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‘We Have to Mobilize’: Latinx Art Scholars Talk Representation with the College Art Association

The New York Hilton Midtown, where the 2017 CAA annual conference will take place. JIM HENDERSON, VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

The New York Hilton Midtown, where the 2017 CAA annual conference will take place.

JIM HENDERSON, VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Last September, ARTnews reported on the findings of a study, conducted by Rose G. Salseda and Mary Thomas, that showed that Latinx art was underrepresented at the College Art Association’s annual conferences between 2012 and 2016. The study reported that, on average, just 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. A preliminary report on the 2017 CAA annual conference, which runs through Saturday, February 18, in New York, found that, of 256 sessions, only 3 (1.17 percent) will be dedicated to the subject of Latinx art, while 14 of the 949 papers (1.47 percent) discuss Latinx art. Taking into account the growth in sessions and papers between the 2016 and 2017 conferences, the preliminary report states that these are 0.13 percent and 0.43 percent increases, respectively.

As these numbers circulate, the U.S. Latinx Art Forum (USLAF), which seeks to create a network of Latinx art world professionals and scholars similar to CAA, has reapplied for official affiliated status with CAA, after being denied such recognition last year. (CAA’s executive committee will vote later this month, after the conference.) On Thursday, as part of the CAA conference, USLAF will hold a formal business meeting and then a plenary session on Friday, in which O’Hanian, Salseda, and Zavala will be among the eight participants. Ahead of those events, I spoke with the major players in this dialogue between CAA and Latinx art: Hunter O’Hanian, CAA’s executive director; Salseda, associate director of USLAF; and Adriana Zavala, a professor in Latinx art at Tufts University and director of USLAF.

From left: Hunter O'Hanian, Adriana Zavala, Rose G. Salseda. FROM LEFT: KYLE S. DUNN; CHRISTINE CAVALIER; STEPHANIE BERGER

From left: Hunter O’Hanian, Adriana Zavala, Rose G. Salseda.

FROM LEFT: KYLE S. DUNN; CHRISTINE CAVALIER; STEPHANIE BERGER

This interview has been edited and condensed.

ARTnews: What does this year’s annual CAA conference look like for the U.S. Latinx Art Forum?

Adriana Zavala: For the plenary session, we’ve brought together individuals from a variety of different museums and cultural institutions to really think about Latinx art in relation to the academy and in relation to museum and exhibition representation, and really trying to have a conversation that is intersectional and relational. We’re not just talking about advocating for Latinx art as a sort of category isolated unto itself, but really trying to jumpstart a conversation that positions Latinx art in relation to other fields, in relation to the broader discipline. USLAF has really been trying to conceptualize how to bring some new energy to the conversation and how to shift the conversation somewhat. It’s really this effort to engage in a conversation across fields.

Rose G. Salseda: Another aspect of our plenary is that we’re also thinking about how the Trump administration might affect all the gains that we’ve been able to accomplish within the field of Latinx art. We’re hoping to discuss that too with our participants to figure out how we can foster that growth in a climate where arts funding might be cut, with immigration policies that affect our community.

Zavala: Yeah, that seems absolutely crucial at this juncture. It’s about finding ways to create solidarity at a moment when not just Latinos and Latinx art are going to be under attack, but marginalized communities across the board. We really have to mobilize to try to have these conversations across different dimensions and to find ways to create community and solidarity.

Hunter, can you talk about the statements CAA has put out about the travel ban and the possible defunding of the NEA and the NEH?

Hunter O’Hanian: CAA has a long history of advocating for both academic and artistic freedom. CAA’s international program goes as far back as the 1930s. CAA was providing opportunities for refugees from Poland, Germany, and Eastern Europe who were facing very severe circumstances. We’ve got a long history of trying to be as inclusive as we can be. I guess over the years we probably always haven’t been as successful as people have wanted us to be. But that’s well within the DNA of CAA.

So now, when I look at where we are with this current government and at this conference we have, it’s really about being as inclusive as possible. When I use the word inclusivity, I’m talking about it on the micro level and on the macro level. On the micro level, I think about inclusivity as one-on-one, person-to-person. I want every individual to feel as included as they possibly can be. On the macro level, I think it’s important to think about all of the different constituencies and fields of studies and emerging areas and how they, too, can be represented through the largest art history and visual arts learned society in the United States.

Zavala: I agree with that really capacious definition of inclusivity. I hope what I’m seeing is a real openness and willingness to both strive for inclusivity but also tackle some of the really complex and longstanding issues, particularly those that have shaped the field of art history. As complex as a history as it has, it also has a history of racism and deeply entrenched, hierarchical notions of quality and aesthetic value. We want to create a forum for having really challenging intellectual and ethical conversations about where our field is and what this all means to us at this given moment.

O’Hanian: When you put together panels and forums, they just create the framework. We as an organization can create those frameworks and we can bring people to the table and then try to move the conversation along. But the next part of that is really for people in the field to start participating in those conversations and realizing how things can change. As you say, some of this is difficult work, some of the work is around people recognizing past practices and understanding how some of those things might be unpacked. If CAA can’t create a forum for that conversation, I don’t know who can.

Zavala: Right.

What do you think this conversation will look like in five or ten years? How do you expect it to change, and what steps are you taking to make sure that that happens?

O’Hanian: I don’t know where it’s going to end up. As far as CAA as an entity is concerned, it’s very easy for us to set the table, to put this stuff out there and to have these conversations. But then I think about taking it to the next step, where do we and how do we bring it to practitioners in the art history field? How do we begin to change minds in that field? I think that’s going to take longer. When we look at an art history department, whether it’s at a small college in New England or a large college in the Southwest, the aim is that students and topics are accepted and are given the recognition that they deserve. People shouldn’t have to fight for that recognition.

Zavala: One approach that we’re taking is to gather data, not simply to point fingers—that’s one important piece of it, to point out underrepresentation, inadequate allocation of resources—but then to use the data to strategize. Our ultimate aim in those things is to open up conversation, to track the field, to track lack of representation, and then to say, Okay, what are strategies to beginning to overcome this? You have to create fora to have these conversations and you have to invite people who aren’t part of your in-group to learn from you, and you also have to be open to learn from them. I think that’s what this political moment requires of us.

Salseda: For our organization, we really want to create initiatives and create different programs where our artists can be supported and where the scholars in our field will be supported. It’s not just these other fields needing to learn from us, and us wanting to teach them; they really need to encompass our field. The Latin Americanists are being asked to teach Latinx art, and Americanists need to learn Latinx art history with our growing demographic. It’s critical that these histories be taught and absorbed by other fields.

O’Hanian: I’m just sort of curious, Rose, what do you think is holding the other Americanists back from learning Latinx art and teaching it?

Salseda: Really, I think it’s this long history of racism and discrimination and value that’s put on certain types of art. That’s what I think it is. Adriana, do you agree?

Zavala: I agree. It’s painful to say and we don’t want to malign another subfield of the discipline, but the level of misunderstanding and the kinds of stereotypical assumptions about what Latinx art is are upsetting. We’re living another virulent moment of the culture wars. Frankly, the field of American art in the United States hasn’t really changed much in terms of inclusion. The percentage of Latinx artists who are not only included in a tokenizing way but actually understood in a profound way I would say is pretty small. The elephant in the room is that there is structural racism within the discipline.

O’Hanian: I assumed that that was what the answer was. My own personal experience, running the only gay art museum in the world, was seeing a lot of that work being completely marginalized and ignored because of another –ism out there, in that case homophobia. What’s next is really looking at where you can put your energy, where things are, and then how you can actually monitor change.

Zavala: Absolutely. I think part of the quandary is that there’s the assumption—or a lack of understanding—in the field of American or even global contemporary art history that there is an insider culture that is going to be opaque or not understandable or that can simply be ignored in the interest of mainstreaming. The point of the matter is, whether you like globalization or not, we have to be able to talk across different dimensions and we have to be able to think, to teach across different dimensions. Artists need to be able to self-name, self-identify and then it’s really beholden to the critics and the art historians who interpret their work to become conversant in the issues that these artists are dealing with, whether you’re talking about a queer artist or a Latinx artist.

Salseda: That naming is really important and it’s also political. If we don’t name ourselves, if we don’t acknowledge our field of Latinx art, we’re at risk of further making ourselves invisible or continuing that invisibility. If we don’t name it, it’s a further threat of all of these issues and problems not being addressed.

Zavala: I would add that you can never say enough times that there is no neutral linguistic or theoretical or static system. All of these things are—even if that culture or ethnicity is whiteness—constituted through identity. We accept white Anglo-European norms as neutral but they’re just not. This political moment shows us that in such a virulent way.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

Zavala: I hope anybody that reads this—regardless of who they are, Latinx, black, white, queer—sees that this plenary session is an opportunity to come and learn and participate in conversation. It’s not just for the groups that appear to be represented in the roster of panelists. It really is about anybody who’s curious to come and to learn and to participate.

Salseda: Really, we’re talking about a field, Latinx art, that is inherently intersectional as well. Latinx art encompasses African American art and history, queer art and history. So really this is for everybody.

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