It’s a timely moment to send up this flare of a show with its pops of color, retro-futuristic aesthetics and audience-engaging optical illusions. This midcentury niche is on fire. Exhibitions have popped up across the country, including the Hirshhorn Museum’s recent “Suprasensorial,” a massive, vibrant look at the Light and Space movement, which came to Washington after debuting at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Record-setting auctions have followed.
Yet the Art Museum of the Americas, a one-time trailblazer with a coveted collection, seems to be in a predicament.
“It’s an auspicious moment for the museum,” said Abigail McEwen, the University of Maryland professor who is curating the show. “I hope that the [Organization of American States] recognizes the collection’s significance and makes the museum a priority.”
The D.C.-based OAS is the alliance of 35 member nations, from Canada to Chile, that owns the museum. It funds the salaries of the museum’s seven employees, but there is no budget for programming or curating, conservation or restoration, and there have been cuts made across the organization.
This has been problematic. The small staff and frequent restructuring make planning difficult, which diminishes possibilities for outside funds. McEwen managed to turn around “Constellations” in less than four months, even though the institutional norm is closer to three or four years, which allows time for loans of additional works, fundraising, corporate sponsorships and academic research. But a few works she hoped to include in the show were not in presentable condition.
Although the full collection hasn’t been appraised in years, recent sales suggest that the museum and the OAS are sitting on a valuable stockpile.
At a Christie’s New York auction in May, “La Revolte des Contraires” by Chilean artist Roberto Matta sold for $5 million. Only two works by Latin American artists have ever sold for more at auction (a piece by Rufino Tamayo and one by Frida Kahlo). The museum has a comparable work, according to McEwen: the 1948 painting “Hermala II.”
Scholars, who might be less impressed with price inflation than art’s historical significance, have also offered praise.
The museum has “representative examples of probably all the most well-known Latin American artists,” said Michele Greet, who serves on the museum’s advisory board and teaches at George Mason University. “They have wonderful pieces by Roberto Matta, by Wilfredo Lam, by Amelia Pelaez, Pettoruti.”