The Art of Curating is on Display at the MOLAA

  • 01/23/2015
  • Andrea Serna

By Andrea Serna, Arts and Culture Writer

The Museum of Latin American Art is displaying Transformations, an exhibition that visually portrays the inspiring, life-changing stories of five community members. It showcases the museum’s permanent collection in a fresh and inspired way.

The exhibition is the creation of the museum’s Curator of Collections Carlos Ortega.

What is curating? In today’s culture anyone can put up a Pinterest page and be a curator. You can load music on your iPod and present it as a curated project. The popular belief is that curating is “choosing” things to put together. However, Ortega has put many years and much thought into curating an exhibit that engages and interacts with museum visitors, as well as the participants who are the subject of the exhibition.

Collaborating with the curator, five participants selected artwork from the museum’s collection, which they believed best depicted their lives, both before and after life-changing events. Their stories explore the durability of the human spirit in the face of extremely complex human experiences. They range from topics dealing with cancer to gang violence. Each participant curated the art that expressed their own personal journey of illness, abandonment, gang life or imprisonment.

The installation is a bold step for the museum. Rather than admiring art on the walls, visitors are invited into an experiential space, where moving stories are told utilizing fine art, video and ephemera from the participant’s lives.

“Transformations is a new kind of exhibition because it shifts from art exhibitions that are artifact focused” Ortega said. “Art is presented to the viewer as if art should tell you the stories – art for the sake of art – to art exhibitions where the art is relegated to the background. Human beings are the focus of the story. The art is just a tool to better convey the story.”

Each step into the exhibition was planned to invite the visitor to share the plights and conquests, as well as to explore the visitors own transformation in the process.

Ortega has had many years to prepare for his first major exhibition. A graduate of museum studies at University of Leicester, he completed his master’s thesis on the topic of rest areas in the museum. He arrived to the United States in 2003 to serve an internship at the Museum of Latin American Art. His career has taken many turns, but he returned to the museum in 2014 to secure a position in the collections department.

“I was always fascinated by theme parks and how they handle masses of visitors,” Ortega said. “I wanted to see how we could make the visitor more at home in the museum environment. In this time of technology, when we are all supposedly connected electronically, it seems that we have less and less connections.”

An early inspiration for the curator was at the Tate Museum, where he found an actual play area, furnished with toys for visitors. The space provided an area where they could rest and re-energize for short periods during a long day of art viewing.

Another exhibit at the Bronx Museum made a huge impression on the curator. The exhibit Manicurated was created by Judi Werthein. Werthein selected 10 paintings from the museum’s collection to turn into nail decals. A nail salon was installed in the museum’s permanent collection gallery and visitors were invited to receive free manicures by professional manicurists. Participants selected the photographic reproductions of the selected works to be painted on their fingernails. The artworks were literally placed in the hands of the Bronx community.

“In my view, I had a concept,” Ortega said. “I was designing and developing it by grabbing talents from people around me. I was putting all that talent together a passing it through my filter. Maybe passing it through my filter is curating?”

In a press release, Stuart Ashman, the museum’s president and CEO stated, “Carlos Ortega, our curator of collections came up with a socially relevant exhibition concept that allows members of the community to use our permanent collection in a unique way – to illuminate their personal stories – while inspiring visitors to share their own stories.”

Long Beach conceptual artist Kendell Carter was invited to create the entry space to the powerful exhibit. He wanted to include elements of all the participants. Many components of the entry space reflects the participants in the exhibit. Carter has had solo exhibits at the Hammer Museum, Laguna Art Museum and Mark Moore Gallery, as well as many others.

The rest area is furnished with pieces created by many of the participants as well as Carter’s ‘weave’ paintings, which reflect weaving together cultures and individuals. Blanket colors represent typical colors used in several regions in Mexico.

“We were striving for the concept of unity by using different elements from different areas,”  Ortega said.

A fireplace surrounded by home furnishings provides a comfortable lounge for visitors.

“Since prehistoric time, human beings have gathered around the fire to share stories,” he said. “Maybe now the TV has taken the place of the fireplace, but this is a familiar place where people can share their own stories.”

In an effort to select a diverse group of participants for the exhibition, a call was put out to museum members and more than 80 nonprofits in the Los Angeles and Orange County area. More than 50 applications were received, from which a curatorial team selected the participants.

To illustrate their transformative event, participants were initially asked to choose as many pieces as they wanted from a selection of 250 works of art from the museum’s collection. Ortega then narrowed the final exhibition choices to a maximum of 10 works per participant.

Partners COTU Media interviewed each participant on video. Stunning photo portraits by Mick Victor fill the gallery walls. The videos and portraits, along with art from the permanent collection allow each participant to tell their own story. Many tears were seen as visitors viewed the moving exhibition at the opening reception.

As we near the 20th anniversary of the museums founding, it is good to remember the original museum curator, a physician who envisioned a museum filled with healing art. Dr. Robert Gumbiner gathered a collection of art for his medical offices, which was eventually ‘transformed’ into the Museum of Latin American Art.

“My father originally established a Latin American art gallery inside the [Family Health Partners] Senior Center, which was located in the building that is now MOLAA,” said Burke Gumbiner, MOLAA board president. “He did this because he believed art could help people heal.”

Transformations will be on exhibition through May 17 at the Museum of Latin American Art.
Venue: Museum of Latin American Art
Location: 628 Alamitos Ave,, Long Beach


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Andrea Serna is a freelance writer and Wikipedia editor living and working in San Pedro.

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