MFA Houston Announces Massive Project to Put Latin American Art History Online

MFA Houston Announces Massive Project to Put Latin American Art History Online
At a time when some museums across the country are canceling programs and laying off staff, other institutions seem to be funneling more and more resources into sending their art online, from Yale University's plan to put its collections on the Web to the various Google Art Project partnerships. Now, after years of work and millions of dollars' worth of fundraising, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and its research institute, the International Center for the Arts of the Americas, is prepared to unveil a sweeping plan to digitally archive an unprecedented 10,000 primary source materials, and upload it all to the Web.

The archive will be exhaustive. The museum has devoted ten years and $50 million to initiatives in 20th-century Latino art and has acquired arguably the best collection in the country. This latest project is led by the widely respected ICAA director Mari Carmen Ramírez, a woman who has been credited with leading the surge of interest in Latin American art in the United States over the last decade.

The massive archive includes artists' writings and previously unpublished correspondence, as well as newspaper and journal articles. The scope is wide, ranging from responses to historic artist lectures at Argentinian universities to documentation of European intellectuals who spent time in Mexico, such as André Breton. The trove will be released in phases, beginning in January with 2,500 documents from Argentina, Mexico, and the American Midwest. Documents from Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Peru, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and the United States will be added over the course of the next three years. The entire archive will be accessible worldwide and free of charge in 2015.

A series of 13 books (which, presumably, are not free) will be published over the next dozen years in conjunction with the archive, featuring copies of the original documents as well as English translations. "This project is just the beginning of the effort to recover the intellectual production of 20th-century Latin American artists, critics and curators and to further research and awareness of this production in the United States and elsewhere," said Ramírez in a statement. Edward Sullivan, an art history professor at New York University and advisor to the institute, noted that this project has the potential to integrate "the lost chapter of Latin American art" into the art history curricula of Western universities.

The project is, perhaps more than anything else, a feat in logistical engineering. The book series has an editorial board of 16 scholars; the archive has a steering committee of 12. Both projects are the result of research done by teams of specialists at institutions across the Western Hemisphere, including Fundación Espigas in Buenos Aires, Espacio Crítico para las Artes in Mexico City, and the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.

Both interim museum director Gwendolyn H. Goffe and Ramírez emphasized in statements that the archive's major purpose is to open new avenues for scholarship. Indeed, without students to use it, the archive will be rendered inconsequential. Said Ramirez, "It will be up to future scholars to really make something out of this project."