In a hypothetical game of word association, “Important Art and Place” will almost certainly conjure places like France or Italy rather than, at least in the first few rounds, Guatemala or Brazil. It’s just the arc of Western art history. This is why the current show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, “The Arts in Latin America, 1492–1820,” is so critical for expanding our understanding of Western art history. It shows how art making in the non-British American colonies was as vibrant and refined as work done at the same time in Europe — and, with the added component of the energetic mixing that occurred with Indian cultures, a step more complex.
Arguably, the show is especially significant for Los Angeles, the last of three stops after it premiered in Philadelphia (where it was organized) and then went to Mexico City. With immigration trends actively reshaping the life of our city, L.A. is the latest frontier in centuries of cultural melding and mixing in the Americas, an ongoing process that is exhilarating and very often strenuous and uncomfortable. In a way, it’s almost like L.A. is experiencing a modern mirror image of what was sparked in the viceregal centers of Peru and Mexico 500 years ago.
Yet by the looks of how the show was mounted, LACMA decided to ignore the uniqueness of viewing these works in an L.A. setting when it brought “The Arts in Latin America” to town. The informational materials for the exhibit are only in English, and not complemented by their Spanish translations. This instantly subtracts — or at least doesn’t encourage — an enormous potential: Spanish-dominant immigrants, the working-class engine of today’s L.A.
LACMA says the lack of Spanish information in the exhibit came down to a matter of space. Barbara Pflaumer, the museum’s associate vice president and director of press relations, tells the Weekly the rooms at the top of the Art of the Americas Building were too crowded to have Spanish panels alongside or below the English.
“The show is somewhat smaller here than it was in Philadelphia, but the space is also smaller,” Pflaumer says. “If there’s too much information on the walls, people gather around the labels and don’t see the artwork . . . We didn’t ignore the situation, and we tried to deal with it creatively.”
The museum also points out that the free brochures available at the start of the show are bilingual, as is the audio tour — but it highlights only a portion of the works on display. The exhibition catalog, at 592 pages and $50, is in Spanish as well.
To the museum’s credit, previous Latino- or Latin America–themed shows, such as “Inventing Race,” “Lords of Creation” and “Road to Aztlán,” have been presented in both English and Spanish. Yet it’s hard to shake the feeling that with its decision to limit “The Arts in Latin America” to English only, LACMA missed a great opportunity to open its doors to scores of low-income immigrants who interact with Los Angeles primarily on a live-to-work level. These are the people who are raising dollars to send back to the very countries where these artworks came from, people who often have just as urgent a need to reshape their view of Western art as assimilated Latinos and non-Latinos.
Currently on LACMA’s Web site, a prominent link guides visitors to a video clip at the Spanish-language daily La Opinión showing highlights from the show with commentary, in Spanish, by Ilona Katzew, the LACMA curator for Latin American art. This is a welcome gesture and guidepost for the future. Immigrants and their children are an untapped source of museum-goers who might one day enrich the pool of patrons LACMA has so comfortably cultivated. For now, bilingual exhibitions at the county’s public museum would help ensure the institution’s long-term livelihood and relevance.