A few blocks to the west of the popular – and often crowded -Smithsonian museums, there’s a little-known gem of an art museum at Constitution Avenue and 18th Street. It is across the street from the headquarters of the Organization of American States. And it is an extension of the OAS’s work to promote cooperation among the 35 nations of North and South America and the Caribbean.
Adriana Ospina is the curator of the permanent collection of the Art Museum of the Americas. In addition to curating exhibits and playing a critical role in bringing new exhibits to the museum, she leads groups of visitors on tours. This was how I met her and experienced her passion for the collection. She agreed to share her passion with us. The interview below has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Marlene Berlin: From the outside exhibits I have seen (the now-closed Amazogramas by Roberto Huarcaya about the Amazon rain forest’s beauty and perils, and Pink Ranchos by Carolina Mayorga about abuse of women and children in the Americas) it is clear that this museum is carrying out a political mission. Could you explain how this mission evolved?
Adriana Ospina: In Latin America and the Caribbean, art has often been about political expression. The art in the 50s and 60s was abstract and focused on freedom of expression. In the 70s and 80s art was used as a protest against dictatorships arising in Argentina, Chile and Brazil. The overarching political climate of these decades was concerned with Communism and the Cold War. It was during these times that the major part of the collection, close to 2,000 objects, was established focusing on modern and contemporary art. The OAS started a fund to establish a collection in 1957 and the AMA opened its doors in 1976.
Although the art collection captured the politics of these times, it wasn’t until six years ago that the AMA wrote down its mission and vision or explained its alignment with the OAS and use of art to promote diplomacy, focusing on human rights, peace and democracy.
MB: How is the AMA governed?
AO: The Permanent Council of 35 Latin American and Caribbean countries including the US approves the budgets and exhibitions. The Advisory Committee of 13 scholars, collectors and other art specialists meets once a year to make recommendations for approving outside art exhibitions. Five to seven proposals from representative offices and outside are considered each year by the Committee. There is also the Friends of the AMA which has a board of 13 and raises money for the museum. This is headed by the Director of the Museum Pablo Zuniga.
MB: How did you come to the AMA and how did your position evolve?
AO: I came as an intern out of college in 2007. I worked with the historic archives and fell in love with the collection. The curator at the time, Maria Leyva, took me under her wing and encouraged me to pursue an Master in Fine Arts in Latin America Art. I completed an MFA in Latin American Art at George Mason University in 2013. In the meantime I took over managing the collection when the curator retired in 2011, and I was promoted to curator in 2013.
MB: What is the first thing you focused on?
AO: I wanted to boost the visibility of our great collection. I focused on two efforts: putting together a book about the collection and traveling exhibitions. We now have a book with the contributions of ten scholars, and we have had exhibitions in three cities in the U.S., including Miami at the Frost Museum, the Fred Jones, Jr. Museum of the University of Oklahoma in Norman, and Kansas City in partnership with Pan-American Society of the Americas.
MB: What are you currently working on?
AO: I am working on a traveling exhibition of Asian migration to the Americas, particularly the Japanese in Brazil, Argentina and Peru, and their impact on the art. I started tracing this migration through the collection and invited an international association of artists to participate. The exhibit will be ready for its launch in 2020 and I’m currently working out the details of where and when it will exhibit.
MB: I have now twice seen the mural painted by Carlos Páez Vilaró that is in the underground passageway between the museum and the OAS headquarters at 17th and Constitution Avenue. It is an amazing piece of art and at one time the longest mural in the world.
Since the first time I saw it, a section has been rehabilitated. Could you tell me what has been done to protect it from water damage and plans for maintaining it?
AO: The mural was created in 1960 and has been restored two times and patched periodically due to water damage. We have been working to improve the water drainage around the building and leaks have been repaired. On May 30th, we opened an exhibit of the mural for paid admission (“Roots of Peace,” open through September 8th). The money will go toward maintaining the mural.
MB: I noticed you have another museum site downtown. Could you tell me about this?
AO: Yes, we have a site at F Street for our photography collection. Fabian Goncalves is curator of this collection and was instrumental in bringing the Amazon exhibit to our museum. He often travels to festivals and other galleries looking for artists and their works.
The best way to see and appreciate the art at the AMA is to arrange a tour.
The main AMA museum, at 201 18th Street NW, is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. To arrange a tour, contact Adriana Ospina at 202-370-0147 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Click here for directions and accessibility information.
The F Street Gallery at 1889 F Street NW is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. You must call 202-370-0151 to make an appointment.