There are a lot of jobs in the art world, and Pilar Tompkins Rivas has had most of them. “From the academic side, the museum side, the commercial gallery side, working as an artist, as a curatorial assistant, development, grant writing, I've learned something from every role I've had to play,” she says. Last May she took on her latest role, director of the Vincent Price Art Museum, making a splash with her first exhibition, “Tastemakers & Earthshakers: Notes From Los Angeles Youth Culture, 1943-2016,” an ambitious, interdisciplinary tour of seven decades of predominantly Latino art, music and fashion in L.A. She's the first Latina to hold the position.
From her modest office in the museum's sleek building on the campus of East Los Angeles College in Monterey Park, Tompkins Rivas recounts her circuitous route through the L.A. art ecosystem, which began 16 years ago.
Although she studied studio art and trained as a muralist, it was a passion for dance that brought Tompkins Rivas to L.A. from her home in Dallas. On Memorial Day weekend 2001, she came to attend the West Coast Salsa Congress, a festival celebrating salsa music and dance, and decided to stay for a few weeks.
Building on her experience as a muralist, she quickly found a job with the Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC), restoring canvas panels painted by famed Angeleno artist Judy Baca, using the old Spruce Goose hangar in Marina del Rey as her studio. “I … became very involved in the Chicano art community as soon as I got here,” Tompkins Rivas recalls. “That was the first community I connected to, being a Chicana coming from Texas.”
“I … became very involved in the Chicano art community as soon as I got here.” —Pilar Tompkins Rivas
Then tragedy struck. Her parents' Texas home was hit by lightning and burned to the ground. “They barely made it out,” she says. “The firemen had to resuscitate my dog. I said, 'Mom, I'm on the next plane home.' And she told me, 'There's no home to come home to. If you have a place to stay and a gig, you should stay out there.'?”
So she stayed, got an apartment and switched gears, working in a commercial gallery for Patricia Faure, “one of the grand dames of the L.A. art world,” as Tompkins Rivas puts it. “After a couple of months, they made me director. [Faure had] been in business for 30 or 40 years by the time I started, and every day I learned about the history of L.A.'s art scene from somebody who had lived it.”
After two years with Faure, Tompkins Rivas moved on to the L.A. branch of Harlem gallerist Christian Haye's the Project, and then in 2006 found herself at a crossroads. She didn't want to continue in the commercial gallery world but couldn't quite see herself as a curator yet, so she decided to test the waters with a few projects, including co-organizing the Mexicali Biennial, which staged art, performance and actions along the U.S.-Mexico border. “It gave me a jump start to begin thinking about my own curatorial practice and what that could be,” she recalls.
From there, she moved on to a position as curator of the Claremont Museum of Art, where she organized “Vexing: Female Voices From East L.A. Punk,” which told the overlooked story of Latina musicians and artists in the Los Angeles punk scene. Since then, she has curated numerous exhibitions at venues all over the city, from LACMA to the Watts Towers Arts Center, and mostly notably for the Getty's Pacific Standard Time initiatives. The latest edition, titled PST: LA/LA, for which she is co-curating two shows, launches this fall and focuses on the artistic and cultural connections between Los Angeles and Latin America.
The Vincent Price Art Museum may not have the same cachet as the museums farther west, but for Tompkins Rivas, all she sees are opportunities. “Coming into an institution like this, you can look at it two ways,” she says. “You can say, 'This is all we can do,' or 'What are our resources? What do we need, and what are we going to do to build and to get there?' I want to see how much we can possibly do. The sky's the limit.”