the Aspen Music Festival School.

The Fundación Cisneros was also responsible for the development of media-oriented, pioneering educational programs for the Latin American region. In keeping with its commitment to education, and utilizing the rich visual resources of the CPPC as well as the media expertise of the Cisneros businesses, the foundation created a number of initiatives. Cl@se, the first pan-regional educational television channel in Latin America, was made available from Mexico to Argentina via cable and satellite television, reaching over two million homes and 30,000 schools throughout the region with content that facilitated learning in areas such as science, math, and foreign languages. Actualización de Maestros en Educación (AME), a distance learning program for the professional development of teachers, reached over 20,000 teachers in 20 countries from the southern United States to Antarctica. Piensa en arte/Think Art was an educational platform based on visual arts that provided a methodological model for the teaching of critical thinking skills in school-aged children, through teaching guides and workshops conducted in museums and schools throughout Latin America.

Between 2014 and 2017, the Fundación Cisneros went on to provide professional development opportunities to teachers through a partnership in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic with Tu clase, tu país, an online platform and collaborative community that offers courses in the areas of curriculum, innovative pedagogy, and personal development. The Fundación is currently an active member of EDUCA, an organization that represents the private sector’s efforts in ensuring that every child in the Dominican Republic has access to a high-quality education.

Publications and professional/institutional support
The CPPC generates a number of publications about Latin American art, including monographs, exhibition catalogues and a series of sustained dialogues between contemporary artists and critics and art historians.

The Fundación Cisneros, with the CPPC, has sponsored scholarships and travel grants allowing artists and curators to further their development in studies concerning Latin America including institutions such as Bard College, CIMAM and The Museum of Modern Art. Several leading gifts and endowments have allowed cultural institutions and institutions of higher learning to establish new positions that generate knowledge about Latin America’s contributions to the arts. And many works from the collection have been donated as gifts or promised gifts to important institutions, including MoMA, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid, the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas, Austin; Tate in London; and in Venezuela, the Museo de la Estampa y del Diseño Carlos Cruz-Diez, Caracas; Fundación Museo de Bellas Artes, Caracas; Centro de Arte Maracaibo Lia Bermudez, Maracaibo; Museo de Barquisimeto, Barquisimieto; Fundación Galería de Arte Nacional, Caracas; Museo de Arte Contemporaneo del Zulia, Maracaibo; Universidad Católica Santa Rosa, Caracas; and Universidad Monteávila, Caracas.

New Media initiatives and awards
Gustavo Cisneros has always sought ways in which his core enterprise in media could support education and cultural programs developed by the Fundación Cisneros and the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros. As a result, many FC and CPPC initiatives have embraced the latest developments in media. Patricia and Gustavo’s daughter, Adriana Cisneros de Griffin, followed her father’s footsteps in 2013 as CEO of Cisneros Group and as President of the Fundación Cisneros, and is just as dedicated to this vibrant cooperation between technology and culture.

With Adriana’s encouragement, the CPPC created a website for the dissemination of art and ideas from Latin America with a journal-like format that allowed for timely consideration of what’s new and interesting in the field.

The collection of art and artifacts from the Amazonas region of Venezuela, known as the Orinoco Collection, was featured on the website Orinoco Online. In 2000, the site was recognized for its innovative use of technology by Museums and the Web in the category of Best Innovative Site. It also won a Bronze Award that same year for interactive media from the international design magazine i-D Magazine, and was a Finalist in the Stockholm Challenge Award for Culture and Entertainment.

For the 2013 exhibition Invención concreta at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid, an innovative mobile website, an app, and a mobile tour were created. The Invención concreta website won the 2013 Webvisionary Award. In 2014, the website and app won the 2014 Webby Awards in both the Web, Art and Mobile Sites and Apps, Education and Reference (handheld devices) categories. The app garnered a Silver Award from the Philadelphia Addy Awards for Digital Advertising, Apps, Tablet; and the Philadelphia Addy Awards gave a Gold Award to the website and mobile tour in the category of Digital Advertising, Websites/Consumer, Services. In addition, the project garnered four honorable mentions in 2013, one from Awwwards, a second from the American Alliance of Museums Muse Awards for Online Presence, and two others, from the 18th Annual Webby Awards for Best User Experience and Art.

Additionally, Patricia Cisneros has supported a wide range of cultural institutions in the Americas and Europe:

Boards and memberships
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
- Board of Trustees (since 1992)
- Architecture and Design Committee (member 1992–2014; past Chair 2001–2006)
- Painting and Sculpture Committee (since 1992)
- Conservation Committee (since 1993; past Chair 1995–1996)
- Latin American and Caribbean Fund (founder, and chairman since 2006)
- International Council (Board of Directors, since 1981)
- Museum Archives, Library and Research (since 2010) - Library Council (since 2011)
- Nominating Committee (1993–2000)
- PS 1 board member (2005)

Patronato Fundación Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Barcelona (MACBA), Barcelona, Spain
- Trustee (since 2022)

American Academy of the Arts and Sciences, USA
- Member (since 2020)
- Council (2021–2023)

National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., USA
- Member Honorary Exhibition Committee for Afro-Atlantic Histories (2022)

Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, Spain
- Trustee (2018–2020)

Denman Waldo Ross Society at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
- Member (since 2017)

Fundação Bienal de São Paulo, Sao Paulo, Brasil
- Founding International Advisory Board member (2016–2018)

Círculo Internacional de la Escuela de Música Reina Sofía, Madrid, Spain
- International Patron (since 2015)

The Feuerle Collection, Berlin, Germany
- Founding member, International Ambassadors (since 2015)

Fundación Museo Reina Sofía, Madrid, Spain
- Founding Trustee (2012–2020)
- Nominating and Governance Committee (2015–2020)

Independent Curators International (ICI), New York, USA
- Leadership Council (since 2012)

Museum Berggruen, Berlin, Germany
- International Council (since 2011)

Museo de Arte Ponce, Ponce, Puerto Rico
- Member of Amigos del Museo de Arte Ponce (2015–2017)

Association Centre Pompidou América Latina, Paris, France
- Founding Member (2011–2014)

American Friends of the Fondation Beyeler, Basel, Switzerland
- Member (2011–2014)

CIMAM, the International Committee of ICOM for Museums and Collections of Modern Art
- Founding Member (2009–2017)

Patronato Internacional del Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain
- Founding International Trustee (Since 2007)

Escuela Mozarteum, Venezuela
-Founder and President (2001–2006)

UBS, New York, USA
- Art Advisory Board (2004–2006)

Aspen Institute, Aspen, USA
- Art Advisory Committee (2004–2020)
- Society of Fellows, Presidential level (2004–2010)

Tate, London, England
- Founding member of Latin American Acquisitions Committee (2003–2014)
- International Council (2003–2008)

Fundación Mozarteum, Venezuela
- Founder and President (1985–2001)

Casita Maria, New York, USA
- Board member (1998–2008)
- Chairman’s Council (2008–2012)

Programa Andes Tropicales, Mérida, Venezuela
- Founding member, Board of Directors (1997–2003)

Archer M. Huntington Art Gallery, University of Texas, Austin, USA
-Latin American Advisory Group (1997–2000)

Harvard University, Cambridge, MA
- Advisory Committee, David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies (1998–2011; founding board member 1994)
-Committee to Visit the Harvard University Art Museums (2001–2015)

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA
- Chairman’s Council (1992–1996)

Escuela Superior de Música Reina Sofía, Madrid, Spain
- Founding Patron (1991)

Sinfonietta Caracas, Caracas, Venezuela
- Advisory Board (1987–1990)

New York Botanical Garden, New York, USA
- Board member (1985–1993)

Americas Society, New York; USA (the Americas Society was known as the Center for Inter-American Relations until October 16, 1986)
- Board of Directors (1981–2017)
- Chairman’s International Council (1985–2017)
- Cultural Council Committee (since 1986)

Just One Break (JOB), New York, NY
- Board Member (1980–1983)

Museo de Bellas Artes, Caracas, Venezuela
- Board member and member of the Friends of the Museo de Bellas Artes (1970–1980)

Awards and honors
In recognition for her work to strengthen and promote education and the arts in Latin America, Patricia Cisneros has received numerous awards:

Premio Arte y Empresa, awarded for Best Donation, Revista ARS, Madrid, Spain

The Frederic Church Award, The Olana Partnership, New York

Leo Award, Independent Curators International, New York
Premio Iberoamericano de Mecenazgo, Madrid, Spain

Honorary Doctorate Degree from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York
Medalla de Oro al Mérito en las Bellas Artes, Spain

Gran Cruz de la Orden Civil de Alfonso X El Sabio, Spain
Distinguished Service in the Arts Award, ArtTable, New York

Iris Foundation Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Decorative Arts, Bard Graduate Center, New York

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney Award for Outstanding Patronage of the Arts, Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture, New York
Gold Medal Honoree, 28th Annual Spring Party, The Americas Society, NY (along with Carlos Fuentes and Peter Munk in honor of their creative and philanthropic contributions to the arts, education, and social initiatives within the Americas)

Medals of Honor, Ministry of Culture, Colombia, for work in promoting education and culture in Latin America. (2 medals: Senado de la Republica, Orden del Congreso de Colombia en el grado de Cemendados; and Camara de la Democracia Simón Bolivar en el grado cruz de comendador)

Honorary Degree (Honoris Causa) in Fine Arts, Wheaton College, Norton, Massachusetts
Alumnae Recognition Award, Madeira School, McLean, Virginia

Croix de Chevalier de L’Ordre de la Légion d’Honneur, Republic of France

Leone d’Oro di San Marco, awarded to the Colección Orinoco program area of the Fundación Cisneros

Orden de Simón Bolívar, Venezuela

Orden de Francisco de Miranda, Caracas, Venezuela. Granted by the Venezuelan government for citizens who have exemplified outstanding merits

Orden de Buen Ciudadano, Caracas, Venezuela. Granted by the City Council of Caracas for community leadership
Orden de Andrés Bello, Caracas, Venezuela. Granted by the Venezuelan government in recognition of her contribution to the cultural development of the country, Band of Honor, first class

Links to selected press
Lyle Rexer, Art + Auction, Mission Accomplished

Robert Hughes, TIME, Escaping the Provincial Trap

Carlos Fuentes, Viendo Visiones, Abstractos brasileños en la Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros

Roberta Smith, The New York Times, Abundant Straight Lines, All Ahead of the Curve

Fietta Jarque, El País, Cuando el Sur es una figura geométrica

Fernando Rayón Valpuesta, ARS Magazine, Una vida para educar

ABC, El Reina Sofía incorpora 34 obras de la Colección Cisneros

Silvia Hernando, El País, El futuro de los museos

Gareth Harris, The Financial Times, Patricia Phelps de Cisneros: An Art Patron on a Mission

Estrella de Diego, El País, Obsesión por la obra maestra

Robin Cembalest, Art in America, Latin American Traveler Art Comes to Manhattan

Ángeles García, El País, Las colecciones privadas hacen museos públicos

Ángela García and Álex Vicente, El País, 40 años de Arco: una memoria de la feria por 40 artistas, galeristas, coleccionistas y comisarios

Photograph by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders