The museum itself was an instrument of diplomacy when it opened in 1976, a gift from the Latin American nations to the United States on the occasion of the bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence. Yet the collection started growing long before that. In 1946, Jose Gomez-Sicre, the Cuban protege of Alfred Barr Jr., the first director of the Museum of Modern Art, joined the Pan-American Union’s visual arts unit. Gomez-Sicre was an imposing man, both in stature and demeanor, who had a gift for spotting artistic up-and-comers. At a time when few museums were displaying Latin American art, Gomez-Sicre traveled widely to seek out hidden talent, according to Alejandro Anreus, who chairs the art department at William Paterson University in New Jersey and started his career as an archivist assistant at the Art Museum of the Americas in 1979.
“He promoted Latin American art in the U.S., I think, more than anybody,” Anreus said. “He went everywhere to lecture, organized exhibitions. He knew museum directors and got them to buy work like [Jose Luis] Cuevas, [Alejandro] Otero, [Alejandro] Obregon, the artists that today are household names in the history of modern art.”
He also brought his new discoveries back to the Pan-American Union and, later, the Art Museum of the Americas, giving them their first solo shows in the United States. The artists left pieces of their work with Gomez-Sicre out of gratitude. With a small acquisitions budget — in the $2,000 range annually from the 1950s until the 1980s — the OAS managed to acquire its collection through donations from grateful artists and collectors because of Gomez-Sicre’s far reach and connections, which extended to the Rockefeller family.
In fact, the centerpiece of “Constellations,” Joaquin Torres-Garcia’s arresting pictograph-inspired abstraction “Constructive Composition,” was a gift from philanthropist and politician Nelson Rockefeller. The Uruguayan artist’s “Grafismo Universal” recently sold at auction for $1.4 million.
“In the ’50s and ’60s, everybody knew that there was this place — not even a museum then, it was the visual arts section — but that the visual arts section at the OAS was a central place in the art of Latin America, just like Mexico and Buenos Aires and Sao Paulo,” Anreus said. According to Anreus, Gomez-Sicre had the green light to choose the art he wanted to show, which gave him some independence from the parent organization. He retired from the museum in 1983.