The Cultural Activist as CollectorThursday, September 12, 2019
This article was originally published in Goya. Revista de arte, no 367, a special issue on the theme "Collecting in Latin America," coordinated by Estrella de Diego.
The Cultural Activist as Collector[*]
The Gleaners and I
The volumes of the Nouveau Larousse illustré appear in the foreground. They are old, red tomes of the sort that have been vanishing from domestic bookshelves since the invention of the Internet. A sudden zoom of the camera takes us to the letter “G”: “G” for glaner—“to glean” or “to scavenge” in French—. To glean, a gleaner… The etymological successions start to take on nuances, unveiling terms from a different era along with their pronunciations, amongst a set of pages whose aim it is to give order to the world in accordance with the objectives of this illustrated project. Gleaning after the harvest: selecting, in short.
Some time ago, the act of gleaning was very common—we might recall the narrator at the beginning of the film directed by Agnes Varda in the year 2000—, prior to when field work and farming were done by machines. Gleaning was so common that the act itself became the subject of renowned works of art. The well-known painting by Millet, housed in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and reproduced in the Nouveau Larousse, is a fine example. In the well-used, worn volumes of the Larousse, the painting appears in black and white, until the camera suddenly directs our gaze to the actual work in the museum’s galleries, contemplated by thousands daily, a backdrop for selfies and a souvenir of a visit to Paris.
The film’s narrative then expands, and the director simultaneously begins to exceed all limits: the story moves from gleaners to harvesters, who recover what others have cast aside. A fascinating parable develops that deals with recycling, the idea of salvaging what others have left behind—or better yet, what others scorn—, above and beyond the necessity of doing it as a means of survival: to salvage, to rescue is also to take an ethical stance in this society. In this way, Varda is transformed into a scavenger as she traces the path of the distinct typologies of gleaners that she follows in her documentary—turning her into a harvester of those stories that are told to her and that would go unnoticed and suppressed if she didn’t listen to them and broadcast them—going from scenes of people picking up potatoes that have been cast aside due to imperfections or for being too small; to the story of people who dig through the garbage to survive; or those who prefer to live on discarded waste as an existential stance, due to the very economy of this system.
Over the course of the camera’s trajectory, we see different typologies of people associated with the act of gleaning: country folks teaching the difference between harvesting from above and harvesting from below—grapes vs. wheat—; learned people reflecting on whether or not others have the right to take produce that landowners fail to harvest; an unemployed person, a vendor of the French newspaper “La Farola,” living on residue left in markets and offering free classes to immigrants at the refuge where he sleeps, who also demonstrates his passion for words, parodying the Larousse; or a junk artist who dreams of giving unexpected life to things that nobody desires, who also possesses the privileged perspective of those who are capable of finding something—of distinguishing something—in what others find useless. Through them, Varda begins to inhabit those stunned eyes and that attitude toward life: learning to see what is ignored—food, objects, stories, even people, works of art—while simultaneously consolidating her own role as collector. She even brings home several objects that she salvages from a dump: in her home they appear completely different, worthier of attention.
As in the encyclopedia, where one definition follows another and each image is followed by the next, the director peels apart the stories of others, recovering them, collecting them; she gives them an alternate existence that is recuperated in the very act of listening to them: she must look beyond, seeing what nobody else is able to see, just like those literal and metaphorical gleaners and scavengers. It’s about a way of offering time, as much as is necessary to tell a story, and to create surprising stories; above all, listening to stories that function as a continuation of that beautiful metaphor running throughout the entire documentary: in each case, the collectors use their time to wander, to search, to tell, to listen, to teach, to stock up…; they even create new categories that challenge the system or reestablish its boundaries. It’s not a matter of having too much time on their hands: they set things aside, preserving them in a conscientious manner. It is a time to aspire to these new categories, to yearn for them; a precious time that requires the art of telling stories and of charting their pathways.
Walter Benjamin explains this in his charming story The Handkerchief, whose protagonist is a mariner:
(…) as I have said, the art of storytelling is coming to an end. And when I thought back to the many hours that Captain O. spent walking back and forth on the afterdeck, looking up idly from time to time and gazing into the distance, I realized that people who are not bored cannot tell stories. But there is no longer any place for boredom in our lives. The activities that were covertly and inwardly bound up with it are dying out. A second reason, then, for the decline in storytelling is that people have ceased to weave and spin, tinker and scrape, while listening to stories. (…) Storytelling is not just an art; it is a kind of dignity—if not, as in the East, an office. It culminates in wisdom, just as, for its part, wisdom often substantiates itself as story.
Suddenly—immersed in a story that appeals to an unexpected and dazzling, if unrelenting, order—, the director’s common visual thread breaks for an instant and returns to the pages of the encyclopedia, where a predetermined perspective prevails, upholding Enlightenment methods—everything in its place and with its assigned name, endless etymologies, families of words that lead to other words and other images that, in turn, lead to still more associated images. It is here, within these restrictive associations, within this order that rejects anything that doesn’t fit with its purposes and wishes, that exclusions and hierarchies begin to emerge. Amidst the yellowing pages of the Larousse, we see an image of Jules Breton’s The Gleaners, which is held by a museum less frequently visited than the Musée d’Orsay. Again, the metaphor is displayed to the attentive viewer. What Varda has learned from that time and what she has used in listening to the collectors’ stories, is how to get to the bottom of that which is hidden away, how to see what others don’t see, that which goes unnoticed by many. She has learned to appreciate the clandestine; to rethink the criteria of “quality” that, when considered from a critical perspective, function within art history as mechanisms for exclusion.
Digging through the heaps and stacks, Varda encounters an uncharacteristic beauty that she is able to appreciate and even continue to pursue after her excursion to the margins. In a nearly forgotten French museum, she “harvests” a large-scale work painted by Edmond Hédouin in 1857, hidden away in storage. The canvas depicts several gleaners who are being chased off by a storm, and Varda—in turn besieged by this powerful image of a tumultuous sky, which has been omitted from so many art historical discourses due to being perceived as overly realistic and fussy in style—brings the work back into the light, in a literal sense, by bringing the canvas out onto the street itself. It’s cloudy outside and the wind shakes the canvas a bit—and the viewers along with it. This is a radical gesture: a museum must not expose its works to the elements. The Musée d’Orsay would never have allowed such a thing to happen with the Millet painting we saw in the prologue to Varda’s tale. But this painting, lying in a stack, in a locale distant from the centers of artistic power, can be allowed the luxury of disobeying protocol and going against the grain just like the collector, who in her very gesture rewrites the world and its borders: she makes pleasure public.
Indeed, harvesters always bear some resemblance to those ethnographic collectors described by Clifford, who use their ars combinatoria to create new stories. Varda herself is an ethnographic collector when she returns from Japan with a suitcase full of things connected only by the memories passing through the film director’s mind as she unpacks her suitcase: papers, boxes, plastic pompoms, postcards… Just as when Walter Benjamin unpacks his library, each of the artifacts that make up Agnes Varda’s small collection of “the exotic” is, more than merely an object in and of itself, a device for projecting memories: both voluntary and involuntary memories. Varda pulls some Rembrandt postcards out of an envelope and suddenly her mind recalls her wonder at the exhibition of some of the great master’s works in the storehouses of Tokyo—authentic Rembrandts, she says, replicating her prior perplexity. It’s a way of saving what once was, what otherwise could remain faded among memories and reflections.
What is gleaned during the trip to Japan, this modest collection, is a formula for turning the world itself on its head; a way of harvesting those forgotten things that, like collections, come to tell the whole story from a distinct perspective. Because when a collection is genuine, it is also a collection in the sense of giving a second life to words and to things; a way of imposing changes on histories and on history. Retrieval, regrouping, preservation; imposing order through the very act of preservation; above all, seeing beyond a conventional viewpoint. For these reasons, the word “collector” always falls short of, or eludes, its definitions. Collecting; building a collection. To build a collection is to bring together, to compile, to gather, to assemble. Assembling: bringing one thing together with another. None of these gestures is coincidental: each of them manifests a desire to tell a story and to protect.
And that imaginary encyclopedia that invisibly presides over all collections opens up metaphorically its pages—just like in the first frames of Varda’s documentary. Etymology leads from certain meanings to others, from certain images to others, and becomes a narrative that, like Benjamin’s mariner or the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, requires time and dedication, as well as a desire to preserve and to safeguard. In other words, it requires learning from the act of collecting. And first and foremost, it demands new definitions, since building a collection, when it is the genuine act of a gleaner, is more than just bringing together, compiling, gathering or even assembling.
The Collector of "Russian Things"
Some collectors have an element of the scavenger in them—those who go about rescuing items from oblivion in order to give them new and unexpected lives. You could even say that the best collectors seem capable of seeking out among the disregarded, the overlooked, what stands out to them alone as a one-of-a-kind piece. They alone know how to uncover the value of something that at first may have seemed to have none, and moreover, they alone recognize the wish or destiny of that particular book, that painting, that pottery… which from the very moment it becomes part of the collector’s history, begins telling its own story, as also occurs with Agnes Varda’s characters. She saves them from indifference, and along with them she follows the path of those who seek out what is rejected and recyclable, gleaning wheat in an unexpected return to the vernacular world. In her passage through the lives of these characters, their new stories are given new meaning, like rescued and recycled objects.
This is also what occurs at the start of The Accompanist, the subtly polished book by Nina Berberova, Tchaikovsky’s biographer. In several enigmatic lines, this extraordinary short novel, published in 1935, explains that the work is based upon a found text, the diary of a woman who died suddenly. This is a typical literary device that precedes even Fernando Pessoa’s work The Book of Disquiet, the fictionalized autobiography of the Portuguese writer, a collector of heteronyms. Those memories come into the hands of the book’s author by way of Mr. Z.R., who himself finds them in a second-hand store on Roquette street. A nearly imperceptible, vaguely-sketched allusion invites the speculation that the man may be something of a collector. During the visit he asks the vendor if he has “anything else Russian,” and thus, along with a print of the city of Pskov, a lamp and two or three pieces of sheet music, he accidentally ends up in possession of the mysterious testimony of somebody else’s tale.
However, perhaps it is only somebody else’s tale in a relative sense. This apparent collector of “Russian things,” who might simply be seeking to use those old Russian objects to reconstruct his motherland, lost after the revolution, to relive his own history through the history of these objects. In the notebook, which fascinates him immediately, he encounters another collection: the memoirs of a woman who tells the tale of her life, dominated by a piano with its top always open, exposing its alternating keys, jewels in an incomprehensible treasure chest.
In the specific case of Russian history, the piano is the symbol that—as tends to be the case with causalities—inexorably becomes a recurring axis in the life of the accompanist. It is a representation of the entire novel’s ultimate reference: that music that Mitenka, the disciple of her also-piano-playing mother, had declared during the childhood of the found writings’ narrator—as she begged forgiveness for her chorales in Khlebnikov’s writing—would end up occupying her entire life. “[T]he time would come when there would be nothing: no roads, no bridges, no sewers—just music,” she reflects.
In Mitenka’s allusions, we can perceive a temporal reference with powerful ties to other spatial allusions—roads, bridges, sewers—, a trans-spatial and trans-temporal sense of History, something that also brings to light the very position of the collector of “Russian things,” when the recovery of those objects without material value blurs the lines of the very objective itself. What is it that Mr. Z.R. seeks to reconstruct? The old days in Saint Petersburg, the city as a physical place, or both things at once? In any case, these are times and places that only truly exist in the territory of memory. They are the essence of the voyage, understood in all its possible dimensions, and in some way the same can be said of major collections.
That may explain why the collector of “Russian things” is a collector almost in spite of this fact. He carries these objects under his arm, and each one of the artifacts describes a process—a twin history, both individual and collective—which ends up trapping the odd purchaser in a narrative that hopelessly delves into immaterialities, because authentic collecting first and foremost involves recovery, which implies an enormous amount of responsibility. Mr. Z.R. makes it to Roquette Street deprived of his belongings—we imagine him as a Russian in Paris who has lost all of his possessions in the rushed flight, and along with them his history, his homeland—and he attempts to reconstruct the past with these new possessions, as a deteriorated projection of his supposedly luxurious mansion in Saint Petersburg. However, to bring his homeland back to life in the way he still wishes to see it, he will have to give up the tangibility of awful things and remember them differently, as something else. That is why the collector of “Russian things” is also a harvester, precisely the opposite of an “accumulator”—as occurs in the case of some collectors. The collector as harvester aims to bring together in order to protect; to see beyond; to see the future; to project a gaze capable of gleaning and distinguishing what remains luminous when the work itself has been completed. This is where certain collectors, those who decide to take the road less traveled, find their evident responsibility.
In this way, the harvester-collector has little to do with those who simply accumulate—due to momentum, due to social prestige, due to the very longing to possess, as occurred with Warhol…—and who in the process end up depriving themselves of certain objects that they abandon in closets or store in boxes, only to end up as a name, a memory, the mythical Rosebud from Citizen Kane; the secret code, the most perturbing password in the history of film; perhaps the object of a lost childhood, a “Russian thing” for another individual, Kane, who had more than he could ever need.
However, there is not just one kind of collector: there are as many collectors as there are collections, along with those whose passion it is to accumulate, categorize and possess. Some of them, like the collector of “Russian things,” limit themselves to treasuring a contained set of objects that allow them to reconstruct each of the particular histories that make up an all-encompassing project: bringing their own reminiscences back to life. Over the course of the lengthy learning process involved in unveiling what is kept silent within things, they come to understand that it is useless to classify and rank them, as each of them contains an inviolable piece of the past—of the passage of time. Its particular value is held in its role as a witness to change, something the nostalgic collector knows well. This is why the “collector of Russian things” purchases “a lamp, a brass lamp, which had once burned paraffin but had been quite soundly wired for electricity”; in short, an object with no value beyond its commemoration of the Saint Petersburg of his youth.
In any case, with these objects, the aforementioned longing to possess establishes a link that makes it difficult to let go of what is collected, at times even leading collectors to keep their possessions in unopened boxes. This is what takes place with one of fiction’s most perplexing collectors, Anny, the protagonist of Sartre’s Nausea, who lets go of a fraction of her life each time she is deprived of one of her objects. If possession is a part of memory, it is also a part of forgetting, which is why it does not seem at all strange in a novel such as Nausea, pieced together from barely-recalled remnants, that the objects of that recurring reverberation that intermittently erases the protagonist’s mind should be reconstructed in a detailed manner. The shawls, the turbans, the scarves, the Japanese masks and the images of Épinal are the things that accompany and characterize Anny. She is described by way of these objects, which she scatters throughout any available room according to a constantly-changing and complicated order, rearranging her surroundings in a conscientious manner, even if they will only be her surroundings for a few brief hours. Anny’s “riches” belong to Anny—and she literally speaks of riches, of precious objects; for her, as a collector, this goes without saying.
Therefore she will have to enumerate everything she has, and above all, she will have to enumerate everything she does not have, as occurred with William Carlos Williams in 1960 when, as an older man, he wrote a poem dedicated to Pablo Neruda, collector of seashells, in which he told the story of how he, like his mother in the latter years of her life, ended up nearly blind: “Now that I am all but blind, / however it came about, / though I can see as well / as anyone – the imagination / has turned inward as happened / to my mother when she / became old: dreams took the / place of sight.”
At that moment, Williams had partially lost his own vision and was returning from a trip to Florida, where he collected shells on the warm shores, and perhaps due to being nearly blind, he saw the world from a distinct, unconventional point of view. Seashells to touch, ritual conches to listen to before returning to the cold of the East Coast where his collection seems to come to an end, a remnant of a passing moment. So many seashells must still be found, so many beaches must still be searched to complete the collection—something travelers and ethnographers know well. And there are so many missing still.
And the response is as simple as it is uncertain: the only ones missing are the ones you don’t have yet. It is in that act of taking hold of what’s missing—whatever the meaning of that absence may be—that collectors set the stage, which is the most fascinating part of collecting.
“The psychoanalyst, like the archaeologist, must uncover layer after layer of the patient’s psyche, before coming to the deepest, most valuable treasures,” is an observation attributed to Freud, whose collection of objects of antiquity was one of the most extraordinary, in spite of the fact that neither he nor Lacan—both obsessive collectors—dedicated the attention to collecting that it would seem to deserve in their psychoanalytical writings. This quote, so often reiterated by his disciples, the idea of a psyche built of layers, like an onion, is full of traps—for if we follow the history of Freud, who waited for his objects to be able to leave Vienna before departing with them, without ever having abandoned them, seems to offer a justification of his collector’s impulse, his systematic and at times scientific fervor for possession, amassing antique books and objects. As his biographer Peter Gay appears to suggest, this might be read as a way of affirming his identity, his roots; even a way of reconstructing the history of the group to which he belonged through his relationships with Egypt and Mesopotamia.
Perhaps psychoanalysts, archaeologists and collectors have something in common, since the three share an extremely delicate territory inhabited by numerous secrets, which in extreme cases are altogether shielded from the light, from knowing glances. And indeed, at times there is something secret to collections, a destiny that can only be brought to a close with the owner’s passing; this is often said of classical collections that become house-museums, like Freud’s own home in London or the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston—closed collections, with no possibility of modification after their owners’ passing.
Every accumulative collector knows that there is an internal order to even the most heterogeneous of collections, intelligible to its owner, who knows that keeping that order concealed means staying safe from categorization. This is why they learn to ration out views from the outside, as the Japanese do when they begin by sharing their most banal treasures and proceed only when they get a sense that they have a receptive interlocutor. Or like Calouste Gulbenkian, whose lavish collection of objects was only made visible after his death, having remained hidden during his voluntary exile, accessible only to the two butlers who cleaned it. It is often said that when collections are made public, when they become museums, they shed their intimate, private meaning.
In fact, the passage from collection to museum is a very curious metamorphosis that involves the dismemberment of the collection—sometimes to get rid of what seems superfluous—or the preservation of things as they would have been during the collector’s life after their passing. Both solutions are biased, since they imply an order that is external to the collection’s own internal order: the objects, in order to be made visible, are liberated from passion and become homogenized—ordered—only when relocated into a museum.
Even so, there is the old temptation to order, to museumize, and this can be true even in the case of open collections, those which still have an owner. So many times, as participants in a collector’s treasures, we observe, awestruck, their classifications and judgments: this is better than that, that is better than this other one. That book is rarer, this orchid is more unique. Still, this is a private form of classification in which value judgments in some way remain relative, or at least personal. Making a collection public means, at times, declaring it finished just as it was conceived. On the other hand—and this is often the case— for a collector, turning a collection into a museum can be a way of safeguarding it, of ensuring its continuity.
This is the case with two of the most popular collectors in literary history, Bouvard and Pécuchet, who in some way lose interest in their collection after converting it into a museum, as they present it before the local authorities. And they lose interest because they sense that their collection might be finished and because in that complex process, in the very act of making the collection public, each object has become subjected to an agreed-upon value. Things are no longer judged according to the collectors’ own values—rarity, difficulty of procurement, Benjamin’s recollections as he unpacks his library… And when compared with one another, Bouvard and Pécuchet’s most beloved possessions acquire their true value, as hardware: “Six months later they had become archaeologists, and their home looked like a museum. (…) Crossing the threshold, one came upon a stone trough (a Gallo-Roman sarcophagus); then one’s eyes were struck by all the hardware.”
Bouvard and Pécuchet, two members of the petit bourgeoisie dazzled by what money can buy more than by the things bought with that money—as is also the case with some collectors—, decide to give order to all this heterogeneity, the objects that they have picked up here and there, given what their circumstances will allow, by configuring a rudimentary museum, a public space in which to reveal their secrets and establish a relationship between things. And when they find themselves forced to focus their passion, to direct it, to demarcate it, when they find themselves forced into evidence and systematization, their passion deteriorates and they begin to collect different things: knowledge, experiences. Still, Bouvard and Pécuchet’s example as collectors has much greater relevance than it may seem at first.
As one would guess from Flaubert’s exceptional work, these two single men who meet by chance during a walk and also become friends by coincidence, are two enlightened characters obsessed with order and classification—in fact, the book may be a parody of the very Enlightenment project itself. Who knows if these things may be rejected from the small local museum due to their lack of coherence with the overall collection, a recognition of the harvesters, collectors capable of seeing what most people cannot. In this way, their small museum is not the aspiration of two friends who have suddenly become rich by a stroke of luck and want to show off and feel wealthy, as is the case with the couple in Perec’s Things, who dream of owning Chesterfield sofas, Arrow shirts and Old England neckties.
Whatever typologies collectors may adhere to in fiction or in reality, there has never been more discussion of collecting and collectors than there is today… Never so much as in the last twenty years have we seen such an abundant proliferation of collections, along with the growth of contemporary art, which has allowed entry to certain aficionados who until recently lacked a presence in the turbulent art world. This may sometimes be related to a level of prestige or social self-presentation that exists now more than ever before for current art collections, making them proliferate at the same speed as the institutions from which many of them stem.
Still, due precisely to this expansion in collectors and private collections—in Latin America as elsewhere—it seems necessary to revise the term “collector” itself, along with the ramifications that this term implies in the present day, as not all collectors are equal, nor do all collections amount to the same thing. There are collections that are more or less ways of shaking things up culturally, of building a project that may have little-to-nothing to do with collecting as a form of presentation, passion or prestige; collections that do not wish to be immortalized in the museums created to house them. There are collections that aim to preserve; to educate and to consolidate knowledge; that define that archaeological work to which Freud referred, which proceeds by peeling apart the layers of knowledge. There are collectors who know—who have learned—that in order to transform history and its criteria it is necessary to push through. And perhaps even more: to see in a different way.
We need a new word for those collectors, and this is why Patricia Phelps de Cisneros could be considered a cultural agitator and harvester more than a collector, as forty years ago she was able to see that there was an essential area of art from Latin America that up to then nobody had examined from a truly inquisitive and systematic perspective; whose proper measure had gone unappreciated, even in the Americas. In her case, accumulation has not been the point, although the number of pieces in her collection is substantial. Her focus has been a gesture more associated with gathering and protecting, creating a favorable and solid educational context—inside and outside of the collection itself—to reveal the importance of the items collected to the world. She has felt the need to collect this Latin American art out of conviction, just as in the case of the young man in Varda’s film who taught French in a refuge where he lived without asking anything in return, other than the pleasure of the words learned by others; the immense pleasure of giving, or better still, of sharing, since sharing is key in the case of the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros.
In spite of it all, in spite of not asking for anything in return for the gesture, in spite of blazing a trail with the sole aim of sharing or even of recovering and restoring the pieces that make up her collection, Patricia Phelps de Cisneros’ genuine and intuitive vision has contributed in large part to the visibility of this Latin American art, and has helped situate it in the privileged place it deserves and that it now occupies in the world’s most important art arenas. It is here that many of the exceptional pieces that make up Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros have been placed, since this cultural agitator and promoter of education and art, this harvester, in short, has chosen not to cast her lot with her own museum. In fact, this was something she considered and ended up rejecting. It would have been a great Latin American art museum in Caracas, where visitors would see history progress through the five areas that make up the collection: colonial art, “ethnographic” artifacts of the Orinoco region, 19th-century landscape paintings, modern art, and contemporary art. In the end, she decided it would be preferable to focus on “cultural activism” through other strategies: loans to museums, educational programs, networks for curatorship among professionals throughout the Americas and beyond.
In her quest for cultural activism, she preferred to traverse the globe, to be active worldwide—as was the case with the Pole to Pole program, literally from one Pole to the other Pole; which allowed eight million people to see the Orinoco ethnographic collection. This was a more effective way of carrying on the mission of disseminating knowledge of Latin American art than limiting the collection to Caracas alone. And it was also a better way to seek out a more adequate home for a large number of these pieces—as Patricia Phelps de Cisneros has recently done—by way of a rigorous process: placing the Latin American works in dialogue with pieces from other regions, since from the beginning her collection has avoided the notion of a ghetto, as emeritus director Rafael Romero explained in an interview with the two of them in autumn of 2018. For these reasons, in her case the word “collector” doesn’t fit, and while “harvester” also fails to do justice to the transcendental role Patricia Phelps de Cisneros has played in the development and recognition of Latin American art, for now it will have to do.
The Collector's Order
You have to see the future, have a transcendent plan, something bigger than yourself; a calling to think about a broader and more categorical objective than those collectors who only wish to accumulate or who aim to attain social prestige or transcendence as part of a personal process; and who may even make their collections public by way of a museum that bears their name. You have to have a mission, because that mission alone is what turns philanthropy into cultural upheaval and into the art of harvesting, two terms that, far from being opposites, complement one another, since both cases appeal to a curious combination between awakening interest, shaking and subverting the status quo of knowledge and pursuing the task of recovery—sustainably, moreover—without making missteps.
Up to a certain point, this is the implicit idea behind the strategy of collector Francesc Cambó, one of the most unusual patrons in the Spanish context, and even internationally. As Cambó himself explained in his speech before the Spanish House of Representatives in its session on December 6, 1935, his passion for collecting was driven by an existing plan and objectives: he aimed to enrich the public museums of Spain—especially in Madrid and Barcelona—, toward which end and with a map of public collections in mind, he went about acquiring pieces of tremendous quality, guided by a desire to fill in gaps. This is the idea of a collection that requires completion, the very essence of collecting from a psychoanalytical perspective, only in his case the sights were not set by mere whim or impulse: they were more elevated, rooted in the public good.
In the speech, which also provides the embryonic version of some current discussions of the Spanish Patronage Law, Cambó explains:
Today we find that, due to distinct circumstances, in Spain there are a number of us, myself included, who are committed to completing Spain’s artistic heritage and acquiring highly valued works of art held in foreign lands (…) and one of my spirit’s greatest concerns has been to obtain for Spain a complement to what the tremendous Prado Museum represents for painting. (…) The Prado Museum offers an outstanding representation of the great Spanish artists (…); in the Prado Museum we have a splendid representation of Flemish art, a reminder of our occupation of Flanders; we have an admirable sampling of Venetian painting (…). But, coincidentally, the Prado Museum does not have more than a single Florentine painting, which is the magnificent Fra Angelico that you have all had the pleasure of admiring. (…); we have no representation of the most productive school of painting after the Italians, which is the Dutch (…); we have only a few, very mediocre canvases from French painting, (…) and we do not have even a single painting from the English school. I proposed to seek out, in each of the schools without representation in Spain, one of the masters’ great works, if possible; if not, one by the next most important, and I have dedicated a very considerable part of my personal fortune toward the completion of this task; (…) Furthermore, there is another consideration, of which I was aware by reference but have since been able to confirm in practice, and it is that in the acquisition of works of art, when one follows a plan, when one has a method, when a man has put together an acquisition plan, very often he will not be able to purchase the desired work with money, no matter how much money he may seek to put toward it; however, on the contrary, he may be able to acquire it by way of an exchange.
Taking this into account, it seems that the importance of Cambó’s gesture does not reside—or does not only reside—in the implicit philanthropy of putting together a collection for the public good, but in the clear objective of his proposal, in laying out a map of what was missing in existing museums: filling voids and recovering what —of sufficient quality—was available, thinking also of future trades. This reformulation of collecting makes it crucial to find a new denomination to define collectors who prefer to find a home for their works, who have assembled their collections with a clear set of strategies and objectives, unlike so many others, whose goal is to bring together a set of works of greater or lesser interest within a freshly-constructed museum.
Heralded in this way, the case of Cambó is like that of Patricia Phelps de Cisneros who, like the Catalán leader, has brought together a collection extraordinary in its range and diversity through a strategy that goes beyond merely surrounding oneself with the great masters or beautiful works to feel the proximity of their company—a perfectly acceptable act, but one which is quite distinct in terms of its objectives. In fact, Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros should be seen as a collection of collections, since very early in their life together the young Patricia and Gustavo Cisneros understood that not all of the pieces would be limited to being part of their private lives, but rather that collecting had to be another way of sharing, along with the abundant educational programs and grants that they have come to develop over time. “Gustavo and I were both raised to understand that our privilege carried with it a responsibility to do something to improve the lives of people who were not as fortunate as we were,” Patricia Phelps de Cisneros remarked in 2009 during a conversation with James Cuno for A Constructive Vision.
Thus, from very early on, they developed literacy programs, some of which were pioneering in their use of communication and production media: such is the case of ACUDE, which benefitted more than 300,000 Venezuelans throughout the country. For its part, the Mozarteum Center offered assistance to help young people of any social stratum in Caracas study classical music in a school located in Caracas that offered its most gifted students “unique opportunities to continue developing their studies outside the country.” There were also programs of special relevance on education for educators such as Piensa en arte/Think Art, an educational platform based on visual arts that sought to elevate children’s perception from a critical perspective through educational guides and workshops, in Latin America as well as in the MoMA itself.
Certainly, collaborations throughout the Americas—not only in the countries of Latin America, but throughout North, Central and South America—have been one of the key points in the cultural policy of the Fundación Cisneros through the figure of its founder. From the Rockefeller Center at Harvard, to Teorética—promoted by Virginia Pérez Ratton—in San José, Costa Rica, by way of Bard College or countless museums, universities and art centers, there hasn’t been an important projected related to Latin America in the past thirty years without an active relationship to the Fundación Cisneros.
In the same interview for A Constructive Vision, Patricia Cisneros also speaks of her early experiences and of how the collection began showing her the path to follow: “Later, on a trip to Spain in 1970, Gustavo and I bought a contemporary piece by the Spaniard Manuel Rivera—my first original work of art. It was made out of wire and mesh, and it was abstract and airy. It had all of the elements of the works we would later collect. Years later, when we had a reasonable number of artworks, I began to see the works we had purchased as an actual collection; I saw how they related to one another, and I saw the gaps and started filling them in.” In any case, she was not conscious of the project until the very end of the 1970s when, working with her collaborator Rosa Amelia Sosa, she received a request for data on her collection from an English magazine: this meant that what she had been doing was actually a collection and that she would have to think about it over the long term: for the future.
Along with pieces from the classic European masters—which could be considered its most private area—, the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Collection of Latin American art has followed the intuition and taste of its proprietors at all times, even while it has been sustained by a directorial plan that clearly laid out its strategy from its first steps. The collector herself comments about this when she recalls that collecting the art of the Americas without focusing on a specific country was still uncommon, not only in Venezuela but throughout Latin America. This is why Sofía Imber was one of the examples that Patricia Cisneros had in mind when she started the collection, though when the former brought together pieces for the Caracas museum, she was more focused on the United States and Europe. On the contrary, and parallel to the case of Cambó, Patricia Cisneros chose to collect in Caracas what Venezuelan museums barely had, or didn’t have at all, due to their Eurocentrism: the art of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Central America, Cuba…
It was Gustavo Cisneros, as his wife often recounts, who introduced the idea that would become the common thread among the collections: given the lack of interaction among the countries of the Americas at the time, he sensed the possibility of collaborations that would open up this rich and diverse geographical area; a way of interconnecting them and affirming their existing connections—which is the very spirit of the collection. It was a way of merging data and of establishing a presence throughout most of South and Central America.
At times, Patricia Cisneros recalls, the exhibition galleries in certain locations did not have the right environmental conditions, and it was necessary to seek works capable of withstanding heat or humidity, in that zeal for carrying out this merging of cultures, always working elbow to elbow with the artists, visiting their studios, where at times the physical conditions were also less than optimal, because nobody was capable of recognizing the treasures that they held in their hands. Watching over those works and disseminating them would become the systematic mission of the Fundación Cisneros following its establishment in the early 1990s.
Around this same time, the idea of Latin America as a place for bringing together different artistic forms began to be recognized, timidly at first, in the discourse of the United States, when established narratives were revised through the perspective of Latin American voices. Just one year after the publication of Lucy Lippard’s seminal 1991 book, Mixed Blessings—and with a published volume a few years later under the title American Visions/Visiones de las Américas—, the “Cultural and Artistic Identity in Latin America” conference took place. At this conference, the issue seemed clear, and it had to do with joining together rather than creating distance. Still, some of those voices present could be heard warning of the dangers of such a “unified vision.”
In this way, many of the participants in this discussion from Latin America, from Gerardo Mosquera, to Mari Carmen Ramírez—who approached the topic from the perspective of Latin American artists in the United States and saw “multiculturalism” as a double-edged sword—or Paulo Herkenhoff—who was very close with Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros at a certain point in his career—; and on to writer Milton Hatoum or theorist García Canclini, who warned of the problems related to the lack of nuance inherent in these new ways of naming. “Today, the question is knowing how to avoid this labeled image as a continent where the notions of folk and the irrational permeate all relations and productions,” Ivo Mesquita, one of the directors of the conference, commented in the publication. And this is where an extremely interesting paradox arises when we revisit cultural discourses, and especially when we seek out alternative “models” to those that have been imposed by the Anglo-Saxon world, which is part of the mission of Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros; a paradox that underlies the well-known debate over “how to refer to oneself”: as “Latin American” or “from Latin America”?
While it may be true that over the course of the 1990s, artists from Latin America gradually began to gain entrance to the New York art market and some critics from the region were able to enter into the forums for debate—even if this was frequently seen at the time as an exception or, worse still, an exception complying with the discourse of authority, along the lines of Spivak’s proposals on subalternity—, it is no less true that among a large part of these critics and artists there remained a kind of discourse of resistance that adopted the denomination “Latin American” as a method of enhancing their visibility, but without being blind to its reductive nature as a “stereotype.”
What did “Latin American” mean at that time for the New York art market, taking the meaning of “market” as broadly as possible? It was simply what seemed more “Latin American”: work from Cuba, from Brazil, from supposedly warmer climes—which gave way to the name of the exhibition of concrete art from throughout the Americas held by Fundación Juan March: Cold America—. In short and reductio ad absurdum, it was the same thing the nostalgic tradition sought to recover through the historical avant-gardes, “exoticism”—Africa—in which the hegemonic narrative takes a keen interest, and which represented humanity’s supposed infancy. In this same context, Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros played an important role by exhibiting the constructive area of the Americas that it had gone about harvesting for the future: the Brazilian concretists, Soto, Cruz-Diez, Gego, the Madí Group… The tradition of Mondrian, in short, which beginning in the 1990s started to help clear up doubts with regard the authentic diversity of the Americas and the region’s constructive traditions, with the inclusion of figures such as Tarsila do Amaral’s The Black Woman from 1921—African bodies and geometries—. In 1995, historian and poet Luis Pérez Oramas would join the Fundación Cisneros, with Ariel Jiménez following a year later and Rafael Romero as its first director in 1997, when he came to the collection from the National Art Gallery of Caracas. Then, in 1997, Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros prepared to take on a more public face through the diverse exhibitions and activities that would be taken on by Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro.
There was a painstaking plan for the preservation, and even more so for conservation and promotion of pieces that were at times piled up in stacks, that was supported by the aforementioned educational programs, their numerous publications—among others, the bilingual series of extended dialogues between contemporary artists and art critics and historians, titled Conversaciones/Conversations—and the exhibitions, which highlighted an issue that is key to an understanding of the extraordinary quality of the collection: since it was focused on an area that deserved greater attention: excellent works could be obtained that today would be impossible to find on the market, even at exorbitant prices. That was part of the responsibility—a word Patricia Phelps de Cisneros uses frequently—that the collector took on at the very moment she made the decision to “harvest” the art of Latin America in order to “recycle” it into major collections.
Like Cambó, she was taken with thinking of the pieces that could “complete” international collections and allow Latin America’s artists to enter into a conversation with the rest of the world—and therefore it makes complete sense that the most important part of the collection from the modern period, including its most awe-inspiring works, was donated to the MoMA, a museum where these pieces can enter into conversation with the “great masters” of the North American and European traditions. It was the same responsibility that the collection felt toward contemporary artists: in an area as volatile as the art market, selling—removing—a work from the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros would have had a very negative impact on the young artists who had always been able to count on finding refuge in this collection. That same responsibility led her to recover the “ethnographic” artifacts, colonial-era paintings and furnishings, as well as inspiring her to bring together the exquisite landscape paintings done by travelers, works that testify to the impact of these foreign lands on European visitors, who for their part were actively establishing the image of the Americas.
Clearly none of these collections materialized without effort, but then again Patricia Phelps de Cisneros never seems to have taken an interest in simple matters. Perhaps due to this, after having presented the collection in innumerable exhibitions, when she decided to make it completely public, she opted not to take the easy way of creating a museum in her own name, but instead drew up a skillful map of the places where each of the works should be sent in order to spark new dialogues—she announced her arrival. With this strategy, Patricia Cisneros’ adventurous spirit shone through, which is what makes her more than a cultural promotor or agitator, as she conclusively contributed to turning one of the most established discourses of modern art—that of the MoMA—on its head: after the arrival of Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, things would never go back to being the way they had been in the museum. In time, this strategy reveals the reflexive and sustainable gaze of a harvester à la Varda: collecting Oiticica along with Picasso; seeking out the beautiful work of the gleaners fleeing the storm, forgotten in some warehouse, and sharing it with all of the film’s viewers. The harvester is not moved by trends, but by necessity and by a subtle new order that defines the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros as well as Patricia Cisneros as a collector.
As a young person, Patricia Phelps soaked up the Caracas avant-garde of the 1960s, a certain adventurous and modern spirit that permeated the city—the nation—at that time, when they gave the name “Hotel Humboldt” to a luxury hotel built on the peak of El Ávila in 1956, which was depicted in all its beautiful present-day decadence by Thomas Sipp, as seen in the São Paulo Biennial, curated by Pérez Oramas. In fact, in 1956 Caracas was the place where the future was happening now, the world under construction, where beautiful concrete art murals by Otero filled the halls of the buildings through which Patricia Phelps walked every day. The inhabitants of Caracas reveled in that modernity. This is why, when Patricia Phelps was a student of Philosophy at Wheaton College in Massachusetts—where she graduated with an interest in the pedagogical philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, which would have a significant impact on her programs—, she was exasperated with her peers in the United States, who saw Venezuela as a country lacking in sophistication.
Her traveling side, the side that brings together order with the adventurous spirit required of any globe-trotter, came to her through her great-grandfather William Henry Phelps, a well-known scientist who led an ornithological exhibition to Venezuela after completing his third year of undergraduate studies at Harvard, falling in love with the country. He settled there to share his profound interest in natural sciences—cataloguing may species of South American birds—and started businesses in importation and telecommunications. From his example, Patricia Cisneros has inherited her above-mentioned passion for adventure, order and precise objectives, and even the idea of a wide-open world, without borders, global in its own way, avant la lettre. Perhaps it is due to this that her collection of 19th-century travelers’ landscapes seems so essential,and that it is also one of the collector’s most beloved, even if one of her most secret. In fact, in spite of the fact that her more frequently-mentioned collections are in modern and contemporary art, recent donations have unveiled essential works of art from the colonial era through the republican era, as we will see below.
Travel and science merge in the collection of landscape paintings, as does the collector’s fascination with harvesting, which can be seen in forgotten characters like August Morisot, some of whose marvelous drawings were recovered along with an extraordinary daily logbook, a privileged testimony for the construction of the concept of what “the Americas” means from a European traveler’s point of view. Perhaps in no other area within Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros is there such a clear need to find a denomination other than “collector” to better describe the work that has been set forth and completed under the direction of Patricia Cisneros. Given her infinite love and respect for objects that have rarely before been cared for or studied due to their scant popularity in the marketplace, a new word is needed. In spite of implying a new order, a restitution, a replacement of the narrative of use-value with infinite love and respect for the quest, perhaps “harvester” also falls short of the terminology we seek. But for now it will do, in terms of sustainability and responsibility.
A Collection of Collections
“Noah represents the extreme case of the collector: he is one who places his vocation in the service of a higher cause, and who suffers the pathology of completeness at all costs. Noah’s passion lay in the urge to save the world—to save not just single items as they chanced to occur but the model pairs from which all life forms could be reconstructed. Here is saving in the strongest sense, not just casual keeping but conscious rescuing from extinction—collecting as salvation. Noah was no scholar, yet the contents of the Ark, like some definitive catalogue raisonné, inventorize and then re-found all the categories of living things.”
In numerous ways, the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros can be seen as analogous to Noah’s dream, with that ancient insistence on “conscious rescuing from extinction,” to prevent reality from stagnating and becoming closed off. This is the idea of preserving the order and the things at each moment in the collection—a “collection of collections,” it could be said, like Noah’s project—, which is organized according to precise plans and objectives, with a resolute strategy. But deep down, the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros is much more, as was the case with Pessoa’s heteronyms. In fact, this “collection of collections” ultimately evokes in a certain way the passion for collecting possessed by the Portuguese author, who produced characters and through them amassed a fragmentary and richly textured life; first and foremost a global life that was organized according to fragmented biographies, those of all the subjects that shape it. They are the author and at the same time they are not; they are the same and different, each of them sketching a distinct story, the proposal of starting an unexpected story out of each crack and crevice.
Just as with Fernando Pessoa, it is only by approaching each of the parts of the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros that we can appreciate a full view of the work that the Fundación has undertaken since its founding: contributing to education in Latin America and preserving and disseminating Latin America’s cultural heritage and contributions to global culture internationally, as the collection is the heart and soul of the Fundación Cisneros and the most efficient way of making scholarship visible through exhibitions. As has been explained, the collection is made up of five interrelated parts with the same purpose—art of the colonial and republican periods, “ethnographic” objects from the Orinoco region, landscapes by 19th century traveling painters, modern art, and contemporary art. In spite of it all, its best-known area is modern art, and while the quality of the holdings is notable for the reasons that have been highlighted here—purchasing when good pieces could still be attained at relatively lower prices—, perhaps its greater popularity relative to the pieces from the colonial period or from the Orinoco has to do with the very ways Latin American art has been received outside of Latin America.
While the international recovery of Latin America’s heritage has primarily taken place in the United States, it is curious to recall that this road can also run in the opposite direction: contemporary work can be a stepping stone to colonial-era art. The first thing discovered by the New York scene of the 1990s—which at the time was synonymous with the international art scene—was contemporary art produced in this geographical area, perhaps because in contemporary art there are no “classics” or “great masters,” while even in modern art there are hierarchies that have been dictated by the hegemonic discourse—judging Picasso to be “better” than Tarsila do Amaral, Minimalism to be “better” than Concretism. Following very slowly behind came an acceptance of the region’s modern art, for which the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros played an essential role in generating visibility by organizing numerous exhibitions and programs in U.S. and European museums. Three recent examples are The Geometry of Hope in the Blanton Museum (2007), Making Art Concrete in the Getty Institute (2017)—one of the most interesting initiatives, which combined an exhibition with research on issues of visuality and the conservation and study of materials—, and Concrete Matters in the Stockholm’s Moderna Museet (2018).
On the other hand, art of the colonial period, of which the CPPC holds some highly intriguing works of furniture, religious artifacts and paintings, has been a very recent “discovery” in the North American and European art scenes—even in Spain, where “colonial” art has been granted entry into the exclusive halls of the classic museums. For its part, the Orinoco Collection, documents and “ethnographic” artifacts pertaining to the twelve ethnicities that inhabit the Orinoco River basin—De’áruwa (Piaroa), Ye’kuana, Yanomami, Híwi (Guahibo), E’ñepa (Panare), Wakuénai (Curripaco), Baniva, Baré, Puinave, Warekena, Tsase (Píapoco) and Hoti, some of which are extinct today—displayed in Spain in Cidade da Cultura (Santiago de Compostela), brings up the issues of exhibition that are now being debated with regard to “ethnographic” artifacts along with some of the questions and critiques that were present in James Clifford’s early texts.
With regard to the extremely brilliant painterly legacy of the Americas of the 19th century, in particular the above-mentioned works of its traveling artists—the collection which, for me, is most connected to the adventurous, precise, well-ordered and always curious spirit of the collector herself—, I would dare to say that it has suffered from a general lack of understanding of 19th-century painting that existed up until recent years, exacerbated in this case for obvious reasons by geographical origin and the nature of scientific work, which is frequently produced without the pretension of producing a “work of art” and whose enormous depth has yet to be “discovered.”
Despite Patricia Cisneros’ generous donation of contemporary works to Madrid’s Reina Sofía Museum in Madrid, the most frequently-mentioned part of the collection in Spain, like elsewhere, are its holdings in modern art, which were exhibited in the museum itself in 2013, in the exhibition Concrete Invention: Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros—curated by the foundation’s director at the time, Gabriel Pérez Barreiro, and the director of the museum, Manuel Borja Villell. The proposal aimed to unveil a new reading of Modernity, ever imprisoned in minimalist experiences and their posterior fascinations with “coldness.” In Concrete Invention there arose an experience that was simultaneously concrete, abstract and sensorial, capable of offering viewers a surprising image of “geometry,” unknown to the majority of European visitors, in particular those unaccustomed to works from Latin America from this period.
It was an impression that slowly built up as one proceeded through the galleries: a certain emotion that surges forth from poetry or, put another way, a gaze that awakens before the power of the work, and above all, before its spirituality. Interstices, visual tricks and modulations made up the tour of this impeccable collection, where the gaze took on new meaning in light of the objects and new visualities and narratives that were set in motion. Mondrian and Albers’ presence in the show was transformed alongside the works of Maldonado, Melé, Oiticica and Clark. And that is precisely where one of the key goals of the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros were made clear: starting a dialogue with what happened on both sides of the Atlantic, in North and South America, in a way that requires us to revisit our historical narratives. Mondrian in Caracas and even in New York—or Sophie Tauber-Arp in Venezuela or Brazil—have little to do with their critical success in this corner of the world, with a “canonical history” governed by Surrealism’s dominance, which later gave way to the MoMA, by way of an unpredictable roller coaster of a trajectory, leaving it mistakenly on the path of so-called Abstract Expressionism.
The show, exhibited in Madrid, invited reflection on the relationships between “here” and “there,” and opposed the positioning of Minimalism against “Concretism,” Minimalism having been imposed upon Europe by the United States, and sometimes having been applied in Europe to Clark or Gego and their “corporeal” works, when they become rigid, when they become “cold.” The pieces in Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros established the real possibility of another sensorial conceptualism with viewers, which is in large part what comes out of the extremely complex and rich, non-objective experiences, such as those of Clark and Oiticica, to mention the most well-known examples, and even Otero, Cruz-Diez, Soto or the poetic works of Willys de Castro, among many others.
Along with the works of the modern collection, the artists of the 1970s have met with warm reception. Such was the case of the haystack and the golden needle by Brazilian conceptual artist Cildo Meireles. When looked at closely, standing up, facing forward, a needle was revealed amidst a kind of camouflage, and you could almost smell the haystack when standing before its golden yellow sheen. And this explosion of the senses culminated in the final gallery, Citrus 6906: Héctor Fuenmayor’s updated Pantone version of his installation “sun yellow,” an explosion of light in a newly-inaugurated, empty hall in Caracas’ Sala Mendoza in 1973. Here too, the CPPC’s work was not limited to unraveling the complexity of the works: iPad and mobile applications and a “didactic” gallery emphasized the ever-present educational character of the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros.
Since Patricia Phelps de Cisneros’ mission has been clear from the start—to familiarize the world with Latin American art and to make it accessible, which for Cisneros is an indisputable strategy—, the MoMA was to become the new home for a significant portion of the modern collection, first in a bedazzling gift of 102 works from out of the collection’s crown jewels, along with an annual million-dollar commitment to launch the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Research Institute, which will support research and exchange within this geographical area. In MoMA—the institution with the most prodigious resources for 20th- and even 21st-century art—the “great masters” of Latin America will be able to dialogue with those of Europe and the United States better than in any other locale, and different modernities will come into contact with one another in the museum’s galleries and not in a hallway near the coatroom, as mentioned in John Yau’s classic 1988 text, in which he spoke of the way one of the master works of Wifredo Lam—The Jungle—could be found at the time hanging in a hallway near the museum’s coatroom.41
This also occurred at the 2006 retrospective exhibition on the great Venezuelan master painter Armando Reverón, curated by John Elderfield—a key individual in “introducing” Reverón to the MoMA and someone who is very close to the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros—and featuring a beautiful text by Pérez Oramas, one of the foremost specialists on the painter. In fact, shortly beforehand, in 2005 Patricia Cisneros made her first gift of eight of the artist’s fundamental works for the reopening of the museum that year, in negotiation with John Elderfield and Luis Pérez Oramas. She would first donate the 1937 work Woman of the River—one of the best and most intriguing of Reverón’s “Majas”—and later a 1933 gouache along with White Landscape, the 1940 masterpiece which made the MoMA the only museum in the world to hold examples of all of the representative stages of Reverón’s work.
Equally notable are the donations from the contemporary collection—whose beneficiaries also include the MoMA and the Reina Sofía Museum, among others, such as the Museo de la Universidad de Navarra, recipient of an intriguing group of photographs—as well as those from the “colonial” and republican collections. All too frequently, the art produced in Latin America between the 17th and the mid-19th centuries has been taken as some sort of imperfect “copy” of the European model, instead of being read as what it really is: a remarkable cultural translation in search of new narrative formulas seeking to overflow the peninsular canon and its systems perspective, as Gruzinski has argued. In the Spanish case, that lack of knowledge regarding—and even, at times, rejection of —colonial-era art is evident in the Prado Museum itself, whose small but splendid collection of “colonial” art is sheltered “in exile” in the Museo de América. There, an outstanding grouping of caste paintings leaves a fascinating impression on all those who visit.
Still, in spite of it all, for some time museums like Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts have turned their eyes to the “colonial” art of Latin America in an effort to contextualize it on a continental level, an innovative and imaginative proposal that allows visitors to review with a new perspective this “primitive art” of the United States, which manifests the very same concerns with cultural translation. Perhaps due to its novel and committed museological approach, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has become another beneficiary, with the donation of 119 colonial pieces which the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros—focused on Venezuelan works, but rounded out with pieces from the viceroyalties of New Spain and Peru—has distributed among pioneering institutions in the preservation of “colonial” art in the United States—the Denver Museum and the Hispanic Society—; or museums with collections of contemporary art that need to be complemented with “colonial” art, as was the case with the Blanton Museum in Austin. Just one of these pieces—and a notable one at that—has traveled outside of the United States. The portrait of Peruvian José Gil de Castro has been moved to the Lima Art Museum, which is a focal point today for art from the republican period, in large part thanks to the efforts of its director, Natlia Majluf. The individual portrayed, don Juan Francisco de Izcué y Sáez Texada, holds a book in his hand, emphasizing his distinguished air as a learned man, which is typical of republican-era painting and which would soon become a metaphor for the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros itself: pieces of great quality, and extreme generosity with regard to sharing them.
In this way, this rigorous collection, with pieces purchased when it was still possible to do so; built through the responsibility that comes along with the works, with their preservation and research, their recovery; that comes along with the public and even with posterity…—came to be spread among some of the best museums, since unlike other collectors, Patricia and Gustavo Cisneros have opted to focus their efforts on expanding collections, on producing publications, research programs or grants, and a web site for the Fundación. They have chosen, as Patricia Phelps de Cisneros frequently recalls, to free their children and grandchildren from that future obligation by donating their works to institutions that can make them accessible to a greater number of people.
Now, the responsibility for the gift, of which anthropologist Marcel Mauss spoke in his 1925 essay The Gift, has been passed on to those beneficiary institutions. This book is one of the most lucid reflections on the gift as a site for reciprocity, hospitality and exchange; the site where certain responsibilities are performed that are implicit in the very act of accepting the gift. Seldom are we conscious of these implications, although it is precisely here, in giving in exchange for receiving, that the most fascinating part of the correspondence of sharing lies. Especially when the gift is a work of art—a fragile object, whose immaterial value exceeds any price, as high as it may be—, the responsibility becomes more pressing still: the recipient of that gift must protect it, get to know it, share it, bring it together with related works in order to rewrite even its own story.
Thus, the museums that receive gifts from the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros must approach these gifts as a legacy for the future: they hold before them the brittle essence of an appeal to commitment and reciprocity because, inevitably, acceptance of this gift will have an impact on the history of its recipients, returning Latin America’s “great masters”—of colonial, modern and contemporary times—to their deserved place in History and revealing the intelligent and orderly strategy of Patricia Phelps de Cisneros who, shortly after having purchased her first works, became conscious of the responsibility she had taken on. This is why the word “collector” truly fails to do her justice. She is more of a cultural activist who frames her responsibility in a sustainable manner, like a harvester. Because those works that had gone unnoticed in locales far from the traditional centers of artistic power were lying in wait for Patricia Phelps de Cisneros to allow them to emerge into the light, into the open air, like gleaners chased by a storm who rewrite the world and its limits, making pleasure public and interrupting the imposition of the normative history of art, which the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros has modified dramatically by introducing these extraordinary works of art into the canonical discussions of the great museums. From here forward, history must be told another way.
Translated from the Spanish by Phillip Penix-Tadsen
[*] I would like to express my gratitude to Luis Pérez Oramas, Augusto Paramio and Isabel Rodríguez Alonso for their reading and invaluable comments.
 W. Benjamin, Historias y relatos, Muchnik Editores, Barcelona, 1991, p. 40. English translation: Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings Volume 2, Part 2: 1931-1934, trans. Rodney Livingstone, ed. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland and Gary Smith, p. 658-659.
 Of great interest on the subject of quality is M. Bal, “Introduction” in M. Bal et al., The Artemisia Files. Artemisia Gentileschi for Feminists and Other Thinking People, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2005, pp. ix-xxv.
 Regarding this particular point I am interested in taking up James Clifford’s well-known article “On Collecting Art and Culture,” in an effort to apply an anthropological analysis to Western cultures. Clifford’s text seems useful not only because it refers the problem implicit in the very strategies and functions of museums—collecting culture—, but also because those museums end up being the ultimate manifestation of the dominant discourse, though in many cases they present themselves with a revisionist appearance. That is one of the greatest contradictions: museums are purportedly built on a discourse that is presented as historical—giving it credibility—although it is ahistorical precisely due to the decontextualization to which the objects are subjected. But with time, they aim to construct a modifiable discourse, with fractures that, paradoxically, are perceived as historical when seen in a museum.
 W. Benjamin, Desembalo mi biblioteca. El arte de coleccionar, Centellas, Palma de Mallorca, 2012.
 N. Berberova, La acompañante, Seix Barral, Barcelona, p. 7. English translation: N. Berberova, The Accompanist, trans. Marian Schwartz. New Directions, New York, 1985, p. 7.
 Idem, p. 15. English translation: Idem, p. 14.
 Idem, p. 7. English translation: Idem, p. 7.
 J.-P. Sartre, La náusea, Losada, Buenos Aires, 1977.
 W. C. Williams, “Tribute to Neruda the Poet Collector of Seashells,” Collected Poems (ed. C. MacGowan), Paladin Grafton Books, London, 1988, p. 357.
 P. Gay, “Introduction”, Sigmund Freud and Art, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York, 1989, p. 16.
 P. Gay, “Introduction”, op. cit., p. 16.
 G. Flaubert, Bouvard y Pécuchet, Montesinos, Barcelona, 1993, p. 90. English translation: G. Flaubert, Bouvard and Pecuchet, trans. Mark Polizzotti, Dalkey Archive, Champaign, IL, 2005, p. 87.
 G. Perec, Las cosas, Anagrama, Barcelona, 1992.
 Interview in Madrid with Patricia Phelps de Cisneros and Rafael Romero in autumn 2018.
 The following is a transcription of this entire section of the speech: Today we find that, due to distinct circumstances, in Spain there are a number of us, myself included, who are committed to completing Spain’s artistic heritage and acquiring highly valued works of art held in foreign lands. I declare that I am not the only one undertaking such an effort; but with regard to myself, I can attest that from the moment in which chance circumstances, rather than my own merits, placed in my hands a considerable fortune, I thought that I had to distribute it while I was still alive, and that I had to dedicate it primarily to cultural issues, and one of my spirit’s greatest concerns has been to obtain for Spain a complement to what the tremendous Prado Museum represents for painting. The Prado Museum, established through the collections of our royal family, by way of scant legacies—because the importance of the particular legacies in the assemblage of artistic heritage in the Prado Museum is not very large—, is one of the greatest in the world, but it is also one of the most incomplete. The Prado Museum offers an outstanding representation of the great Spanish artists (I would not say of the Spanish school, because Spain has no school; with art as with everything else, the individual dominates; we have great artists, but we have no Spanish school); in the Prado Museum we have a splendid representation of Flemish art, a reminder of our occupation of Flanders; we have an admirable sampling of Venetian painting, due primarily to the superior understanding of art displayed by Charles V as well as Philip II, who while still alive were able to recognize that Tiziano was the greatest artist of their time. But, coincidentally, the Prado Museum does not have more than a single Florentine painting, which is the magnificent Angelic Friar that you have all had the pleasure of admiring. Even though Florentine painting is the most important of all the Italian schools, the Prado Museum has no more than that one proud example; it does not have a single representation of the Ferrara school; it has a highly imperfect representation of the Tuscan school [sic]; we have no representation of the most productive school of painting after the Italians, which is the Dutch, because the painting that we call a Rembrandt gives no sense of Rembrandt’s genius; we have only a few, very mediocre canvases from French painting, since the authenticity of the two Wateau works we were so proud of is highly contested, and we do not have even a single painting from the English school.
I proposed to seek out, in each of the schools without representation in Spain, one of the masters’ great works, if possible; if not, one by the next most important, and I have dedicated a very considerable part of my personal fortune toward the completion of this task; but, upon the arrival of Law 33, with the part of my collection of paintings that I had not yet introduced into Spain, because I had not yet been able to build the Museum in which I plan to install them, I suspended their entry into Spain because according to Law 33, the moment a work of art enters Spain, that work loses 90 to 100 percent of its value because it is no longer at its proprietor’s disposal. And this brings about two problems: firstly, that in the times in which we’re living, nobody knows what the economic situation of the world will be in a few months, in a few years, what the value of coins will be, what the value of titles will be, what the value of rustic or urban property will be—it is very difficult for someone who has invested the majority of their fortune in works of art to see that the rest of their fortune may evaporate and that what they have invested in works of art, by virtue of having entered into Spain, may disappear as well. Furthermore, there is another consideration, of which I was aware by reference but have since been able to confirm in practice, and it is that in the acquisition of works of art, when one follows a plan, when one has a method, when a man has put together an acquisition plan, very often he will not be able to purchase the desired work with money, no matter how much money he may seek to put toward it; however, on the contrary, he may be able to acquire it by way of an exchange. There are collectors in countries where great collections subsist—primarily in the United States of America, England, France, Switzerland, and a handful in Italy—that have, for example, two Tizianos, but those do not have any Tintorettos, and that collector, who wouldn’t sell one of his Tizianos for anything in the world, may give it up in exchange for a Tintoretto. So the way of forming a collection of paintings is a precise element of mobility, at times acquiring things that may not be of interest to the collection being put together because the school and even the very artist are already represented; but which tomorrow indeed may serve as a bartering chip.
I declare to you that this is the situation in which I find myself, and that I am not the only one to find myself in this situation because, luckily, in these years there are a number of people in Spain who are acquiring works of art in foreign lands. This is influenced by—and I don’t want to leave this unsaid—an emphasis on the inheritance tax: as the inheritance tax rises—and we all share the idea that it will go up with each passing day—for wealthy men without direct successors, facing an eventual confiscation by the State; they may be tempted to acqu6 December 1935, Diario de Sesiones de Cortes, n.º 274, pp. 11172-11174. I am grateful to Rocío Gracia for bringin my attention to this document.
 J. Cuno, “A Conversation with Patricia Phelps de Cisneros”, in J. Cuno et al., A Constructive Vision. Latin American Abstract Art from the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, Fundación Cisneros, 2010, New York, p. 18.
 “The Fundación Cisneros was also responsible for the development of media-oriented, pioneering educational programs for the Latin American region. In keeping with its commitment to education, and utilizing the rich visual resources of the CPPC as well as the media expertise of the Cisneros businesses, the foundation created a number of initiatives. Cl@se, the first pan-regional educational television channel in Latin America, was made available from Mexico to Argentina via cable and satellite television, reaching over two million homes and 30,000 schools throughout the region with content that facilitated learning in areas such as science, math, history, and foreign languages. AME, a distance learning program for the professional development of teachers, reached over 20,000 teachers in 20 countries from the southern US to Antarctica. Piensa en arte/Think Art was an educational platform based on visual arts that provided a methodological model for the teaching of critical thinking skills in school-aged children, through teaching guides and workshops conducted in museums and schools throughout Latin America.” coleccioncisneros.org/founder.
 J. Cuno, “A Conversation with Patricia Phelps de Cisneros”, in J. Cuno et al., op. cit., p. 311.
 Interview in Madrid with Patricia Phelps de Cisneros and Rafael Romero in autumn 2018.
 J. Cuno, “A Conversation with Patricia Phelps de Cisneros”, in J. Cuno et al., op. cit., p. 16.
 I. Mesquita, “Latin America: a Critical Condition,” American Visions/Visiones de las Américas, (eds. N. Tomassi, M. J. Jacob e I. Mesquita), American Council for the Arts, New York, 1994, p. 3.
 Whitehead’s visio, which related education directly to each individual’s potential, had a great impact on Patricia, giving even more strength to her conviction regarding the transformative power and the vital importance of education, for societies as well as for individuals.
 J. Cuno, “A Conversation with Patricia Phelps de Cisneros”, in J. Cuno et al., op. cit., p. 14.
 Idem, p. 16.
 Traveler Artists: Landscapes of Latin America from the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Collection, Ed. Katherine Manthorne, Fundación Cisneros, New York, 2015.
 On the fascinating figure of Morisot see two publications by Fundación Cisneros: the logbook that was found and recovered by them, Diario de Auguste Morisot. 1886-1887, Fundación Cisneros and Editorial Planeta, Bogotá, 2002 and Auguste Morisot. Un pintor en el Orinoco 1886-1887, Fundación Cisneros and Editorial Planeta, Bogotá, 2002.
 J. Elsner and R. Cardinal, “Introduction”, The Cultures of Collecting, (eds. John Elsner and Roger Cardinal), Harvard University Press, Cambridge (Mass.), 1994, p. 1.
 L. Braz de Oliveira, “Fernando Pessoa, conservatuer d’ ‘autres-objects’. Un lettre de 1935”, Le collections. Fables et programmes (ed. Jacques Guillerme), Champ Vallon, Seyssel, 1993, p. 39.
 J. Yau, “Please Wait by the Coatroom,” Arts Magazine, December 1988, pp. 133-139.
 I am grateful to Luis Pérez Oramas for calling my attention to the importance of these gifts.
 S. Gruzinski, El pensamiento mestizo, Paidós, Buenos Aires, 2000.
 M. Mauss, Ensayo sobre el don, Katz, Buenos Aires, 2009.