For more than a year and a half, the Dallas Museum of Art functioned without a permanent director at the helm. During that time, the institution cast its net far and wide in the search for a figure who was a perfect fit to help maneuver the museum into top tier status. That period of indeterminacy came to a conclusion last summer when the museum announced the appointment of Dr. Agustín Arteaga as the new Eugene McDermott Director. Arteaga began his duties on September 1, 2016, after moving to Dallas with his husband Carlos Gonzalez-Jaime; since then, he has already made a notable mark, with his energy and vision but also with the direction of his scholarship. For the first time, a Latin American has taken the reigns as director of the DMA, a bold move on the part of the Board of Trustees signaling their intention to champion diversity and an international sensibility. The fact is, that when a major American museum institution makes a choice like this, it’s an acknowledgement of how vital and energetic the arts are in Latin America, specifically Mexico City, and that they want to tap into that major creative artery. For a museum in a blue city in a red state, the DMA’s choice marks a clear embrace of cultural diversity and international exchange: a prescient message, even as new administration in Washington projects a tone of hostility to those values.
Arteaga was born in Mexico City and most recently held the directorship of the prestigious Museo Nacional de Arte (MUNAL), the most comprehensive collection of Mexican art spanning a period from the 16th to the 20th centuries, with a collection of over 7000 works of art and ambitious exhibition program. Starting there in 2013, he initiated a sea change that “led the museum through a five-year strategic planning process that focused on developing new audiences, implementing new technologies, and ensuring financial stability for the institution,” as stated in a DMA press release. He raised attendance by 30 percent through a combination of innovative programming and partnerships with museums abroad, many based in Europe. A long list of accomplishments and positions distinguish Arteaga that include, prior to MUNAL, a nine-year stint as director and CEO of the Museo de Arte de Ponce (MAP) in Puerto Rico, as founding director from 2000-2002 of the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires (MALBA), and as director and chief curator of the Museo de Palacio Bellas Artes in Mexico City from 1994-1999, during which time he also served as the National Director of Visual Arts at the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes (INBA), a government network of more than 20 museums.
Arteaga began his career in architecture recalling that his “first job was as an architect in the department of monuments in Mexico City,” and remembers visiting the DMA in the late 1980s to survey the new museum building; he ultimately changed gears due to his passion for art, started a career in museum work, and earned a PhD in art history. He has curated over a hundred shows in a career defined by a hands-on approach that refuses to leave the curating behind in order to focus on day-to-day management. Therefore, it’s not surprising that his first major mark on the DMA will be the unveiling of “México 1900-1950: Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, José Clemente Orozco, and the Avant-Garde,” an exhibition of over 200 works of art that also incorporates pieces from the DMA’s holdings. This is the only US destination of the show, which premiered in October at the Grand Palais in Paris, to much fanfare, and was curated by Arteaga in association with MUNAL, INBA, and the Reunion des Musees Nationaux de France. Excited about this development, Arteaga explains that “I am pleased that we are able to bring together some of the greatest artists of the 20th century from Mexico… these artists and their work captured the interest of critics, intellectuals, and people from around the world.” This is just a hint as to the invigorating direction Arteaga plans to steer his new home.
Arteaga believes that art has the power “to change people’s lives for the better,” noting that “it is our responsibility to make accessible the best works of human creation to everyone: no matter their origin, race, beliefs, or sexual orientation.” With these ideas in mind the DMA will embrace a bilingual format as to the descriptions of works of art. He also plans to mine the collection for hidden gems, from all cultures and time periods, representative of his ideas that may have been unduly stored away. Where it concerns his new city, Arteaga is resolute: “Dallas is a beautiful and culturally diverse city, and the DMA strives to reflect this,” he observes, adding that he plans to “build on the DMA’s success in cultivating connections with its existing audiences and work to continue to grow and diversify its visitorship.” He is also deeply moved by the notion of inclusivity and how the museum will seek to make everyone in the Dallas community feel welcome by underscoring the institution’s status as a community center.
For the upcoming exhibition, Arteaga notes that several famous works from Mexican art history are included, such as Las Dos Fridas (1939), by Frida Kahlo, which will hang for the first time in public along with another piece by Kahlo, the DMA’s Perro Itzcuintli Conmigo (1938). Other masterpieces from Mexico included are La Futbolista Rubia (1926), by Angel Zárraga, and the mural masterpiece by Diego Rivera, Río Juchitán (1950-57). The inclusion of these works, combined with DMA treasures like Rufino Tamayo’s El Hombre (1953) and Miguel Covarrubias’ Génesis, el Don de la Vida (1954), promises a unique viewing experience, framing the museum’s own holdings in a compelling new context. Explains Arteaga, speaking not just of this show but of his overall philosophy, “I believe that museums have a responsibility to make their collections, great works of art, and programs accessible to the widest possible audience… and now the Dallas community will have a chance to experience these magnificent works in the only US presentation.”