The Tucson Museum of Art spotlights the complicated and fascinating stories behind Pre-Columbian Latin American art
Art tells us that life in the Pre-Columbian Americas was complicated, creative and wildly fascinating. A young curator in Tucson wants to plug his city into the amazingly relevant art of ancient cultures from the Andes to the American Southwest.
The Tucson Museum of Art’s new 6,000-square-foot Kasser Family Wing of Latin American Art, which opened last month, features thousands of objects covering thousands of years of art. The wing provides a stage for art from South and Central America, Mexico and the southwestern U.S., from the pre-colonial to the contemporary. Dr. Kristopher Driggers, a young scholar with a knack for making ancient objects accessible to contemporary audiences, was brought on to help shape the new wing.
“The artists of the ancient Americas were brilliant about adapting to any number of major challenges, crises, political shifts,” Driggers said. “One of the great things about some of the work that we see in the wing, especially from the ancient world, is that they show us how people adapt. They show us how people respond — and respond brilliantly — to huge challenges.”
For TMA’s director and CEO Jeremy Mikolajczak, the new wing is a big step in the museum’s ongoing mission to become a destination for Latin American art. It’s also a way for a mid-sized city in the American Southwest to carve out a niche in the art world and connect with a diverse community, where many residents have direct ties to the region’s indigenous and colonial history.
“A lot of what makes this museum unique is the land is continually tied to these cultures,” Mikolajczak said. “It was really important from the onset to talk about this relationship and how as a regional museum we can define and own this aspect of cultural history in Southern Arizona.”
Connecting the dots
TMA’s new Kasser Wing is a light-filled showcase of Latin American art featuring 12,000 objects. The addition focuses on art from Pre-Columbian indigenous cultures, the Mesoamerican Colonial period (running from the 16th to the 19th centuries), the American west and work from contemporary LatinX artists. In other words, the new wing has a lot to cover and connect. But both Mikolajczak and Driggers are on a mission to make the collection relevant to a diverse community.
“This was really about taking this museum and honing in on this one area that is so culturally rich…to really focus on this region and why this region and the stories that we’re telling are so important,” Mikolajczak said. “Now this institution has the ability to connect so many dots.”
Hired as an assistant curator in 2019, Driggers helped the museum reinvent the presentation of Ancient American art.
“We all remember going to museums as a child and looking at dusty objects in the cases…Now we have an opportunity by looking at both the ancient and the contemporary to make those bridges so young children can see themselves,” Mikolajczak said “It wasn’t going to be limited to the traditional approach of looking at ancient art in an ancient art gallery…It was the idea of taking the traditional museum model and throwing it out the window and remolding it to fit where we want to see ourselves as an institution”
Driggers grew up in San Antonio, with a foot in two cultures. The son of a Mexican-American mother and a non-Latino white father, Driggers says he didn’t think much about Mexican culture growing up. But he had a lightbulb moment as an undergrad at Yale when a friend talked him into taking a Mesoamerican art class.
“I was completely hooked. I was sitting in Connecticut thinking I was going to be an English major. But when I’d let myself daydream, I’d think about hummingbirds and pyramids and vases for drinking chocolate,” Driggers said.
Driggers talked a friend into taking the bus from San Antonio to Mexico City, where they explored Pre-Columbian sites and museums, and the road to his life’s work began. From his early days in academic art history, Driggers got the sense that Pre-Columbian art was understudied.
“There’s so much work left to do,” he said. “I always felt like there could be a place for me in that.”
After finishing his art history degree at Yale, Driggers went on to earn masters and doctorate degrees in art history from the University of Chicago, with a dissertation that focused on Aztec codices of the colonial era. TMA hired Driggers in 2019 as the Schmidt Curator of Latin American Art. An endowed position created to help boost the museum’s commitment to becoming an international hub for Latin American art.
“What I kept hearing was that Pre-Columbian art was intimidating because there’s lots of different cultures, lots of different languages,” Driggers said. “It’s 4,000 years of history. It became pretty clear that asking a visitor to take all of that in was never going to work…I wanted to shift the emphasis over to something that feels more human and more universal.”
A shift away from ‘pots in a vitrine’
Driggers has tackled that challenge in part by organizing exhibits in Kasser Wing by theme instead of exclusively by culture or historical era. For the museum’s leadership, encouraging visitors from all backgrounds to make connections is key, and the overarching question is, “How did artists in the ancient Americas use art to express the ideas that mattered to them?” Driggers said.
Driggers has organized cases by theme including women’s dress, portraiture, images of animals in an attempt to capture imaginations and foster connections. Another of Driggers’ strategies is making it possible for visitors to spend time with specific “highlight objects” in the collection to focus on connection and meaning.
“If you think about a traditional exhibition of Pre-Columbian art, it’ll be a lot of pots in a really long vitrine,” Driggers said. “I wanted there to be moments in this wing where a visitor would ideally spend time with just one object really in depth.”
‘Conversations with the Past’
Mikolajczak came to TMA in 2016, after launching and running Miami Dade College’s Museum of Art and Design, where he developed a reputation for prioritizing and boosting community engagement. The idea of fostering community has been at the top of his list during his four years in Tucson.
“Museums are measured by the community they serve,” Mikolajczak said. “Who’s coming to the museum? When I came to Tucson, that was an area of importance. Making sure that everybody across the board felt welcome, the museum was accessible and there was representation of all people in the museum, on our walls and in the programs that we did.”
The museum created a community advisory committee to steer the development of the new Latin American wing. Community members offered feedback on pieces in the collection and helped write labels for showcased objects. The committee is also helping develop a bilingual educational curriculum connected with the collection.
The Kasser Wing features a rotating gallery of modern and contemporary Latin American art
Mikolajczak says some of the jewels of the contemporary collection include a piece by the noted Colombian painter and sculptor Fernando Botero and recent acquisition by the Los Angeles-based artist Patrick Martinez. Museum staff are also organizing a solo show featuring the work of Tucson-born, NYC-based artist Brad Kahlhamer.
“There are lots of ways artists can be placed in interesting conversations with the past. We’re just getting started thinking about what it means to show contemporary and ancient works alongside one another,” Driggers said.
‘A Place for Healing’
Like cultural institutions around the country, the Tucson Museum of Art shut its doors in mid-March when the COVID pandemic hit. The museum reopened to the public on July 30, along with the grand opening of the new Latin American art wing. While there were obvious challenges to opening a powerful new collection in the midst of a pandemic, Mikolajczak says social distancing protocols are working well and the community response has been overwhelmingly positive.
“All of us are in this together to open up responsibly and safely because in times like these, this is what’s needed. We need a place to reflect, we need a place to be quiet, a chance to get out of our homes and we can do that safely and responsibly,” Mikolajczak said.
For Driggers, art in general — and the wisdom and perspective of the ancient world — are needed more than ever.
“Museums don’t fix everything that’s wrong with the world of course. But I hope that people in the city will come to the museum as a place to sort of clarify their thoughts, as a place to focus on objects, to learn something, to process everything that’s going on in the world right now,” he said. “There’s a kind of cliche that institutions can be a place for healing. They can be a place for the kind of recovery that we’re going to need after this pandemic.”
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Jan Mercker is a freelance journalist, wine lover and arts enthusiast. A former public relations pro and lifelong Francophile, she helped French Champagne houses navigate the U.S. media landscape leading up to Y2K and ran the wine and spirits department at the French Embassy Trade Office in New York before moving into a writing career. She’s an underachieving but enthusiastic tennis player and parent of teens.