Reinvention: Collector as Custodian

September 6, 2016

Patricia Phelps de Cisneros was honored to be included in the recently published volume Remix: Changing Museum Conversations in the Americas, edited by Selma Holo and Mari-Tere Álvarez. In Remix, she joins a roster of over forty luminaries, such as Oscar Arias, Mario Vargas Llosa, Maxwell Anderson, and Thomas Campbell, who are engaged with museums throughout the Americas and who each contributed to this vibrant discussion about museum practice.

We are pleased to republish Patricia Cisneros’ essay “Reinvention: Collector as Custodian” here as an expression of her collecting philosophy and ideas.

(The book may be ordered here.)


When my husband and I bought our first artwork forty years ago, we had no idea it would inaugurate the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros (CPPC). It took some time to realize that the works my husband and I had fallen in love with and purchased in the first years of our lives together had begun to coalesce into an entity with significance beyond the merits of its individual components. With the realization that what we had was, in fact, a collection (or, really, the collections, plural, as the things that we have collected fall into several distinct categories, as I will explain) came the understanding of the scale of our responsibility for it—the responsibility for educating ourselves about the works, for the conservation of individual pieces, for systematically shaping the collection in a coherent way, and for providing the means for it to become available to others via the objects themselves and through scholarship. Implicit in all of this was the custodial nature of our role as collectors, and the fundamentally public nature of what had begun as a private endeavor.

Before I ever considered acquiring a work of art, there had already been several important influences in my life that would affect the collector I would become. One was growing up in the city of Caracas in the 1950s, where art and public space were fused in international collaborations between architects, urban planners, and visual artists, such as the University City of Caracas, designed by Carlos Raúl Villanueva and named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. From an early age, I was aware of my country’s aesthetic and intellectual dialogue beyond its borders. Being surrounded by art in an urban setting allowed me to understand that art did not need to be confined within the walls of a museum—indeed, it could have a very public, immediate presence—and also introduced me to a Modernist aesthetic that has, ever since, felt like “home.”

A further inspiration was the work of my great-grandfather, William H. Phelps, who was a renowned ornithologist. His meticulous cataloguing and conservation of his collection of tropical birds and his determination to disseminate knowledge about them were lessons that I have carried with me throughout my life.

After we began collecting, it was my husband, Gustavo, who intuited that our quest should be international in scope; he has always had a global outlook and has cultivated alliances throughout the world. This, too, has had a tremendous impact both on how we have collected work and the ways in which we have sought to share it.

Our collections are also a reflection of our lives together and of our deep interest in the many facets of Latin American culture. We therefore have not only a well-known collection of Modernist geometric abstraction from Latin America, but also Latin American colonial furniture and art, a collection of objects from and documentation of indigenous groups in the Amazonas region of Venezuela (many of which were obtained in the course of our family’s thirty years of expeditions in that area), a group of Latin American landscape paintings by traveler artists who explored and documented the region beginning in the seventeenth century, and a growing collection of contemporary art.

Our daughter Adriana Cisneros de Griffin has become increasingly involved in the CPPC, and her insights into the possibilities of new technologies and digital media for disseminating information and drawing people together across geographic boundaries  have pushed the collection and our thoughts about it in promising new directions.

The factors cited above—the extra-mural possibilities of art as seen in my youth in Caracas; the awareness of Latin America’s involvement in a broader discourse of modernity and the inculcation, by virtue of its pervasiveness in my native city, of an aesthetic that has ever since enthralled me; the value in preserving, documenting, and sharing one’s discoveries that my great-grand- father communicated to me by his example; the encouragement of my husband to have an international outlook and to develop broad-based alliances; the love that we have for the diversity of Latin American culture; and the expansive powers of the new technologies in this digital age—have each contributed to our attitudes about the things we have collected, our responsibility toward them, and the legacy that we hope to build through them.

I would like to point to concrete examples of how those various seeds have grown and sometimes intertwined.  First, we considered but soon rejected the idea of a permanent museum for the collections, preferring instead to adopt a liberal lending program that has seen a large percentage of the material traveling at any given time to museums and institutions in Europe and the Americas for exhibitions and long-term loans. The Orinoco collection (our collection of material culture from indigenous peoples of the Amazonas) has been seen by more than seven million people in ten countries. We have made works that are in storage available for intimate study to students and their professors from partnering institutions of higher learning in New York; they have been able to examine and handle works of art pertinent to their studies firsthand, in an unmediated way.

The CPPC has underwritten travel grants and fellowships so that curators and scholars can go to Latin America and conduct primary research, gaining the depth of understanding that comes with immediate, contextual encounters with art and artists. We have also supported scholarships for Latin American artists to take advantage of international programs, and have, with partner institutions, created seminars and supported programs, exhibitions, and publications that promote scholarship about Latin American art. There is now, at Hunter College, a Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Professor in Latin American Art, and at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, we have endowed a position for a Latin American bibliographer. There, too, I founded the Latin American and Caribbean Fund, a committee that works closely with MoMA’s curatorial staff to identify and fund acquisitions that will build upon its already incomparable and long-standing holdings of art from those regions.

Through publications, we have been able to document and disseminate images of and critical texts about works in the collection. We have given consideration to the preservation not only of artworks, but of the voices of the artists themselves. To this end, we published a series of bilingual Conversaciones/Conversations featuring in-depth discussions between contemporary Latin American artists and art historians, critics, and curators. Some of these books have also been published as e-books, in which a wealth of additional material, such as videos and documents not possible to include in print, are made available. Our partnership with Artstor has allowed us to make hundreds of images of colonial, modern, and contemporary Latin American art accessible through their digital library. A website with a journal format, launched in 2014, addresses topics of interest and importance in Latin Amer- ican art and culture and invites discussion and debate.

Of course digital conservation and dissemination was not available in my great-grandfather’s time, but he, too, utilized the best practices of his day, as did his friend, fellow ornithologist, and secretary of the Smithsonian from 1964 to 1984, S. Dillon Ripley. Ripley’s attitude and policies regarding museum stewardship were admirable and forward thinking and still instructive; he believed in making material available to the public as a living experience. A couple of examples will indicate what I mean. About the Smithsonian’s collection of musical instruments, Ripley famously decreed: “Take the instruments out of their cases and make them sing,” inaugurating a practice of concerts at the museum. During a tumultuous period in Washington, DC, when crowds of protesters were expected on the Great Lawn and other organizations were shuttering their doors in fearful anticipation, he decided that the Smithsonian should remain open, and open later than usual, not only so that the protesters would have access to its restrooms, but because, as he observed, “How often are these people going to be in Washington?” Dillon ensured that the Smithsonian and its collections were fully participatory in a democratic society. He wrote a wonderful book of essays about museums—their past, present, and future—that is still fascinating to read titled The Sacred Grove: Essays on Museums.

In that volume, Dillon points out that collecting is among the most ancient of human instincts, and notes that “Culture . . . creates collections; collections create culture.” Collections create culture, I believe, by gradually shaping a shared sense of what matters; of what is valuable; and of what speaks to our connections to an interwoven past, our understanding of the present, and our hope for the future. The cultural worth of previously undervalued or under- known material can, though a collection whose stewardship includes a mission of education, exhibition, publication, scholarship, and the creation of associations with others, be better understood and appreciated. It is our most fervent wish that, through the initiatives and efforts we have made on behalf of the material that is briefly in our hands but belongs ultimately to the world, we have contributed new insights into the fascinating dialogue between collecting and culture, and have presented the broad spectrum of Latin American art in a way that captures the global imagination.