Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center Executive Director Jerry Ruiz sent out a press release last Thursday withdrawing as host for the 2016 Contemporary Art Month (CAM) Perennial exhibition, citing a lack of diversity that makes the event “not a mission-fit” for the Guadalupe, which is rooted in the Chicano and Latino art movements. None of the artists selected by Colorado-based artist and educator Laurie Britton-Newell are Latino.
The Guadalupe’s action has thrown the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.
CAM is a grass-roots organization of volunteer artists and supporters who have a deep passion for and belief in art and in the ability of San Antonio artists to address and affect contemporary culture. Its mission is to “promote and raise the national profile of San Antonio contemporary art and artists.”
While its annual resources are limited, it is vital that CAM maximize the legitimacy its shows can have by considering, before all else, the merit and strength of the work.
Over the last five years the CAM Perennial exhibition, in its fifth year, and the CAM Exchange (CAMx), in its fourth, have incorporated professional outsiders. Bringing in professional outsiders has three results: 1) professionals are introduced to San Antonio’s contemporary art landscape, for many this marks the first visit to San Antonio; 2) San Antonio artists and their works are propelled out to other markets and opportunities that may not have otherwise considered San Antonio’s vibrant art culture; and 3) this outside perspective provides greater objectivity in the assessment of the local artistic landscape and, therefore, increased likelihood in merit-based selection because the outsiders are not influenced by local politics in the way institutional leaders who control access to local exhibition spaces are.
This year’s Perennial exhibition, which was scheduled for March 11, looked set to continue CAM’s critical success and strengthen its reputation, making it easier to secure the participation of coveted curators.
In lieu of the Perennial, CAM is arranging a panel discussion “to allow for a community conversation to take place around the issues of diversity and inclusion in contemporary art.” Details have yet to be announced.
Ruiz and the Guadalupe should be congratulated for vocalizing underrepresentation and diversity, which are issues of national and cultural importance. Considering San Antonio’s demographics, the mission of the Guadalupe to remedy underrepresentation of Hispanic/Latino/Chicano artistic voices in the greater artistic world and raising broader audience awareness is of great import and deserves universal support.
However, it’s not hard to fulfill the Guadalupe’s mission of “cultivat(ing), promot(ing), and preserv(ing) traditional and contemporary Chicano, Latino, and Native American arts and culture through multidisciplinary programming” by exhibiting such voices at the Guadalupe.
What is difficult is promoting and exhibiting those very same voices in the institutions where they are not normally heard, in places where the mission isn’t so culturally specific to Hispanic, Latino, and Chicano culture and history, and which often forget or ignore that these voices are part of our collective history and culture, our past and present.
This is why the success of CAM is vital in opening our city and exposing our artists to the national scene. It is not clear if a San Antonio Perennial artist who gets accepted to shows outside of San Antonio has the Perennial to thank, but it certainly does not hurt the artist to be associated with respected curators who work professionally at a national or international level.
Kristin Gamez, a Latinx (she prefers to use the gender-neutral term for Latino) artist, participated in the 2015 CAM Perennial, which was curated by another white curator. She recently demonstrated support of the Guadalupe’s stance, but also admitted via social media “that (2015 CAM Perennial) was huge for me.”
CAM’s size and grass roots identity is a considerable factor for why the narrative, so far, is being controlled by Ruiz and the Guadalupe. Unlike the Guadalupe, CAM doesn’t have a press staff, nor does it provide salaries to its leadership or board members, or even have an office copy machine. The CAM board took a strategically limited – and not unreasonable – approach to responding to the serious insinuations made by the Guadalupe’s press release, which, by their carelessness, threaten the professional reputations of everyone associated with CAM.
Like Gamez’s acknowledgment might suggest, participation in a CAM event contributes to more opportunities for the artist’s voice, whether the artist uses that for self-promotion or to lift up and recommend other artists in the community.
The narrative Ruiz is crafting and the implication of professional impropriety against CAM’s invited curator may have intimidated the CAM board, the curator, or the selected artists to the extent that the entire Perennial is canceled – likely out of fear that this accusation would overshadow all other possible interpretations of the show. Perhaps, this means that the curator’s influence and ability to put the Hispanic/Latino artists she did meet and speak with into other shows, and recommend their friends and colleagues for other opportunities, may have evaporated from San Antonio’s grasp. Moreover, we can only guess as to the future impact; no doubt other curators may be nervous to engage with San Antonio for fear of having their professionalism questioned, for being human beings trying to do a deceptively difficult job.
Ironically, many of the artists who were selected, carrying the perception that they are guilty by association, teach and serve students from the same community the Guadalupe serves.
“… Somebody needs to stand up for Latino artists and artists of color, and if it’s not us (the Guadalupe), then who is going to do it?” Ruiz told the Express-News.
The Guadalupe theater and gallery function as spaces for Guadalupe programming and venues available for rent. In order for the center to justify the donation of its space, the event needs to be in line with its core mission.
Unfortunately, Ruiz in his obstinate execution of the Guadalupe’s mission, failed to see that it overlaps with CAM’s. While this one particular exhibition of six artists did not completely reflect the cultural makeup of San Antonio (what single exhibition can?), what it did do was put many artists, including a Latino one, in touch with the curator through studio visits, and the fostering of personal connections between the two parties. These connections can be just as important and productive as inclusion in the Perennial show.
Every year hundreds of San Antonio artists are exhibited under the umbrella event of CAM, which, as its name suggests, is a month-long celebration of contemporary art organized through an online calendar. As long as an exhibit pays its fee to help continue maintenance of the CAM calendar where their event is listed, no exhibit is denied their listing. This suggests a strong likelihood that in San Antonio, during Contemporary Art Month, exhibits featuring Latino/Hispanic/Chicano voices are, indeed, taking place.
Additionally, CAM hosts Open Studio Tours where any San Antonio artist desiring public engagement with their work, may list their studio location, free of charge. They are only required to be open and present during the time the tour is on going. So, again, Ruiz’s implication of exclusion by CAM is actually hollow.
The Guadalupe’s “victory” sadly calls into question the legitimacy of all previous Perennial exhibitions and participants, which have reflected a strong presence of Hispanic/Latino/Chicano artists, and seems to have created a schism for those artists who are Hispanic but also consider themselves contemporary artists, forcing them into the uncomfortable position of having to choose allegiance between these two organizations that are actually working towards the same goal.
This “victory” confirms a reality that we artists, who work at the professional level and who believe in the efficacy of art, struggle constantly to change: in the exhibition of art, it matters less that a work is good and more that it conforms to the political agenda of an institution.
Ruiz’s narrative positions localized political agendas over truly free expression. That position means art, or speech, cannot criticize the society in which it exists, and therefore cannot inspire change because, unless it speaks in the sanctioned manner, it will never be heard. The short-sighted action of Ruiz and the Guadalupe has undermined the whole idea of art and has compromised the ability of all artists in San Antonio to become promoted and exhibited based on the merit of their work, including all the Hispanic and Latino artists.
A vocal commentator of the situation put very eloquently that “when one stands on principle then they score big on integrity.”
From what I have seen, CAM stands on the principle of art, and Art, at its best, speaks to what is common in human experience, more than to what is particular.
An artist who is Hispanic, but does not identify as Chicano
*Top image:Contemporary Art Month draws a crowd at the Silkworm Gallery during CAM 2015. Photo by Page Graham.