The USC Fisher Museum of Art takes its position in the cultural capital of the Pacific Rim seriously.
In addition to presenting a full slate of exhibitions on the University Park Campus each academic year, director Selma Holo reaches out to colleagues throughout the Americas at conferences she organizes in Mexico through the USC International Museum Studies Institute based at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
“Re/mix Oaxaca 2012,” the most recent conference, was held for three days in late May in Oaxaca, the Mexican state considered to be at the heart of Mexicanidad or Mexicanness.
Holo’s co-organizer for the events was Graciela de la Torre, director of the University Museum of Contemporary Art in Mexico City. MUAC, as the museum is affectionately called, is part of Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Medico (UNAM), the largest and most prestigious university in Mexico and arguably all of Latin America.
The first series of conferences, which took place in Mexico City and Los Angeles several years ago, was dedicated to finding common ground among museums with respect to sustainable values. Those conferences resulted in Beyond the Turnstile: Making the Case for Museums and Sustainable Values (Rowman & Littlefield, 2009), a book that reflects USC’s commitment to museums on the international scene, with a special emphasis on Latin America.
This year’s conference in Oaxaca expanded USC’s hemispheric reach in the museum world, according to Holo, by reaching out to South America and Canada. The institute’s goal, she said, is to become the only museum think tank focusing on the opportunities and challenges of this hemisphere.
Holo said the importance of the conferences to the museums — and to USC — cannot be overstated.
“These conferences bring directors from a range of museums and museum types to one of the most highly developed museum cultures in the world — Mexico,” she said. “It is a deep, powerful cultural diplomacy move for USC and is a way of bringing ideas to the fore across borders, as well as across disciplines. The think tank includes not just art museums but national history museums, gardens and even stamp museums.”
The conference in May received funding from the USC Office of the Provost, the U.S. Embassy, the State of Oaxaca, Mexican arts patrons, foundations and museums. The largest contributor was the Alfredo Harp Helú Foundation of Oaxaca.
Holo pointed out that the conference underscored USC’s commitment to Mexico, as well as the university’s global initiatives, including the recently announced Provost’s International Artists Fellowships. Angela McCracken, director of the USC international office in Mexico City, attended the conference and wrote a report on it.
In her report, McCracken wrote that the event had several important benefits for USC in Mexico, chief among them “raising the profile and prestige of USC with 55 of the most influential cultural figures in Mexico.”
While the first conferences investigated values that make museums indispensable to society, the most recent “Re/mix” was about demonstrating that museums of all types and sizes talk to each other to seed new ideas, innovations and creativity.
“Usually, big museums talk only to big museums, small museums talk to small museums and national museums talk only to national museums,” Holo said. “We know that small and regional museums often come up with great ideas because they can ‘play around’ easier,” she explained. “Their bureaucracies are slimmer, and they are accustomed to low budgets and high creativity ratios.”
Oaxaca, a city and state in southern Mexico traditionally known for its archaeological ruins, is home to dozens of museums, including three that house contemporary art, textiles and pre-Columbian sculpture.
A decade ago, Holo wrote a book about the state, Oaxaca at the Crossroads: Managing Memory, Negotiating Change, and she sees the locale as an ideal place for museum directors to meet.
“Oaxaca is central to Mexican culture and is a gateway to Latin America,” she said.
Fifty-five museum directors from the Americas attended this unique conference, including Guillermo Barrios, former national director of museums in Venezuela, who spoke about the deterioration and politicization of Venezuela’s museums under President Hugo Chavez; the director of the Pulitzer Museum in St. Louis; and a representative from the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.
For the next conference in 2014, Holo hopes to add representation from Argentina, Brazil and Chile.
Those attending with USC connections included Demián Flores, an artist whose work has been shown at USC Fisher; former USC lecturer Lori Starr, who runs a museum of Jewish culture in Canada; USC doctorate Maite Álvarez, a project specialist from The J. Paul Getty Museum; Joanne Northrup MA ’92, director of contemporary initiatives at the Nevada Museum of Art; and Tim Wride MA ’95, photography curator at the Norton Museum of Art in Florida.
One keynote speaker at the conference was María Isabel Granen de Porrua, president of the Alfredo Harp Helú Foundation, who spoke about how Oaxaca has been at a crossroads and how the Harp foundation has helped advance the cultural life of the city and state. Another keynote speaker was New York Times arts journalist Edward Rothstein, who introduced the topic of the special power of small and regional museums.
After the conference, Rothstein wrote an article on the cosmopolitan nature of the city that is much more dynamic culturally than “a photogenic relic of Mexico’s colonial past,” as he put it.
Holo, who is planning to publish a bilingual book building on the ideas developed at the 2012 conference, hopes that this pattern — a conference in Oaxaca one year followed by a book the next year — will continue into the future.