Project Space: Seven Novel Models for Artistic Education and Exchange

by Ursula Davila-Villa

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      Recently I watched a video of a TED talk by Charles Leadbeater, a researcher at the London think tank Demos, in which he discussed different case studies of innovative education models found in various slums in cities like Mumbai and Rio de Janeiro. He argued that the effectiveness and success of these examples depended on an inquisitive drive, great collaboration, personalized attention and radical thinking. His words called to mind a related phenomenon in the visual arts that shares the attributes Leadbeater distinguished: the increasing number of artist-run organizations in different cities throughout Latin America that promote artistic education and exchange.

      Although the history of artist-led initiatives around the world is long, there is something fresh and worth noting from the wave of new models taking root in places like Buenos Aires, São Paulo, Cali and Mexico City, among others. Despite the differences in size and urban configuration, all of these cities share an unfortunate lack of strong institutions for artistic higher education and sustainable art production. In places like Mexico or Puerto Rico —where most museums are state-run, fine arts graduate education is minimal, and the number of galleries is small compared to North America or Europe— artists have few opportunities to develop their practice while also supporting themselves financially. In response to these strained conditions, artists are not waiting for answers. To the contrary, they are taking the lead and being proactive, asking smart and sharp questions that consequently yield exciting solutions.

      I present here seven case studies of creative thinking that have expanded limits and challenge the status quo, proving outstanding examples to learn from. The chosen models are not meant to provide a comprehensive overview of artistic practices in Latin America, but are examples I consider successful not only in regards to fulfilling their missions and goals to develop artists’ careers, but also in terms of building community in their local context and across borders—a lasting and much-needed positive effect.

      Let us travel from south to north. Our first stop is the Centro de Investigaciones Artísticas (Center for Artistic Investigations, CIA), based in Buenos Aires, Argentina, founded and directed by artists Judi Werthein, Graciela Hasper and Roberto Jacoby. CIA was created to address a situation these artists saw as critical: the lack of solid artistic education in Argentina. The program they established is based first and foremost on the needs of local artists, but it aims to address international conditions that affect or influence regional production. CIA offers courses, workshops and lectures led by local and international artists and art historians open to the Buenos Aires community. In addition, they grant 20 artist residencies to a mix of Argentine and international artists who follow a shared curriculum led by a diverse and remarkable roster of international artists serving as guest faculty.

      Moving up towards neighboring Brazil, we find Capacete (literally translated as Helmet), an organization with bases in both São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Founded and directed by artists Helmut Batista, Daniela Castro and Jorge Menna Barreto, Capacete places food at its core and firmly believes that “in-between” moments in life foster creativity and enrichment. Consequently, cooking and eating stand as the platforms for conversation and exchange at Capacete. Instead of developing a strict and pedagogical program, their aim is to be organic and to promote discussion in a relaxed environment. Capacete offers artistic residencies in their two locations and also runs a hotel that is open to artists and curators visiting Brazil. By extending their hospitality to a range of international visitors they hope to create a fluid and energetic community that can share ideas and resources while promoting art from abroad.

      Going west to the Andean city of Lima, Peru, we reach REVOLVER. Founded and directed by Renzo Gianella and Giancarlo Scaglia, this space (a former soap factory) houses a commercial gallery and provides one-month residencies where artists are given the necessary means to produce new art. Since the early 2000s, Lima has developed a thriving contemporary art scene, due in part to the expansion of institutions such as the MALI (Lima Art Museum) and the emergence of alternative spaces that have given voice to young artists. For its part, REVOLVER aims to encourage the development of the local art scene by becoming a platform for exchange between the artists in Peru and the international art community.

      Continuing north to inland Colombia we arrive in Cali to find two outstanding projects: Lugar a Dudas (A Place for Doubts) and Helena Producciones (Helena Productions). Lugar a Dudas functions as a research laboratory that focuses on the needs and interests of artists in Cali and its vicinity. Founded by internationally renowned artist Oscar Muñoz, this organization is run by a young and energetic group of Colombian artists that take on curatorial, administrative and programmatic responsibilities in order to foment cultural growth and artistic development. The artists organize different exhibitions in both their gallery and a large window that faces the street traffic. They also promote frequent informal gatherings in their living/library room and the open-air patio/cinema, and coordinate a residency for local and international artists and researchers. By contrast, Helena Producciones does not operate as a fixed gallery or residency, but rather it travels to where it is needed. It develops site-specific projects that examine the relationships between Colombia’s cultural, historic, social, political, economic and geographic phenomena. Like other organizations, they want to connect Colombia’s local artistic communities with others around the world, and have cultivated key partnerships with organizations like the London-based international network of artists Triangle Art Trust. The two organizations recently collaborated to bring a series of visiting artists to Colombia who co-produced site-specific work with local artists and communities.

      Heading east to the Caribbean, in San Juan de Puerto Rico, the highlight is Beta-Local. Tony Cruz, Michy Marxuach and Beatriz Santiago Muñoz founded this space as an open platform for the local community’s cultural growth. Like their colleagues in Buenos Aires, the founders of this space saw the lack of a solid fine arts education system as a crucial problem in San Juan. For this reason, the programs they developed combine the production of art with art theory and criticism involving local and international guest speakers. Additionally, once a month, Beta-Local becomes a restaurant, where those involved with the space cook and serve food to the general public at modest prices. This initiative is a way to build community that also functions as their main fundraising initiative.

      Finally, at the heart of busy Mexico City, we conclude our brief tour at SOMA. Founded by artists Eduardo Abaroa, Yoshua Okón and Artemio, SOMA’s program comprises both a residency open to international artists and an art school for local artists, whose faculty includes leading art figures from Mexico and abroad. This space also takes pedagogy beyond lessons for artists, expanding their program to Mexico City’s inhabitants offering free and open lectures on a variety of cultural topics every Tuesday. SOMA’s founders believe that this project can exert an enduring influence only if art and art education is valued beyond the art community through the infrastructure they seek to build.

      Given the difficult economic climate in the United States, we have recently witnessed dramatic budget cuts to public education, particularly to liberal arts programs. Latin America has not been a stranger to similar political and economical crises. Yet time and again, artists from this vast and diverse region have rise to the occasion with great commitment to their practice and their communities. The importance of artists not only as creators but also as promoters of education and exchange is greater than ever. One of the key shared qualities among the examples I list here is their sensitivity to identify local needs and connect with global currents through thoughtful projects. The challenges we face under the current economic conditions in the United States demand brave, radical and creative actions from all of us. Let us turn our attention south and follow the led of the artists that are already transforming their local communities and expanding their borders through art and education.

      Ursula Davila-Villa is Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Latin American Art at the Blanton Museum of Art.

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