April 2010

A Mexican in the Midwest

Kansas City’s new curator challenges cultural perceptions

Mary Sanchez


Admittedly, I am somewhat complicit in the situation I wish Julián Zugazagoitia to affect. Zugazagoitia is the newly announced director and CEO of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, which my city lovingly holds dear.

In moving his family to Kansas City this summer, the Mexico City-born and raised Zugazagoitia (pronounced SZU-ga-sa-GOY-tee-ah) will exchange a high-profile office on New York’s Museum Mile for one at this premier museum of the Midwest. For the past seven years, as director of El Museo del Barrio, he has been credited with increasing its attendance five-fold, doubling its budget and raising $44 million for renovations.

I look forward to our first in-person meeting, and plan a heartfelt “con mucho gusto.” Meanwhile, I eagerly await his imprint, a decidedly different sort of Latino influence in the Midwest. Zugazagoitia’s arrival will challenge unfairly entrenched perceptions.

Mention “Latinos in the Midwest” and you will conjure a variety of images, depending of course on the audience. Suffice it to say that artistic excellence of Zugazagoitia’s caliber would not top the list. More likely, you would elicit rants about illegal immigrants, vacuous renditions about beloved Tex-Mex dishes that somehow pass for Mexican cuisine, or insanely inaccurate views of the predominantly Mexican-American population as newcomers despite their presence from the days of traveling the Santa Fe Trail.

Too often, the impact of the highly-placed immigrant like Zugazagoitia is somehow discounted. Such extraordinary scholars become invisible, mentally deleted as an exception. But he is just as Mexican by birth as my own father (who was a chef specializing in French cuisine, for another example of a stereotype bender). And both hail from the sprawling federal district, a portion of Mexico that, sadly, too many correlate with corruption and crime rather than its mesmerizing culture of art.

Zugazagoitia’s path to the Midwest first took him to the Sorbonne for his education, to a post as the executive assistant to the director at the Guggenheim Museum, as a curator of the 25th São Paulo Biennale in Brazil, and through serving as a cultural attaché in the permanent Mexican delegation to UNESCO in Paris, a consultant with the Getty Conservation Institute on European and African projects, and for two years as director of visual arts for the Spoleto Festival in Italy. He speaks six languages and is of Basque and German heritage.

The news of the day will likely continue to move my pen toward different topics: U.S. Census figures of Latino growth and migration, the draconian slaps the Missouri legislature routinely attempts against immigrants falling in the category of illegal, struggles to raise the deplorable dropout rates of Latino children. By that topic list, one could argue that I’m a willing accomplice in twisting images of Latinos here away from the varied everyday lives that most conduct; existences that rarely generate headlines.

Zugazagoitia’s predecessor at the Nelson, Marc F. Wilson, was asked to choose his favorite works from the more than 15,000 acquired during his 28 years as director. A diverse list, one could browse it and gain an appreciation for the collections from contemporary Africa artworks, the sculptures of Henry Moore, European works of Jean-Baptiste Pater and some of my own favorites, John Singer Sargent’s Mrs. Cecil Wade, Raphaelle Peale’s Still Life with Liqueur and Fruit and Thomas Hart Benton’s Persephone. Wilson is known for his expertise in Asian art, and his impact on those collections has been significant.

Coming off his leadership with El Museo del Barrio, Zugazagoitia is obviously linked to art of the Caribbean and Latin America, although his experience is much broader. If his tenure has even half the longevity of Wilson’s, I suspect Zugazagoitia will make a significant list of favored acquisitions upon his departure, as well.

Now, though, is the time for welcoming him and his family. Known for community outreach and a as bridge-building personality, Zugazagoitia will no doubt make quick inroads among the Nelson’s many supporters, from civic leaders to the schoolchildren who regularly flock its great halls. Who knows? Maybe some of those budding scholars will meet the Nelson’s new leader, reflect on his uncommon name, gather something of his international scope, and be inspired.


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