Narrator: This podcast is a project of the Mass Cultural Council. We believe in the power of culture – the arts, humanities, and sciences – to enrich communities, advance equity, and foster creativity.
Luis Croquer: How can you be truly equitable? I think– what is the makeup of this country, because ultimately we are American museums, right? So what’s the makeup of this country, and how can we think more equitably about representation?
Anita Walker: Hi. I’m Anita Walker at the Mass Cultural Council, and welcome to Creative Minds Out Loud. Our guest today is Luis Croquer. He is the Henry & Lois Foster Director and Chief Curator of the Rose Art Museum, and welcome to our program.
Luis Croquer: Thank you, Anita. I’m delighted to be here.
Anita Walker: We are so excited to have you in Massachusetts, and time is slipping away, but you are relatively new within the last couple of years in terms of taking the helm at the Rose Art Museum, literally, one of the finest collections of contemporary art in America.
Luis Croquer: Yes, and that was one of the main reasons why I’m here. I was so interested in working with a collection that’s nationally and world-renowned, sometimes even more than it is locally, and that seemed like a very exciting experience for me to come and work with this fantastic collection.
Anita Walker: So give us a little bit of the journey you took from your beginnings to arriving at Boston.
Luis Croquer: So I’ve been in the United States for about– I moved here in 2001, and I worked in New York mostly, and then I was at different institutions. I was, for a time, at the Guggenheim and at the El Museo del Barrio, which is like an American museum, among others. And then I worked as the first permanent Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit. And that was a very interesting experience, opening a museum. In my career, I’ve had the opportunity to open two museums, which is, you know, kind of rare and exciting. And then I moved to Seattle, Washington where I was the Deputy Director of Exhibitions, Collections, and Programs at the Henry Art Gallery, which is the contemporary museum at the University of Washington.
Anita Walker: You and I have talked before, but one of the things that you bring into our museum community is a lens because of your Latino background. We don’t have a lot of diversity at the heads of our museums, do we?
Luis Croquer: No. I think the field still is not diverse enough, and I think that that perspective is unique, allows us to be able to enrich what we do. I think in Massachusetts also, there isn’t that much diversity, but it’s also reflected nationally. I am very proud to be Latino, but I am also a bit of a hybrid. My father was a diplomat, so I also grew up mostly abroad and in Africa and Asia and in Europe. And so I feel like I’ve had a very privileged perspective of seeing the world at large. And I think as we discuss these issues of equity and inclusion and diversity, I think a richer conversation is necessary. I think we can fall into a lot of very specific solutions or reparations that are sometimes not the easiest things to implement and don’t really get to the problem. I know this is a big issue to discuss, but I do feel that there’s so much more to do in that regard.
Anita Walker: One of the things that you bring is familiarity with artists that are not frequently or typically exhibited in our museums in Massachusetts. And you told me a story about when you first came to the Rose. Obviously, the first thing you wanted to do was get down in the basement and explore the collection. What did you discover?
Luis Croquer: So that was interesting. I think, you know, with all institutions, there are myths about what they have, and the Rose, certainly people think that it’s very strong in post-war art and mostly painting. And that’s certainly not true. The collection is much broader, much more international, much more diverse than people imagine. But one of the things that was interesting, and that’s the story that I told you, was that in looking at the collection very closely, which I’ve been doing for the last nearly two years, I was going through the whole collection to be able to do– to study it and to develop also a collecting strategy. But also I did a couple of shows that were trying to chart the 1900s to today, and I found a lot of Latin American artists in the collection that have never been shown, that are very important figures, who are really like masters now. In fact, one of them just has a show right now at the Met, at the Met Breuer, Julio Le Parc. We have three pieces by him. We have a couple of pieces by Jesus Rafael Soto, artists that, you know, I think at another time, at a more difficult time for an international art world, a lot of these artists who are very important innovators in their own field were called derivative artists, which was a very derisive word to signify that they were sort of, you know, deriving ideas from white artists essentially or European and American artists. And now with the inclusion of many more art historians who come from diverse backgrounds, it’s been possible to kind of rewrite those stories, and this relates to what we were talking about before, and those artists have started to enter the center. And so that begins to complicate the whole idea of who in art history, you know, is– what are movements, who are innovators. So I’m happy to be able to unearth some of these pieces, and then put them back where they should be, in front, and also to continue looking because there might be other things that are still hiding there.
Anita Walker: You know, it’s interesting because I think when we think of the Rose and a contemporary art museum, it’s the big names. It’s a Warhol, “Oh, you have a Warhol.” So that’s what makes it special. And so how do we really shine a light on and elevate into the public consciousness some of these other artists that, you know, weren’t traditionally American iconic artists?
Luis Croquer: I think it’s a concerted effort. It’s won on many fronts. I think it’s not something that museums in themselves can do. I mean, I think academia is doing very important work, just visibility in terms of understanding where they fit in. I think that that was the– I think that’s still the issue, you know, not being able to see where things actually fit in. And because art history in particular had tried to create these very neat boxes where things fit well and things that sort of fell in between– you know, the interstitial spaces made things complicated. But I think these artists actually create subjectivity, which is really important to the kind of world that we live in. And so to be able to understand modernism through a subjective experience of somebody who has grown up in the south or, you know, in Asia, or in other parts where they’re not, you know, following the purity of a Western experience begins to tell other stories. And I think one of the most important things that we’re learning from art history is that that modernism claims to be so pure and so devoid of ideas. In general, art is also fueled by a lot of ideas, context, I think, in particular. Looking at the post-war moment that we have very good holdings of, a lot of that work was influenced by the end of the war, by reconstruction, by, you know, the advent of a different economic system. And so when we begin to look at those things as a way of capturing the zeitgeist of the moment, it becomes much more essential. I think that that’s the big challenge for us, that people have tended to look at art museums as something where you go and experience things that are beautiful and that you like. And I think that there are things that are interconnected with art history, with the changes that the world is always going through.
Anita Walker: So as you are taking the responsibility of what is, agreed, an amazing collection of what we call contemporary art, where do you go? Where do you– as one who continues to build the collection at the Rose, what is your approach? How do you think about that?
Luis Croquer: Well, I think that, you know, one thing that is clear, and that’s why I was also trying to read the whole collection, is to be able to think of how can you be truly equitable? What is the makeup of this country, because ultimately we are American museums, right? So what’s the makeup of this country, and how can we think more equitably about representation in the collections? Who is overlooked? How can the museum really focus on artists who have made important contributions and who have not had the opportunities that other artists have had whether it’s having galleries or shows or other things that have allowed them to be more central to that conversation? And so I’m thinking a lot about not only issues of race, but also issues of gender, issues of location, and all those things will begin to complicate the collection. I think in looking at the collection I learned that the collection is, for the most part, a wide collection, male collection, which is not rare. That’s very much in line with the way that people were thinking about this. The art historian, Linda Nochlin had asked early on, you know, why are there no famous women in museums, right, and that’s true. When you look at the collection, you look at a period, and you can be looking at the ‘60s and you can be asking yourself, you know, where is Eva Hesse? Even within the United States, right, without thinking globally, you begin to think, “Yeah, they’re really not there,” and maybe the bigger institutions have been slightly better than that. But in reality, when you look at percentages, you’re not doing that. And it’s not just about percentages. It’s also about thinking more truly about what is transformation, and I think that we’re seeing a very different transformation in the way that we experience art due to the conversations that we’re having in the world about some of these issues themselves, right? They’re changing the story. Who tells the story is very important. And I think that that kind of mediation is changing the way that we practice, you know, museum work and art history as well.
Anita Walker: In the course of this year, and we’re taping this on one day and people will hear it forever, but you told a wonderful story about an African American artist who before she became famous found her way to the Rose.
Luis Croquer: Yes, and this is, I think, the good stories about culture and art, right, how artists constantly have supporters, champions. So Howardena Pindell who had a show in 1993 at the Rose during the time Carl Belz was a director there, so that’s three directors before me. At the time, she was a mid-career artist, not terribly well known, and that was her first retrospective, came to the museum as a traveling exhibition, and then I was able to bring the show that the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago has organized, which is also a traveling show, much tighter now because she’s very, very well-known and very respected and celebrated artist nowadays. And so it’s interesting to have this artist come back. It’s always interesting to me also that very few people remember that we hosted that show. So now there’s a renewed interest in this artist, and people are like, “Oh, I’m so excited to see her,” but they don’t remember that she was there before. She does remember, however, that she’s coming and so that’s exciting. You know, we’ve been looking at the pictures and seeing that very many of the pieces that are in the show were in the first show, so it’s also a return for the pieces to the museum. And then when she was there the first time, the museum was the old Rose, which was the Leibovitz’s [ph?] old building, and now we have an addition. But, you know, it’s 30 years later. So she’s made more work, so she’s able to fill the rest of the museum. So we’ve given the museum to her. I think that arc of building a relationship with artists– I personally as a curator have always been interested in, you know, kind of following up and having a commitment to artists. But even as institutions, I think– when I found out, because I did know when I booked the show that she had been there. I had read the history, but I had not gone through it very much in detail. And then, of course, I found it, and it was a happy moment because it’s a good thing. My first thought was like, “Good for them,” you know. It was so great that they were able to put her in the program and that we can claim this relationship with her that, you know, precedes my time here, and that meets her at another very different and exciting time in her career.
Anita Walker: Diversity, equity, and inclusion is really in the forefront of conversations that we have with virtually every one of our cultural organizations that we partner with here in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. And I think the thing we do hear over and over again is the difficulty in recruiting diverse staff. Diverse audiences for sure, but a diverse staff, diverse leaders, diverse curators, diverse art historians. You mentioned it’s a problem with the field. How do we address that?
Luis Croquer: Yes. I think it’s true. I mean, I experience it myself as a director trying to recruit a more diverse group of people. I think that the field has not done so much to be able to promote. I know that their initiatives– I don’t want to say that there isn’t anything, but I think that there’s still a lot of work to do and there’s still a lot to really make the field more representative, particularly an area like the arts that’s usually more aligned with progressive ideas. I think it’s important for us to continue doing much more work. You know, I remember my own sort of experience when I first came to this country. I was educated in English always. In my first few jobs, I, for instance, wasn’t allowed as a curator to write labels or anything because English was not my mother tongue. And, you know, I had gone through my whole schooling in English. I went to university in England. It was a kind of strange thing, that these kinds of barriers are things that maybe prevent other people from moving forward. I’m not saying that that stopped me in any way, but it was a real thing. It was a real thing, and I think that it’s important to value different perspectives and different backgrounds, to think that they enrich the field and enrich the experience of the visitors as a whole.
Anita Walker: And it also feels as if the person is going to want to work in a museum, they sort of have to see themselves there, that the exhibitions, that the collections represent who they are.
Luis Croquer: That’s true. I think that this issue of being able to recognize yourself in the programming, in the way that the museum thinks about audience as a whole is really important. What is a truly welcoming institution? How can you create a visitor experience that is true to where we are today, or to the world that we aspire to have? I think the issue, for instance, with the collections is it’s harder, the one that we were talking about before, in the sense that it’s very difficult to kind of correct what’s happened in the past. Like, for instance, when I look at the collection, some of the aspects of the collection where I could, you know, introduce more women or more artists of color or something like that, the market has completely prevented me from doing that, you know, in a sense that I cannot go and make choices that should have been made in 1961, you know. So in a way, you’re trying to think smartly on how to– I always say on how to contaminate what’s there. What can you introduce that begins to create a wedge so that people can think in more tangential ways when the story is not as clear. I think that that’s a very important thing, that modernism as we knew it, you know, as a movement in terms of architect, art, even social policy was very linear. You know, this linearity of thinking, like we are here and eventually we’ll get to a better place, has proved true. And so, in some way, this idea of thinking more broadly, more tangentially, in a more sort of complicated way is something that only comes from that confluence of ideas and conversations that come from different backgrounds, different forms of thinking.
Anita Walker: Luis Croquer, another one of our Creative Minds Out Loud.
Luis Croquer: Thank you.
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