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Cisneros art trove ends its nomadic phase

January 27, 2009 |  4:15 pm

CisnerosbigThe fate of the Cisneros collection of Latin American art, considered among the best ever assembled, is a question that has long preoccupied art lovers in Venezuela and throughout the world.

For the last decade, the collection owned by Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, wife of a Venezuelan media magnate, has been an itinerant one, lent out in tranches to dozens of museums in North and South America.

Cisneros’ foundation says it has fulfilled that phase’s stated mission: to educate the public and tastemakers and convince them that modern Latin American art is richer and more diverse than many people’s perceptions of it, which often begin and end with Mexican painter Frida Kahlo and muralists such as Diego Rivera.

Now, officials at the New York-based foundation say the collection’s gypsy period is over and that they have launched a “strategic plan” that will decide its future. Among the options being considered is a permanent home or homes for the art, said foundation director Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro.

“It’s always something to think about. It’s on the table. But so far she’s not been in favor of establishing her own museum,” Pérez-Barreiro said of Cisneros. Other options include expanding the foundation’s art education program and broadening its evangelical mission to include Europe and Asia, he said.

Otero Many museums in the Western Hemisphere would love to help Cisneros disperse the collection, which includes what some critics feel is the best assemblage of 20th century Latin American abstract art. It includes works by Uruguay’s Joaquin Torres-Garcia, Brazil’s Lygia Clark and Venezuelan modern masters Jésus Soto, Alejandro Otero and Carlos Cruz-Diez.

Based in New York and Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, the collection also includes a wealth of Spanish colonial art — 25 pieces from it are on extended loan to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art — and Amazon ethnographic pieces, categories that are increasingly difficult to export.

Cisneros, 61, has been collecting since shortly after her marriage in 1970 but rarely talks to the media. (She was unavailable to be interviewed for this article.) She also owns a panoply of works by 19th century landscape artists who worked in Latin America, including the American Frederic Church.

“It’s astonishing in its breadth and depth,” Ilona Katzew, LACMA’s curator of Latin American art, said of the collection. She said Cisneros’ loan of the Spanish colonial objects filled a gaping hole in LACMA’s efforts to refocus a major portion of its collection on Latin American art.

The collection’s decade-long vagabond phase had its apotheosis in the 2007 show “Geometry of Hope,” a popular and critical success in New York and Texas. The exhibition did much to raise the profile of modern Latin American art, said Ursula Davila-Villa, a curator at the University of Texas’ Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, which hosted the show.

“It was the first exhibition to comprehensively present the development of Latin American abstract art,” Davila-Villa said, adding that Cisneros lent virtually all the works included in the exhibition. “We didn’t have to go anywhere else to show the evolution.”

Edward J. Sullivan, a fine arts professor at New York University, at whose campus museum the show was housed during its New York stop, said, “‘Geometry of Hope’ was one of the most critical exhibitions in the past 20 years for the reformulation of our views regarding the modern art of Latin America.”

Soto Some observers say Cisneros had another purpose in keeping the collection moving: to ensure that a significant portion of it would be out of Venezuela during the turbulent political times that have roiled the country since President Hugo Chávez took power in early 1999.

Chávez nationalized banks, farms, factories and oil fields, so why not an art collection?

Cisneros was moving toward building a permanent institution in Caracas in the late 1990s until Chávez was elected, according to Guillermo Barrios, Venezuela’s former National Art Museum director and now architecture dean of the Central University of Venezuela.

“I understand they acquired a triangular piece of ground near the Caracas Country Club and had a very interesting design drawn up for it,” Barrios said. But then Chávez, a fiery socialist and U.S. critic, came on the scene -- and plans fell to the wayside.

Chávez officials have never publicly threatened to nationalize the Cisneros collection, but it’s a fear that close associates of Cisneros have voiced.

Such fears were raised briefly two years ago when the foundation encountered resistance from the Chávez government when lending works by Venezuelan painter Armando Reverón (1889-1954) to New York’s Museum of Modern Art for the museum’s first retrospective devoted to a single Latin American artist in 50 years.

Cisneros has been a significant MoMA benefactor: She sits on the board and made substantial cash contributions to the museum’s recent renovation. Her name is on one of the institution’s exhibition rooms.

The possibility that Cisneros could donate part or all of her collection to a museum is a tantalizing one to museums that have been on the receiving end of her generosity.

In addition to LACMA, the Hammer Museum and Long Beach’s Museum of Latin American Art also have received art loans.

“It’s one of the great collections globally, regardless of the stamp of where and when the works are coming from,” said Alex Slato of the Long Beach museum. “It can stand up to any other private collection in the world.”

LACMA’s Katzew said Cisneros’ loan was instrumental in the reinstallation of the museum’s Latin American art gallery last summer and that she had “engaged in conversation with the Cisneros foundation” to receive more loans, particularly for “our small collection of geometric abstract art that we would like to expand.”

Whatever the outcome of Cisneros’ strategic plan, art dealers will be cheering her on.

Her collecting has been a positive for the art market, said Christopher Grimes, owner of the Santa Monica gallery that bears his name. “There may be others in her league as collectors, but none have had the public impact she has had in supporting modern Latin American art,” he said.

Grimes said prices of works by many artists — particularly Brazilian abstractionists Lygia Clark and Ernesto Neto — had “doubled, even tripled” over the last 10 years, partly because of the demand created by Cisneros’ acquisitions.

— Chris Kraul

Photos: From top, Patricia Phelps de Cisneros at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2007; Alejandro Otero's "Blue Coffee Maker" (1947); Jésus Soto's "Pre-Penetrable" (1957).  Credits: Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times (Cisneros); Cisneros Foundation (Otero, Soto).

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