By chance, a young Nelson Rockefeller met Mexican painter Miguel Covarrubias while honeymooning in Bali. Covarrubias invited the newlywed to visit Mexico City, where Rockefeller began his collection of more than 3,500 Mexican art and folk objects, most of which eventually made their way to the San Antonio Museum of Art.
The story above is from the memory archive of Marion Oettinger, the longtime caretaker of the museum’s wide-ranging Latin American collection, who recently retired. “Dr. O,” as he is affectionately known, is confident the museum has found an excellent young curator to take his place.
The museum recently announced Lucia Abramovich as its new curator of Latin American art.
“This is a time for the museum to catch up with a little more current approach to things,” Oettinger said, and the hope was to find someone with a broad understanding of the entire scope of Latin American art, which includes art of the ancient Americas, pre-Colombian art, colonial or “Viceregal” art, and modern and contemporary art.
“This new hire is a great example of that,” Oettinger said of Abramovich.
“Obviously filling the shoes of Marion Oettinger and his great work will be a veritable challenge in and of itself, because he did so much with the collection,” said Abramovich by phone from Maryland, where she is working on completing her doctoral dissertation. “The great thing about SAMA’s collection is that it’s a completely comprehensive Latin American collection. It runs the entire chronology of what we know.”
A native Argentinian, Abramovich has traveled widely throughout Mexico, Central America, and South America, with a research focus on sacred objects of the colonial period.
“My interest in Latin America stems from my identity,” she said, and pointed to a formative undergraduate experience in a Mexico museum. “That really ignited my passion for Latin American art, especially pre-Columbian art because I love how in Mexico, many of the museums use pre-Columbian art to give context to contemporary Mexican culture. I just loved that and wanted to explore that more.”
She has some “dream projects” she’d love to get started on at SAMA, but her first priority will be reinstalling Rockefeller’s Mexican folk art collection in the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Latin American Art’s newly refurbished galleries, which required repair after a 2017 water leak damaged the walls and floors.
“That was an immediate urgency for us, to find someone who really loved folk art and could tackle the massive quantity of material, data, and ideas,” said Katie Luber, executive director of SAMA. But Rockefeller’s 2,500-object folk art collection is only the core of a collection of 10,000 to 12,000 objects, Abramovich estimated, spanning thousands of years of history in art and material culture.
“Just to get your mind around that, and be able to present a coherent narrative in the gallery” is a rigorous exercise of curatorial skill, Luber said, “and I have every confidence that she can do it.”
Thanks in part to Rockefeller’s early enthusiasm, and the commitment of his family to securing his legacy, interest in formerly overshadowed art forms of the Western Hemisphere is surging. The study of ancient, pre-colonial, and colonial Latin American art is is writing “an entirely new chapter in art history,” said Joanne Pillsbury, a curator in the department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “It’s a very exciting time” in the field, she said.
Pillsbury recommended Abramovich for the position, having worked with her at the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection of Harvard University, and said, “I’ll be very excited to see what she does in San Antonio.”
Abramovich is noted as much for her scholarly approach to her subjects, as for her personality and collaborative spirit.
“She brings an extraordinary suite of skills to the project,” Pillsbury said. “She has exceptional scholarly credentials, academic chops, but there are also other qualities that are particularly important in a museum setting.”
Abramovich works well with the entire range of individuals one encounters working in museums, from gallery technicians, to collectors, to international colleagues, Pillsbury said, citing an old Spanish phrase, “’people who walk well between cultures.’ She is the epitome of that. She brings a great intellectual curiosity, but also warmth.”
Luber said the search committee had the benefit of an “incredibly competitive” field of international candidates. “We chose Lucia for all of the obvious reasons, her incredible experience and thoughtfulness, her bilingual qualities, but we also chose her because we really liked her so much.”
Luber praised Abramovich’s past work with the New Orleans Museum of Art, where she instituted a program of community engagement that “was like a personal mission for her,” Luber said.
The “friends group” she created for Latin American Art was new for that museum, said Elizabeth Boone, a professor of pre-Columbian and colonial art of Latin America, Aztecs, and Mexican manuscript painting, and chair of Latin American art at Tulane University. Boone, with whom Abramovich is working to complete her doctoral dissertation in April, also recommended her for the position.
“She worked with a couple of donors and created a good audience and fundraising base for the [collection],” Boone said. “I’m sure she’ll do that in San Antonio … I think she’ll thrive there.”
Boone also emphasized that Latin American art is finally receiving its due. “Latin America is increasingly positioning itself as the center of art historical discourse,” she said, and that Abramovich is well-poised to take the helm at SAMA. She’ll “generate all sorts of energy around the collection,” Boone said. “She has enormous amounts of energy.”