Today, more than ever, people are asking what it means to be American. Demographics are ever changing and cultures are contiguous and commingling. In response, the art world has begun exploring this cultural shift.
With her newest exhibit: “Vistas del Sur,” the director at the New Britain Museum of American Art, Min Jung Kim, is exploring what it means to be “American” by examining and broadening the definition of “American art.”
“We will look back historically and bring more contemporary American art in exhibitions touching on the notion of the art of the Americas,” Kim said, “the
United States, North America, Central America, South America, and the exchanges and the dialogues and the perspective that have ensued throughout the centuries.”
“Vistas del Sur” broadens the museums definition of “American art” by putting an emphasis on internationalism and its inspirations. The exhibit focuses on Latin landscapes as perceived by “traveler artists” from Europe and North America from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.
In 2015, Harper Montgomery curated the exhibit for Hunter College in New York. She pulled from the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros collection – one of the world’s most prestigious collections of Latin American art. It is this exhibit’s unique inquiry into the definition of “American art” that made Kim interested in bringing it to NBMAA.
It is through these kinds of introspective exhibits in which Kim aims to broaden the definition of “American art.” The issue of immigration is a large part of the conversation and of this redefining. As Kim pointed out, many legendary American artists were immigrants themselves.
“Immigration continues to be a driving force in the demographic makeup of America to one that becomes increasingly racially diverse, one that is increasingly diverse and hybrid,” she said. “You see that in New Britain as well. New Britain started out, especially peaking in the 1930s, as a place with a very large Polish population. Now the population of New Britain is becoming increasingly Hispanic, 37 percent and 60 percent in the schools.
“American art,” then, is not based on geography but rather is “a starting point for a conversation,” she said. Therefore, she added, it is fitting that NBMAA will lead this conversation.
“If we look at statistics issued by U.S. Census Bureau,” Kim continued, “they project that by the year 2044 America will be a plurality nation. There will be no distinct race or ethnicity with more than a 50 percent share of the nation’s total population. It’s kind of remarkable to see the direction that we have been and will continue to go in.”
Kim has a background that made her attractive to the board at NBMAA, who saw her as uniquely qualified to steer this type of conversation. She is an immigrant herself and grew up in Seoul, South Korea. Her pursuit of an art education took her around the world. She has overseen many international traveling exhibitions.
Former president of the board of trustees, Todd Stitzer, played a key role in hiring Kim, and said international focus was a key attribute. “The Hispanic, Caribbean, African American communities here, they all have roots in different parts of the Americas. We should showcase the art from those areas and connect the heritage of the residents in this area to the places where they came from. This is exciting to the board, to connect with all the different parts of our community.”
Kim joined the NBMAA in November, 2015. At the time the museum was interested in finding new ways to reach minorities within the community. While NBMAA had existing programs that explored other cultures, such as Black History month and Juneteenth celebrations, they still felt disconnected from large groups of the community.
Melissa Nardiello, marketing and design manager at NBMAA, said, “The museum was making efforts, prior to [Kim’s] arrival, to reach out to the people in our community with our programming – making programs make more sense, and focusing on literacy and education, and celebrating aspects of culture like food and cooking. But Kim really ramped up the pace by bringing it onto the walls and turning towards a rotating exhibit.”
Nardiello explained that a rotating exhibit opens up the possibility to truly explore a larger definition of “American art” because “so many of our artists immigrated and became American citizens, and that’s what ‘Vistas del Sur’ is. These people were immigrants.”
The timing of the exhibit and the broadening of the definition of “American art,” Naridello added, has come at a pivotal moment in time when “all these questions are rising in the world” and while she said NBMAA doesn’t want to take any sides, they want to explore the conversation.
Moreover, Nardiello said NBMAA is interested in representing the “people in [their] backyard” and that they want to be able to speak to them and “don’t want anyone to feel left out.”
Language is certainly one way the museum is reaching out. “Vistas del Sur” is the first exhibit at the museum to have bilingual tags on the paintings. Not only this but the director and chief curator of the exhibit, Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro, will be coming to give a tour on the exhibit “which he knows very well” in Spanish.
The tour with Pérez-Barreiro will be March 19th from noon to 1 p.m. It is $8 for members and $20 for non-members. People can also call and book tours in Spanish at any time.
“VISTAS DEL SUR: TRAVELER ARTISTS’ LANDSCAPES OF LATIN AMERICA FROM THE PATRICIA PHELPS DE CISNEROS COLLECTION” is at New Britain Museum of American Art, 56 Lexington St., Jan 20-April 16, 2017. Nbmaa.org.