Juan A. Gaitán, director of Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporáneo, Mexico City

with Raquel Iglesias


On a warm afternoon last spring, I had the pleasure of being in conversation with writer and curator Juan A. Gaitán to discuss the role of the museum and the response art can generate in society. Gaitán is the current director of Mexico City’s Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporáneo, and the recent 2014 curator for the Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art.



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RAQUEL IGLESIAS: One of the things that really interested us is how global your practice is, in terms of curating and working on projects in several different countries. We were interested in hearing about how ‘place’ as a concept has shaped your thoughts and ideas. And also your view on how place influences the work of artists. So in a question, how has place shaped your own curatorial practice in terms of thinking politically, socially, and culturally?

JUAN A GAITÁN: I find it’s a question I have asked myself many times. It definitely does. There is not one answer or a specific way to say, except in the most general way. For the very simple reason that we are not nomads walking through the world completely blind and deaf to what is going on around us. But there is not a direct relationship between what the place is and what your affected response is to that place, or aesthetic responses, or aesthetic sensibilities.

It is the accumulation of different places that has also something to do with it. So in a way I have always refused this idea that if you are in a place where the political realities are more visible and raw, then the work has to be. Art does not have to illustrate a certain reality, but it absolutely needs to generate a response and give us a place to start engaging with our realities. Whatever the place is we are surrounded by. This is where I stand right now.

When you pay attention to a broad range of artists and writers, you notice there is no unique way of reacting. So the fact that place does affect you, it affects you because the ideas and the geography in your mind changes. When you live in Canada, the United States is very present. When you live in the United States, Latin America is very present. When you live in Europe, North Africa is very present. So inevitably, it impacts the way you relate to the world. No one lives in an enclosed little provincial world anymore. And then you become curious about those places. When you live in Mexico the United States is very present, so you are curious about American history and so on, and also Latin America.

RI: The next question we have is about collaboration. As a curator, you have your approach, the artists have their own work and vision, and in turn you create an experience. ‘A biennale begins with the artists and ideally artists are not brought in to justify a curatorial approach,’ is something that you’ve previously stated. So would you say the core of your curatorial approach is collaboration? And if so, can you discuss what collaboration means to you?

JG: That sounds like a very correct thing to say as a curator, what you just read.


JG: There are two ways to answer. One is that collaboration is a word I am not very fond of. When we say we ‘collaborate,’ it sounds very nice. But in the end, its officially a vice collaboration. The Rolling Stones ‘collaborate.’ They are always doing everything together. But it is an enforced situation. Everybody knows Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, they don’t get along so they never hang out together. But they do concerts together and photographs together. And that’s what I think collaboration is really like. You set up a situation that requires the presence of two or more people, then you call it collaboration. But collaborations do not always go smoothly. Each person has a different idea of what it is supposed to be about.

So in terms of collaboration, I don’t consider that I collaborate. Me, as a curator, I produce situations where people come together on their own terms, is what I was trying to say, as much as possible. But still there are limits. It is not like you approach an artist and they say, ‘Well tell me, what have you been thinking?’ And then, ‘Well I’ve been thinking about this…’ ‘Great!’

In the end it is your sensibilities as a curator that has led you to the artists you are working with, not the other way around. So in terms of the biennales, I am quite allergic to the curatorial themes. I don’t like them. I think they are bogus. They are made up on the fly, most of the time they don’t make sense, and they are just excuses to bring together a whole bunch of artists that you like. It is a double negative. It is a question not of collaboration. And of not imposing your own curatorial fantasies onto artworks. Because in the end what you are there to see is art, not a curator’s inner-workings. To me, what people really want to relate to are the artworks. And with the over-determination of work by text, people have become less and less able to look at art. So they look at text first, and then the artwork, and they get more confused because many of these texts don’t tell you anything about the work you are looking at, or they don’t make sense half of the time. I’m sorry I’m being a little bit jaded.

RI: No need to apologize.

JG: They alienate the public from the work. If you go in there and read sentences like ‘Epistemological principles, blah blah blah…’ it’s like getting two slaps in the face before you actually look at the artwork. It doesn’t help you develop an autonomous relationship to the work of art, which is what I think we should be going for.




JG: …Group shows. I stopped, after the biennale, I’m not doing any. Only doing monographic exhibitions for a while. I’m not saying I’ll never do them again, but it’s refreshing because you look at the progress of one artist and inevitably as curator you take a step back and let the artist and the work be more present. That’s the stage I am at right now. In terms of the group shows – in which I did many – we try to give the viewer a choreographed sense of what the show is about. They go from one artwork to another and maybe they make the connections you’re making, or maybe not. But it is a different platform, no one is collaborating with anybody, but you are making your best to make the theme present but not overbearing and let the works counterpoise each other.

RI: Can you share a little bit with us about how your experience has been at Museo Tamayo so far?

JG: It’s a completely different thing because now I am making it possible for curators to do their work. That’s my job.


And for the education department to do its work, and so on. So I’m a bit more removed, not entirely, but a bit more removed from the curatorial side of my work. I am more focused on fundraising, organization, making sure things are connected and giving the institution a line and projection and a few years of coherence, things like this. And then the exhibitions, even though they are the core of what the museums about, they are not the only thing, they are one of many elements that make up a museum.

I love it. It’s been a wonderful year and a bit. I don’t miss being a curator if you were going to ask that.


RI: I was going to ask, how has it related to your curatorial work. Do you enjoy directing more than curating?

JG: At the moment, yes. It’s an entirely different set of challenges. And human resources, and human directions on a daily basis. The collections, how are you going to make them better? How are you going to make the exhibitions spaces better? The infrastructure of the museum. You have a few years, or several years to work with so you can plan ahead. You don’t have to stick to the two-year contract of the biennial, or you don’t go around like a mercenary doing shows here and there–which is rewarding and I enjoyed it a lot, but it did not give me the stability to imagine a global project that would project itself into five or six years. Some people complain but I don’t. There is a way to steer the ship and pay attention to all these different elements that make up the ship. So the exhibitions are important, eventually they are the most important part of our work, because that is the way we interact with the audience–through the exhibitions. Then there is of course the education department, and public programs, all of these other things, but our main relationship and contract with the audience is to provide the exhibitions, not the public programs, not education. You could even get rid of all those, but you could never get rid of the exhibition aspect of the museum, of course. But then how do you make it grow and amplify it? That is why all of those things are there. And make it relevant. Even if people don’t immediately perceive the relevance of what we are doing, you have to make an effort to make it clear why you do think it’s relevant to artists, to our place, to our time.

So I guess that goes back to your original question. These things matter because in the sense that relevance does not mean we are illustrating the reality for people, it means we are thinking about it hard enough that it’s worth seeing what we are doing, even if you disagree.


EMERGE: There’s an essay where you’re quoted as advocating for art and art spaces as “platforms for comparative citizenship.” Could you elaborate on this please? What it means to you, and how it comes out in the work?

JG: I can’t remember what I wrote in that essay. I remember I wrote it because it was edited by a good friend of mine, and now I totally disagree with what I said apparently.




JG: Today I was reading an interview with a colleague who had just gotten appointed as CEO and Director. And I’m like, ‘CEO?’ What do we need to call ourselves CEO to begin with? And this person was saying something along those lines. And I had a very strong reaction to that point. And then I saw your email and thought, ‘Well, apparently I said it too.’ The thing is, it has been increasingly popular for people to say museums provide a safe environment for democratic experimentation. There is nothing democratic about a museum. It has never been a democratic institution. We pretend to be a place, or believe to be the place of the highest expression of art and culture. And contemporary art, which both of you are close to in Chicago, is at one of the most arrogant art moments in history. Contemporary art people, myself included, believe we know more than everybody about everything, even than people in their own fields. We treat musicians and economists like idiots. There is this distrust, but this distrust has become arrogance in my opinion, in many cases. So this idea of ‘comparative citizenship’ is very noble, like ‘collaboration,’ but to be honest I have a very hard time remembering what I meant to say by comparative citizenship.

But it is not a question of whether you can generate good social behavior. In fact, art and morality have to be enemies for art to work, like philosophy. We cannot work within the bounds of moral values but at the same time we shouldn’t make art that is against morality directly. We cannot work within that frame because we are not questioning anything. We are only working with the given. The given at the moment is that democracy is good. And that in the museum we can teach people to be more democratic in their daily lives, but what does that mean? It’s a completely abstract and general idea that has no…how do you turn that around and make that into a practical thing? So maybe what we need is the opposite. I can go on and on. I am leaning now toward the idea that what a museum should do is to make it possible for people to have an autonomous relationship to art. You open the gate and you give enough tools to make the first step, and then people need to make an effort after that. Everyone has to make an effort, the museum, the curator, the visitor, the one who writes the text on the walls–every single one. Art should not be effortless in a certain way for anybody. But it also shouldn’t be totally cryptic and obscure. Arrogant, yes, in a healthy way. So you couldn’t really reconcile asking people to be more individual and autonomous, then ask them to be better citizens. They are not on the same wave length. It’s not the way I would take the conversation in the museum today–this idea of comparative citizenship. So I am glad I am disagreeing with myself and not with somebody else on this topic.

EMERGE: I did have one last question. I read that before you wanted to be a curator, you wanted to be a writer full time…

JG: Yes and no. I never wanted to be a curator, that is the part that is not accurate. I become one kind of by chance. I always wanted to be a writer. But I still consider myself a writer, not a novelist or fiction writer. But I do write, and I write alright and I’m not terrible at it.


I never liked this implication that some things are better than others. Because then ultimately everyone will have to agree that philosophy is the most important one of all, and it’s not true. It’s important like literature, like music. But by saying I wanted to be a writer, and settled to be a curator is not true. I never felt like I was replacing for second best. Right now I’m telling you that I don’t miss being a curator, and that’s true. I don’t feel a nostalgia for the things I did or left behind. They might come back in a different way. They are all a part of the wave.

  • with Raquel Iglesias


    RAQUEL IGLESIAS (SAIC MAAAP 2016) is a Cultural Practitioner, Producer and Curator originally from the San Francisco Bay Area. She is devoted to supporting underrepresented communities within the arts, with her research and practice focusing on issues of inclusion, and institutional bias.