At last Friday’s U.S. Latinx Arts Futures Symposium, hosted by the Ford Foundation at its headquarters near the United Nations on Manhattan’s East Side, Rose G. Salseda, a Ph.D. candidate in art history at the University of Texas at Austin, presented a study arguing that Latino art is seriously underrepresented at the College Art Association, the United States’ principal professional organization for arts scholarship.
The study, which analyzed abstracts and panels presented at CAA’s annual conference from 2012 to 2016, found that, on average, 1.4 sessions and 7.2 papers on Latino art were presented per year at the conference, with the 2013 and 2014 gatherings featuring no sessions on the topic. (Salseda, who analyzed the data with Mary Thomas, a Ph.D. candidate in art history and visual culture at the University of California, Santa Cruz, reminded the audience that the conference hosts nearly 200 panels, workshops, and events at its annual meeting.) “We need to increase the presence of Latino art at CAA to foster the recognition of the field by the art historians and museum professionals who comprise a majority of CAA’s membership base,” she told the audience. “If the field of Latino art is not recognized in an inclusive and representative way, this leaves far too much to speculate for our future.”
Contacted by ARTnews, CAA’s executive director, Hunter O’Hanian, said that he had not yet seen the study’s statistics, but was not completely surprised by them, as CAA has over 65 classifications for its papers and sessions and “no one category ends up having more than one or two percent, with the exception of contemporary art.” He added that CAA “has made a huge effort to make its paper and sessions as broad and diverse and to reach as broad and diverse base” and that it “continually looks to create new categories and classifications to allow scholars and art makers to identify their work in a manner they believe is representative.”
Salseda is one of the dozen or so arts professionals who co-founded the US Latina/o Art Forum last year. Now numbering some 175 members, its purpose is “to establish an unprecedented network of university and college faculty, independent researchers, artists, museum professionals, critics, and graduate students with an interest in art and visual culture by and about U.S. Latinas/os,” according to its website. It strives to be a kind of CAA for professionals who focus on Latino art. Last year, when USLAF applied for affiliated status with CAA—there are currently over 80 affiliated associations—they were denied. (Their current application for affiliated status is still pending, and will be presented to the executive committee of CAA’s board at the annual meeting in February.)
At the symposium, Adriana Zavala, a professor of art history and Latinx Studies at Tufts University, in Bedford, Massachusetts, who is another co-founder of USLAF, discussed the fact that CAA had recently reorganized the way users can search its website for dissertations. In the new model, Latino art, which she noted is distinct from Latin American art, is not a subject category—in its place are the geographical regions of North America, Central America and the Caribbean, and South America—nor is it a subcategory, though “African America/Africa Diaspora” and “Native American Art (post-1500)” are. “We cannot allow ourselves to be rendered invisible because a category does not exist,” she told the audience.
The Ford Foundation’s president, Darren Walker, echoed Salseda and Zavala’s points. “You are asserting that there is a discipline,” Walker said. “There is a definition that you will define for the field and as a canon, and this is really one of those exciting moments.”
The symposium, led by artist Teresita Fernández, was a full-day, jam-packed affair with artists, museum directors, curators, and scholars taking part in talks and panels that looked at the current state of Latinx arts in the United States. (Latinx being a gender-neutral term used with increasing frequency in place of Latino.) Though the symposium didn’t offer much in the way of concrete solutions, it painted a complex, nuanced picture of the range of issues that Latinos face in the American art world. As artist Juana Valdés put it, “We are not one monolithic identity.”
In her artist talk, the artist and curator Amalia Mesa-Bains summarized the ramifications of the famously controversial 1993 Whitney Biennial on many artists of color, and especially Latino artists: “Observation: be careful what you wish for. We know the aftermath of that exhibition, sometimes referred to as the door slammed shut.”
Throughout the day, speakers said that they remained hopeful for the future and the next generation of artists, curators, and scholars. On hand were leaders in the Latino arts community, alongside top officials from major New York Museums: the Brooklyn Museum’s director, Anne Pasternak, the Metropolitan Museum’s chairman of education, Sandra Jackson-Dumont, and Whitney Museum’s director, Adam Weinberg.
During a directors’ panel, Weinberg said that the symposium reminded him that “this isn’t about art; it’s about people. It’s about lives and that’s why we do what we do. And that’s front and center for what this conversation’s about.” The day seemed to have made an impression on one of Weinberg’s key colleagues. At a gathering after the symposium, the Whitney chief curator, Scott Rothkopf, told me that his involvement, as both panelist and audience member, would be the main topic at the museum’s curatorial meeting on Monday.