An Interview with Patricia Phelps de CisnerosTuesday, October 1, 2019
The following interview was originally published by MoMA in the catalog for the exhibition Sur moderno: Journeys of Abstraction—The Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Gift.
Glenn D. Lowry, The David Rockefeller Director of The Museum of Modern Art, sat down with Patricia Phelps de Cisneros—a trustee of the Museum and cofounder, with her husband, Gustavo, of the Fundación Cisneros—to discuss her long affiliation with the Museum, her history of collecting art, and her thinking behind the recent gift of the Cisneros Modern Collection and the founding of the Cisneros Research Institute for the Study of Art from Latin America at MoMA.
Glenn D. Lowry: How did you become affiliated with The Museum of Modern Art?
Patricia Phelps de Cisneros: It was in the early 1980s, when I became a member of the Museum's International Council. Our first trip, I think, was to Brazil. I knew a lot about the International Council and MoMA because my great-uncle Alfredo Boulton had been the chairman of the International Council from 1970 until 1974.
Gustavo and I would come to New York, and I would always visit the Museum, looking for art from Latin America, and it just wasn't there. Then in 1993 Waldo Rasmussen, who was director of the International Council at the time, organized an exhibition of Latin American art at MoMA; it was not particularly well received by the critics. Nevertheless, that exhibition had a huge impact on me, and actually I think it had a huge impact on the world, even if we couldn't see it then. The show needed funds, and I didn't know anything about fund-raising but I wanted to help. I must have written and called three or four hundred people asking for donations—I guess today you would call it crowdfunding. But I really felt committed to making that exhibition happen, and I learned a great deal in the process.
Around that time I must have caught somebody's eye. I don't know why but one day Aggie [Agnes Gund, president emerita of MoMA's board] invited me to become a trustee.
GDL: Were you surprised to be asked to join the board?
PPC: It was a great surprise to me, and I aspired to take it very seriously. After I became a trustee I was made head of the Committee on Architecture and Design, for about six years. Later I also chaired the Committee on Conservation, a subject that interests me a great deal. The real turning point came when you and I met when you were appointed director. You made it very clear that you wanted to expand—or even better, erase—the boundaries between the Museum and the rest of the world.
I remember at the time reading Alfred Barr [Alfred H. Barr Jr. was MoMA's first director, serving from 1929 until 1943]. Every time I saw the word "modern" in his texts, I would cross it out in my mind and replace it with "Latin American" art; all of his desires and frustrations about having modern art seen, appreciated, studied, and researched were the same as my frustrations regarding art from Latin America. I so truly identified with his struggle that his thought process, his strategy for changing people's perception, and his words were a great inspiration to me.
GDL: What else motivated you?
PPC: I was really taken with the Museum's educational mission. I remember the first David Rockefeller Luncheon that I contributed to, and I remember that those funds were earmarked for the Education Department. It so happened that that same week, I was walking by a small exhibition of Manuel Álvarez Bravo's photographs. There were all these little kids sitting there. The teacher was asking them questions of interpretation that I found very stimulating. I stayed there for about half an hour. It was a different way of looking. That was my first exposure to the "Visual Thinking Curriculum," as it was called then. I realized then how important education was to MoMA, but it was also instrumental to the work of the Fundación Cisneros, as we were constantly looking for ways to bring new educational ideas to Latin America, in line with our strong belief that education is the key to democracy. We collaborated with the Visual Thinking Strategies program and then developed our own version, called Piensa en Arte/Think Art.
GDL: What kind of impact have your programs had?
PPC: We were active in many countries around the world, and the president of Costa Rica at the time was so impressed with our methodology that he requested that the program be taught in third, fourth, and fifth grade in every public and private school in the country. That all evolved from that one day when I saw those children at MoMA looking at the Álvarez Bravo exhibition.
GDL: Let's turn to collecting, which you've done so well. In 1981, when you first connected to the Museum through the International Council, had you already begun collecting seriously, or is that something that happened later?
PPC: Gustavo and I were married in 1970, and while I was interested in art, we never set out to be collectors, and didn't even necessarily know what that entailed. In Caracas at the time there was a great passion for modern and contemporary art, and we lived quite naturally in that environment. We got to know many artists, like Jesús Soto and Carlos Cruz-Diez, and I always enjoyed speaking with the artists directly about their work and their ideas. Sofía Ímber, the founder of the Contemporary Art Museum of Caracas, was a great mentor to me in these years. I would go to the museum around twice a week, and we talked about art nonstop. She really taught me how to look at contemporary art, and her husband, the great intellectual Carlos Rangel, was one of Gustavo's closest friends.
GDL: Why did you focus on geometric abstraction?
PPC: I was brought up in the 1950s in this great modern city, Caracas, and geometric abstraction was everywhere; it really felt like part of our DNA.
GDL: You did something that I thought was, if not unique, very rare in Latin America: you chose not to collect nationally. You decided to collect the idea of abstraction across all of the places in which it was practiced. Why did you do that?
PPC: Our vision of the collection was something that emerged over time. Initially, when we were first married, it was Soto, Cruz-Diez, Gego, because we were living in Venezuela and that is what we saw every day.
Then Gustavo started to expand his business into the rest of Latin America, and he would talk to me about the great potential of this region, about which we knew so little. As part of our colonial legacy, we Latin Americans tend to know more about Europe than we do about our neighboring countries, and Gustavo really opened my eyes to this. I traveled with him, and we noted that the collections we saw were always nationally based. There were no threads connecting all of these different artistic languages anywhere.
GDL: Was Gustavo as interested in collecting as you?
PPC: The most important thing is that from the beginning he's been extremely supportive. We enjoy going to the museums and galleries together, and Gustavo is always pushing me to do more and become more involved. I may be the last of a generation of women who were not expected to do much outside the home—were not even expected to go to college. When I started out, I had an office and I went to work every day. That was rare.
Gustavo gave me self-confidence. He believed in me. He believed in my projects and he supported them. Sometimes I would buy works that I knew he might not fully appreciate, but he always understood why I was interested in them.
GDL: Even if you were worried Gustavo might not like it, you still bought it.
PPC: Exactly. He respected that what he did not like might be part of a movement that needed to be represented. I know that our children's friends, many coming from more traditional backgrounds, would be rather surprised by what they found at our house.
GDL: You were lucky enough to work with a number of talented art historians over the years. Who were they?
PPC: As I mentioned, Sofía Ímber was a great mentor. Also Paulo Herkenhoff, who, together with Gustavo, actually made me aware that there was a bigger world out there that needed to be paid attention to. Paulo's guidance on Brazilian art and the Arte Concreto and Madí movements in Argentina was invaluable. Paulo taught me to look not just at Latin American art, but at art in general. He gave me a book of Junichiro Tanizaki called In Praise of Shadows that had a profound impact on me. It changed my way of looking. And, of course, there were Rafael Romero, with his humane and artistic sensibility, and Luis Pérez-Oramas, with his brilliant eye and ability to find great works of art for the collection. Since he began leading our foundation and the collection, bringing us his wisdom and his fine eye, Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro has enabled it to be seen around the world. James Cuno [president of the J. Paul Getty Trust and former director of the Harvard Art Museums] was also very important in this history. We met him through Neil Rudenstine, who was Harvard's president at the time, and his wife, Angelica. Jim asked to show the collection at Harvard and that was a real turning point for us. More recently we worked with Sofía Hernández Chong-Cuy as our curator of contemporary art, and she really opened my eyes to the work of the younger generation all over Latin America.
GDL: What do you look for in a work of art? What qualities are you interested in?
PPC: Although I have my personal taste, which tends toward balance, peace, and harmony, it's not always the aesthetic aspect that I prioritize for the collection. I like to think of art as a harbinger, an oracle. I like to think about how some works announce the world to come; they explore things that are going to happen in politics or are happening now. And, of course, there's some contemporary art that I don't understand at all, or that I only understand many years later, but I have huge respect for all artists, even those I don't necessarily agree with.
GDL: Are there works of art that got away from you that you wish you had acquired?
PPC: There were many. I had a very strict budget back then. At the beginning when we were collecting, almost nobody else was looking at those works, so they were very accessible, especially by today's crazy standards. That's why we've been able to acquire so many wonderful works that now belong to MoMA.
GDL: I am interested in why you included the Venezuelan painter Armando Reverón in your collection of modernist art when his work is so different from the other artists you championed.
PPC: I was brought up with Reverón. There was always a Reverón in our house. Yes, he is figurative, but if you look at the way he applied paint to canvas, it's so raw. If you just look at it hard enough you start seeing each brushstroke, and it leads to its own kind of abstraction. Matisse is like that too. If you focus your eye on a particular part of the painting, it becomes abstract. I just thought it was a very modern, novel way of painting. I find Reverón very modern, abstract even; he just does not fit in any school in the way that we are accustomed to view art history.
GDL: Who are the artists that stay in your mind, who occupy your thinking most of the time?
PPC: Fortunately, I think it changes with time. The way I like to put it sometimes is a version of your question: If there were a fire and you could take one work of art with you, which would it be? For many years it was a Soto called La Ligne moutarde [The Mustard Line, 1971].
It is almost Japanese in feeling. It's just one mustard-colored bar coming down onto a little field of black-and-white lines. It's probably one of the most minimal pieces that we own, and perhaps it's not historically the most important Soto we own, so I don't know why, but I just love it.
GDL: You mentioned that one of the pleasures you get in collecting is to find an area that other people weren't paying that much attention to, exploring it, and discovering new ideas, new artists, and new works. Here we are in 2018 and geometric abstraction from Latin America has now become part of an international language. Does that amount to a mission accomplished?
PPC: I do feel it is "mission accomplished" in some ways. Latin American art is now identified with abstraction as well as with figurative movements. Yes, I think Latin America is now having its moment, and I think that's wonderful. I love to see my children, Adriana (who is president of the Colección), Guillermo, and Carolina able to take their children to major museums around the world and see works that they grew up with hanging alongside major international masters. That's a very special feeling we all share as a family.
I feel that our mission is also a work in process. We are now very focused on publishing, and on our website, which allows us to reach an audience we could never have dreamed of. I also see the creation of the Cisneros Research Institute at MoMA as a natural extension of our mission, which for many years has been to encourage research and new thinking. I was so pleased when you thought it would be a good idea to have a Latin American research institute at the Museum. It gives great prestige to the concept of the study of Latin American art and will help ensure that that art is integrated into the lexicon of universal art. Where could that happen better than at MoMA?
GDL: What is your next challenge?
PPC: I have many, but I think your next challenge is to oversee the mission and the programs of the Research Institute, to ensure that they support the Museum's overall goals. These days there are many academic programs that engage with art from Latin America, but few that are connected to museums, and none to a museum with MoMA's impact. I think that's a terrific challenge, and I can't wait to see how the Institute can support academic research, and how this next chapter in MoMA's long relationship to Latin America will turn out.