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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Treasures and Splendors: Exhibiting Colonial Latin American Art in U.S. Museums, 1920-2020

  • Author(s): Hobart, Aubrey
  • Advisor(s): Dean, Carolyn
  • et al.
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License

Over the last century, art museums in the United States have mounted dozens of exhibitions of Colonial Latin American art, but their reasons for doing so have changed over time. Most of the exhibits from 1920-1959 played an important role in international diplomacy as the U.S. government attempted to influence Americans’ attitudes about Latin Americans, and vice versa, for economic and political gains. However, government interest largely waned in the 1960s and ‘70s, leaving a power vacuum that was filled by individual art collectors, who became the tastemakers of the era. This was financially unsustainable, though, and by the 1980s and ‘90s, major conglomerates began to convert their fiscal power into charitable goodwill by sponsoring crowd-pleasing blockbuster exhibitions. Yet for all these shifts, the most rapid changes in American society came after the turn of the millennia with the rise of the internet and an increase in international terrorism. As technology and social pressures have combined to make the past more accessible and desirable, there has been an increase in the number of museum exhibitions and reasons for their existence. The last two decades have seen exhibits produced on behalf of national governments, wealthy art collectors, and corporate entities, but now they tend to be more driven by scholarship and academic interests, as well.

While this project is interested in tracking and documenting these changes over time, its focus on the relatively small number of exhibitions of Colonial Latin American art in the United States over the last hundred years serves a greater goal; the questions it asks are more philosophical. What role does the museum play in society? What happens to public opinion when trusted and authoritative institutions forward specific visions of culture and cultural production? Whose voice is really being heard and assimilated? Although I cannot offer definitive answers to these questions, this project does ultimately suggest that museums do not simply reflect popular notions about other cultures, but in fact play major roles in constructing those opinions. Even though the vast majority of the population will never see any given exhibition—let alone read every label, peruse all wall text, or study every item displayed—museums, often subtly, sometimes overtly, exert influence by drawing attention to specific cultures and histories, and by privileging particular perspectives. The ways influence has been manifested in and through museum exhibitions are the topic of this study; also under consideration are the consequences of the kind of work museums have done and might possibly do in the future.

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