January 21, 2018

Américo Castilla, Director of TyPA foundation

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

‘We need to stop museums from becoming gated-communities’

By Vera von Kreutzbruck
Herald Staff


Born: 1942, in Buenos Aires
Studies: Law degree from Universidad de Buenos Aires, Painting and Engraving at University College London.
Present post: Director of TyPA Foundation (Theory and Practice of the Arts)
Past employments: Head of Cultural Department at Antorchas Foundation, director of the National Museum of Fine Arts, national director of Heritage and Museums at the Culture Ministry.

Before immersing himself in the art scene, Américo Castilla worked for five years as a criminal attorney. It was the 1970s and Argentina was in the grip of the dictatorship — it was a tricky time to work as a political defence lawyer in Argentina. In 1973, after several of his colleagues had been either kidnapped or killed, Castilla decided to flee to London to study painting and engraving. It would be two years before he returned to his homeland.

Since then, Castilla’s journey through the cultural scene of Buenos Aires has had three stops at three institutions. The first was the Antorchas Foundation, where he helped jumpstart the careers of hundreds of artists with the help of scholarships. Afterwards, he headed the Heritage and Museums department at the Culture Ministry — a period in which he created a committee to fight the illicit-trafficking of cultural goods. He then headed the National Museum of Fine Arts (MNBA) — where he opened up hiring for the director’s position, an unusual initiative introduced to ensure hiring focused on the applicants’ merit.

For 11 years now Castilla has been at the helm of the Theory and Practice of the Arts Foundation (TyPA), a platform promoting dialogue and cooperation among Latin American museum colleagues through a programme of workshops, research and consulting services. The Herald recently spoke with Castilla to talk about his most recent adventure, an international Congress titled “Reimagining the museum,” which took place at the beginning of this month in Buenos Aires, gathering dozens of museum representatives from across the Americas.

How did the idea for “Reimagining the Museum” come about?

We believe there is need for powerful changes in the museum scene. One of the tasks of our foundation is to find niches where there is a need for stimuli to generate change. We help re-direct the energy of people which is not properly channelled. Currently there are many museums in the region which have not adapted to modern life, they just put the objects in the museum and they expect visitors to come and admire or reject them. There is no experience offered, no possibility for a person to “emancipate” himself at that moment. This only happens in museums abroad and in some small museums here.

People who usually don’t visit museums sometimes feel bored or scared by them, or just don’t understand them...

Or they feel they don’t belong there. In the US, there is a stronger sense of popular culture, which helps middle- or lower-class people lose their fear of museums. In other countries, museums are very elitist. For instance, when I was director of the National Museum of Fine Arts (MNBA) in Buenos Aires, we carried out a survey of visitors and more than half of them had a college degree. In reality (that is, the general population), this percentage is much lower. In other words, museums are like a club for people of a certain level of education and the museums themselves apparently only consider these types of people. We should stop museums from becoming gated-communities.

How do you assess the Kirchner’s Cultural Centre, whose exhibitions and events are all free of charge?

Of course, many people are visiting it. The problem is how they will maintain the infrastructure because it has many rooms and requires a lot of financing. It’s 10 times bigger than the Cultural Centre Recoleta, whose building is falling apart due to lack of funding.

But MALBA (the Latin American Art Museum of Buenos Aires) and the Fortabat (Amalia Lacroze de Fortabat Art Collection) museums, which are privately-owned, are not money-making machines. What are their goals then?

It depends, MALBA has created a new model: it’s the first museum in Argentina where the architecture is so attractive that it makes people want to visit. It also pays special attention to its auditorium with an excellent film programme.

Is the way art is explained in museums in Argentina different from the way it’s done in Europe or the US?

Information is in crisis, because access to information is much easier nowadays. A museum’s objective is not to provide information but rather to provide unique experiences that can only occur in a protected place, like a museum, surrounded by wonderful objects, accompanied by the person you choose. And as such, a dialogue can be started or not; not particularly to talk about the object itself but the presence of the object can stimulate a more enriching dialogue. A sensory experience takes place which often doesn’t happen in other places. A museum exists to raise questions.

Why is modern art undervalued or perhaps misunderstood by the general public?

To “teach” art sometimes is completely different to the craft of being an artist — it is not related to the appreciation of the technique but to a more global, sensitive thing.

The Museum of Modern Art in Buenos Aires (MAMBA) published a series of books about Argentine artist León Ferrari. One of the books includes the artist’s private notes in which he describes a hypothetical painting he would have painted if “God had given him the talent.” The truth is that he couldn’t paint at all but the way he describes the act of painting is extraordinary. His knowledge about art and painting is unlike anybody else’s in Argentina. So what do you have to study or know to be able to teach art? I believe it is more complex than to learn the practice of art itself.

Are Argentine museums making visitors ask questions of themselves?

There are some signs showing that there is a turning point happening in some places. For instance, there is a small museum in the village of Ingeniero White (in Buenos Aires province) near Bahía Blanca, where there used to be an important metallurgical industry dedicated to the construction of locomotives. They left a long time ago and now a polluting petrochemical company is based there. The most important part of the museum’s collection is the narrative created by the villagers themselves, which is characterized by their sarcasm. They do not lament the industry loss, they talk about contamination by creating a boat filled with water containers which is ready to go once the contamination becomes no longer tolerable. The wives of former railway workers have a choir called “The Contaminated”; they also invite a prominent person from Bahía Blanca to have a haircut in an old-school barbershop and while he or she gets the hair trimmed, they tell him a story.

How is the Argentine art scene now in general?

There are more painters, more oeuvre. Photography has been incorporated into the art world. There is a more commercial vision of art now than at any other time, which means that art is considered a commodity — even artists see art as a commodity. I am not interested in commercial art. I am interested in the world of ideas related to art.


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