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Curatorial Practices
Interview with Carolina Ponce de León, Executive Director, Galería de la Raza

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Rafael Navarro

Yuriria Pantoja Millan Would you say that the various programming changes you have been making at the Galerí­a de la Raza, well known as a Chicano cultural center for Bay Area artists, reflect a similar process of transformation as in New York? If not, are the differences due to the San Francisco and New York, to Puerto Ricans and Bay Area Chicanos, or any other factor?

Carolina: The Latino art world I encountered in San Francisco was very different than the one I had found in New York City. First, the oppositions between U.S. Latino/a and Latin American artists are absent. Whether in exile or living in their native countries, "international" Latin American artists are concentrated in New York, and have a very sporadic presence on the West Coast. Also, the "community-based" nature of the Galerí­a, deeply rooted in Chicano activist history, established a different kind of challenge to develop a broader understanding of "community" and "Latino identity." The complex multiracial and hybrid identities of the new generation of Latino/a artistsóboth on the West and East Coastóhas led them to embrace ever more fluid concepts of identity, nationality, ethnicity, spirituality, sexual identity, gender politics, intra- and intercultural relations, ideologies, and relations to global models. A "culturally-specific" arts organization has to actively participate and reflect the evolving nature of these cultural definitions.

At the Galerí­a, my role as Executive Director and curator has gone beyond the limits of visual arts. I consider myself a cultural DJ, "sampling" more complex (re)presentations of Latino cultural production. Because I am operating outside of the formalities of a museum setting, I have been able to engage more actively with artists. The open structure of grassroots organizing brings forth this direct and immediate connection. My personal challenge has been to develop my "street smarts" and work with my program team to present interdisciplinary programs that involve anything from spoken word slams, performance, music, film and video screenings, Chihuahua dog fashion contests, street theater activism, to visual arts and art activism.

Many artists from this new generation are going beyond conventional cultural boundaries by exploring experimental forms of activism and aesthetics. Working with them, I hope to find a conceptual space that constantly shifts between the high art of museums and Latino pop culture, between fringe cultures and the so-called "mainstream." My aim is to find other options than the "chic" globalization of the "Latin American Mainstream" and of chauvinist binary minority politics. In other words, I hope to be able to promote a convergence of spaces that are inclusive yet not ultra-Latino, and that are interdisciplinary, intergenerational, and cross-cultural. This involves building a multidirectional network that extends East-West/North-South, and that will ultimately reflect a multi-layered "community" of artists. Letí­s talk about "low art" for a moment — also referred to as popular, folk, and vernacular art. As you have been involved in many types and sizes of art institutions over the years, can you talk about your perception of what is commonly called "low art," in what circumstances you have encountered it, and what are the changes, if any, that you have seen it go through in your experience?

Carolina: The incorporation of "low art" into the realm of "fine art" has been the quintessential experience of twentieth-century art since the early avant-garde movements such as Dada, Russian Constructivist graphics, Surrealist performances, Bauhaus design, etc. It has played an important part of every other ism from artists like Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, to Pop art, certain aspects of Conceptual art óthink of Nam June Paik, for exampleóand to artists such as Barbara Kruger, Jeff Koons or Cindy Sherman and others who "appropriate" the aesthetic codes of media, advertising, kitsch, and pop culture.

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