Chus Martínez and the museum at its turning point

22 November 2023

Chus Martinez. Photo: Nici Jost

The interview was conducted by March Mazzei and originally published by Clarin. November 3, 2023.

Buenos Aires is expecting a contingent of more than 200 visitors, including top museum authorities from around the world. From Nov. 9 to 11, the Buenos Aires Museum of Modern Art will host the 55th Annual Conference of the International Committee of Modern Art Museums (CIMAM), which will discuss in three days of talks the present of these institutions whose role is undergoing an accelerated transformation. In fact, the motto of this edition, which the director of the Moderno promoted, Victoria Noorthoorn, speaks of The Co-Creative Museum: Social Agency, Ethics, and Heritage.

Spain's Chus Martinez, an experienced historian and former curator at New York's El Museo del Barrio and dOCUMENTA (13), closely linked to Latin American and Argentinean art, is part of the content committee that designed the program. "When you visit a museum, and you're motivated to get home and tell about it, that's preparing you for future changes," says in dialogue with Ñ Martinez, now the director of an art school in Basel, Switzerland. An edition of the talk on the CIMAM debates follows.

Why is CIMAM relevant for the attendees, the art community, and Argentines?

When a contingent moves, it is an opportunity for everyone. Although Latin America seems close -emotionally, culturally, and literary-, the presence has a pedagogical function, even more so after the covid. People also come to learn and reprogram their own curiosity about the context. These are events of a very positive dimension because the different initiatives that offer something have a fertile reception from the local culture and give rise to other things. This is important in these times because of the economic the, political, and geographic circumstances we live through. Moving and traveling is less evident than it was a decade ago.

You are part of the content committee of the meeting, which defined the program of the conferences; based on diversity, what kind of stories will be heard? What ideas do you want to spread?

The idea of seeing how the museum -as a place of presentation, representation, and heritage- has been transformed into a place of experience, emotion, and collective construction of possibilities, identities, diversities, equalities, and inequalities. This emotional dimension is vital for transmission. The future of cultural transmission has a great ally in museums. And those that were in the past transmitters of colonial ways of doing things are deprogramming and displacing those narratives to place other practices. The museum as a very appropriate place to talk about our mental health. Art can be an experience that accompanies us in a very human and positive way in ways of understanding ourselves and others. You will find an inflection in the way of understanding the institution itself and its functions in relation to the societies in which it is framed.

It gives the impression that the institution has a dominant position over the other actors with whom it is linked in this idea of co-creation, which is the meeting's motto. How does this inflection occur?

Various positive factors contribute to the institution's diversity. These include the provision of a platform for vernacular voices and indigenous knowledge, advocating for social welfare and non-violence, and rejecting the notion that heritage is solely defined by forms inherited from the colonial past. Over the past decade, we have witnessed a trend towards institutions that provide a welcoming physical space and strive to create emotional and sensorial experiences. The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified our reflection on the importance of such institutions. We now understand that institutions are not just defined by their physical attributes, such as brick walls or a "white cube" architecture. Rather, they are a product of collective efforts. The term "institution" is used because it represents a community of people who come together to create a shared experience, not just a physical structure.

If you are a mother and have children, this dimension is essential because you want to eliminate negative dynamics; you want to guarantee the continuity of education, equal opportunities, and a society capable of embracing diversity. Can cultural and basically artistic institutions be a great ally in these change processes in our societies? Yes, absolutely. Because they belong to all of us. We must be active and think that culture is not so much information for the privileged, but that the real privilege is that it belongs to all of us. And inhabit those spaces. You have to see what your tasks are inside the museum. It's a place where you have to be safe, and that has been accentuated. This is going to be at the center of the debate these days.

This is a global meeting, and the debates it raises across all countries, at any level of development, when the ways of approaching the problems faced by European museums are different from those faced by museums in Latin America, for example.

It is true that there are differences in the uses and ways of activating communities. But this is not always to the detriment of countries with more economic precariousness. Sometimes, you find places with a great willingness and social capacity to activate. In Europe, we are experiencing a deactivation of the space. Museums are increasingly empty. You are absolutely right, but listening to those differences is a way to extrapolate your situation, see what you can learn, and how many friends you can win. This is a place where alliances and friends are critical. We need to be very close.

What is the role of artists as speakers at the Conference?

Artists live it in the first person. They are the individuals who have historically emphasized the process rather than the end result, something capitalism fails to do. In doing so, they promote inclusivity of all the dynamics within that process. This requires a great deal of generosity when it comes to listening. Nowadays, private companies also claim to encourage this kind of language and practice, but the artists are the true originators of such a movement. Therefore, a conference of this caliber cannot do without them.

We know about your links with some Argentinean artists, who are they?

I have been attached to Argentina all my life. I think I have never done anything without Eduardo Navarro. Also with Nicanor Aráoz and Sofía Durrieu, I have millions among them. And of course Federico Manuel Peralta Ramos, to whom I have made texts, exhibitions, I have yet to make a record and an opera. I have always been very attentive and it is something very epidermal.

And what would you like to know? Several exhibitions are opening to welcome visitors.

Beyond solo exhibitions, I would like to know those places where things are complex. To see how they face those complexities and invent mechanisms to stay in art. Sometimes, it's hard to understand, but staying in a practice continuously is an immense effort. And that's why it's valuable to be exposed to the tactics of communities of artists. It is a vital question, on the one hand, and a social philosophical one on the other. The artists' yearning not to disappear is the most generous of all. Even if it is interpreted as artistic individuality, it is redemptive. Because if at times like these artists were to disappear, what would we be left with? Implementing the reality we have with other realities is a fundamental exercise to give us futures, in plural, to imagine worlds. So I am interested in the mechanisms, structures, and inventions they must make to be there.

You say that we should learn from these dynamics, to invent new ways of connecting, not linked to the market or social places of belonging, or more conservative models.

Conservative models have little impact on motivation. You experience motivation firsthand when you enter a space and suddenly feel it. You realize that this motivation makes the transmission possible. What is it for? To prepare you for future changes. This kind of dynamics gives social flexibility; without them you break down, you enter a dark period. These communities have that effect, they are what keeps the community healthy. I am not sure if the market is the driving force for everyone, but it is not the only factor. Something significant has occurred when you experience something and feel the need to share it with others. It prepares you both emotionally and cognitively to face any challenge that might come your way. And sometimes you don't realize, what is art for? Well, that's what it's for.

In this process of change, more visibility is being given to the narratives of native cultures. Do you see them as a matter of agenda or as something more genuine?

It is our duty to include native cultures and their cosmovisions. This means giving up a significant portion of the space. It may cause discomfort, but it is a great thing because it is relevant. It makes sense that they should have ownership over the space because it was theirs in the first place. Furthermore, the original cultures' cosmologies contain unique ways of articulating knowledge that are diametrically different from modern forms. To invent a new world, we must invent a new logic, and the closest thing to that is the ancestral logic found in myths and stories, which have to do with the future. These stories are relevant to everything, including technological forms. It is not a fashion or a duty; it is an opportunity that comes as a gift. No matter how much you try to change it, if the logic remains the same, change is unlikely. They are merely rectifications or small corrections.

The rectifications sound like the somewhat unsuccessful feminist wave in programming. How can we overcome that stage?

It should come naturally, but it doesn't because the modern order is the order of division. To embrace the new habits, we must have them. What we cannot do is to have the old ones and superimpose new concepts and new practices without carrying them out. That involves discomfort at times, sure, but when the body is uncomfortable for long enough, it starts to find new habits. But we have to go through a few decades because many decades have passed in which many people have been ignored. And that has to change.