Museo La Tertulia

Out of the Crisis, A New Solidarity

At Museo La Tertulia in Cali, Colombia, curator Alejandro Martín Maldonado and Head of Education Carlos Hoyos Buchelli have met the ongoing challenges of the pandemic with renewed energy for meaningful audience and artist engagement, as well as unprecedented cooperation with other cultural institutions.

ifa: How did your institution cope during the crisis and how has it managed since? How has the current situation changed the work of your museum and its conception of itself?

Alejandro Martín Maldonado and Carlos Hoyos Buchelli: We closed our spaces to the public at the end of March, at the beginning of the pandemic, and, as of July, continue to work from home and to pursue digital projects only.

Our move to the digital realm shared many of the anxieties we saw in different institutions, but made us realize the importance of our digital channels. One especially interesting consequence of the crisis was that it forced us to meet our peers (museums and other cultural venues) to share questions and solutions, fears and strengths, and also to demand as a group (in reality, as part of different groups) solutions from the state.

In Colombia, museums still don't have a proper institutional association, nor a proper regulatory framework. The pandemic compelled us to make many common demands and commitments, including the project for a National Museums' Regulation. An emerging Museum's Alliance also initiated a series of dialogues between very different institutions.

At La Tertulia, we have also started to prepare everything for re-opening our spaces according to all safety requirements, as soon as the general conditions and local authorities make it possible. This was also done in partnership with different national and local museums – a dialogue that also influenced the government's decisions and regulations.

We have been able to keep the whole team on the payroll, and have been developing different strategies to address financial difficulties, since we expect to receive only 50 per cent of our budget in 2020. We always apply for different grants, but this year it became an urgent endeavour to which we dedicated an important proportion of our time.

Since normally our work mainly depends on physical interaction  – at the museum and at other institutions (schools, cultural places) we collaborate with – the COVID-19 situation radically changed the way we work. It also forced us to ask profound questions about our 'conceptual' mission, and to find ways to address it in different domains.

The situation has made us reflect on the importance of the museum as a 'public space,' and which encounters, dialogues, discussions it enables. The challenge is how to preserve those occasions and opportunities when people cannot gather in the actual space.

ifa: How do you address your public in this new context? What kind of public do you expect and what do you expect from your public?

Maldonado and Buchelli: We have very different publics, and the relationship with most of them has changed radically in this new situation. The only ongoing audience interaction that we now have is with those who follow us on social media. For us, Instagram is the most active channel, while Facebook is most useful for publishing videos and live presentations.

We tried to showcase and share the different areas of the museum's activity on these channels: posts about the museum's collection, movie recommendations, video renderings of exhibitions, art activities based on collection artworks, and talks about our exhibitions. We also reacted to the current situation by taking part in different public talks between museum professionals. In addition, we launched a new series, where artists (digitally) visit each other in their home-studio to present their work. Each invited artist decided who she wanted to visit next.

One of our most important audiences is school students, in particular those in public schools. For the duration of this year, schools will not be able to bring their students to our premises. We also have a program, 'Museum + School,' where we invite an artist to work in colaboration with a teacher and a group of students to develop a project, an intervention, in the school. This is also impossible to implement in the current circumstances, since students have to stay at home until the end of 2020, at least.

To adapt to these restrictions, we spoke with teachers involved in the program to find out what they need now and how they perceive the new circumstances. We found that one thing they really needed is to be heard, to communicate all the difficulties and challenges of this situation. So we developed the idea of proposing some sort of correspondence, an exchange between the teachers,  artists, and then with the students. We conceived of this correspondence in a traditional way, returning to a physical correspondence that challenges the primacy of the digital in our current situation.

We have also been thinking about how we can bring the museum to schools, how to make possible the visits we used to facilitate – but with digital strategies. This also involves our mediators who used to welcome the students at the museum, but now have to share the collection with them through narrations and virtual tours.

There used to be many tourists at our museum, and also many local visitors from all over the city. Tourists are off the agenda for some time, and local people will also not be using public transport to come to the museum for a certain period. So we also have to find ways to address our neighbours. We live in a very divided city, with very harsh contrasts – and we can see that in our immediate surroundings. Next to the museum, there are mansions and very expensive appartments. Close by, there are also shanty towns with residents hailing from different regions of the country. We are developing projects specifically for both audiences.

The physical space of our museum consists of different buildings that share a public park spanning both sides of the city's main river. This open public space will be very important in this next period, and we have also been developing a specific program for this area.

Finally, since we are an art museum, artists are a fundamental part of the people we work with and for. During the last month, we have also developed a crowdfunding campaign, selling artworks with revenue supporting both the artists and the museum. The campaign received a fantastic response, showing that there is important emotional involvement with our work, and also showcasing the work of local artists, who do not have many opportunities for display, since Cali does not have many galleries.

ifa: What do you consider to be the primary social tasks of your museum?

Maldonado and Buchelli:

•    To foster art as a vehicle to address the world, in a critical and sensible way.
•    To create an inclusive public space which everyone feels is their own.
•    To offer our public means and resources to express themselves creatively and critically.
•    To preserve, and share, a part of our history in the form of an archive.
•    To activate that archive (art collection, documents) by creating different means of interpretation that help to enrich and enlighten memory in a critical, polemic, and  creative way.
•    To promote networks of collaboration and participation around artistic and cultural practices.
•    To connect the local with the national and the international, to bring a sense of perspective and commonality.  
•    To invite different points of view into one common space and discuss issues that have not been properly addressed in previous periods.
•    To transform traditional education spaces through the appropriation of artistic practices.

All of these goals reflect our belief in the capacity of artistic practice to transform traditional ways of seeing and behaving.

ifa: How should museums convey and reflect stories, images and narrative patterns?

Maldonado and Buchelli: Rather than speaking in general terms, it is perhaps helpful to describe an exhibition we recently curated of our collection to celebrate the sixty years of the institution. It was called: 'Cali 71: City of America. Between the Project and Reality'. Through our art collection and a series of documents, we presented this very interesting and particular moment in the history of the city, when the institution, formerly a cultural meeting place, turned into a museum of modern art.

The museum was part of a big city project, with a very precise conception of modernity, which led to the construction of much 'modern' infrastructure (airport, public university, banks, hotels, sport venues) in a short space of time. This was also part of the many ways the Cold War affected Latin American countries – and it happened when Cali celebrated the biggest event it has ever hosted: The Pan-American Games.

We designed the exhibition so as to bring about regular contrapositions between documents and works of art, to give light to contradictions and tensions, to give a contemporary spin on lived experience and issues, and to read the present in relation to the archive. We created a narrative that explained how the collection got its identity: in 1971 the museum responded to the city by creating an American Graphic Arts Biennial.  It was a very local way of meeting the need of becoming international. Many of the participant pieces in the Biennial remain in the museum and form part of our collection, and those pieces reveal many of the political tensions, and also the conceptual and naturalistic approaches, to art in that period.

One of the main collection pieces is by Antonio Caro from 1972 – it's a big graphic piece with different posters, each one with a letter, and when you see all of them together you can read: ARTDOESNOTFITHERE. In each of the posters, in smaller font, he wrote the name of a victim of the state. One of the victims was a student leader from Cali, who was killed by the police at one of the demonstrations against US investment in the public university. The political climate was especially tense because of the imminent inauguration of the Games. We presented this context with a big wallpaper of newspaper pages of the time. We also set it in dialogue with political graphic pieces in the collection from other Latin American countries, in particular Chile and Argentina.

Other victims mentioned in Antonio Caro's work were indigenous members of a community in the eastern part of the country, who were killed because they resisted land grabs by mining multinationals. In the exhibition, we showed the documentary that inspired Caro: Planas, by Marta Rodríguez and Jorge Silva.

The public were welcomed to the exhibition with a gigantic photo of a demonstration, where you could see the way the people hold posters similar to the ones Caro uses in his piece. This was so that visitors could sense the street activities of the time, the political sensitivity, and also better understand the artist's intention and grammar. This was also an opportunity for the public to take photographs and selfies, as if they, too, were part of the demonstration.

All the graphics in the exhibition shared this propaganda style, and the typography of prints and newspapers. In this way, we got to create a space that reflected on the city in relation to the country and the continent, and on a moment in history that still marks local identity. We gave context to interpret the art, and the art also gave clues to interpret the moment. We created a large-scale environment that not only involved artists and historians, but also architects, filmmakers, activists...

The exhibition also revealed many of the gaps in our collection, which we tried to redress by inviting pieces from other collections, and by putting this exhibition in dialogue with other exhibitions, like one in a popular neighbourhood museum, or another about relationships between politics and salsa music (the main popular music in Cali) through contemporary art.

ifa: Do you see your museum as a place of political discourse?

Maldonado and Buchelli: In 2018, we worked on the project 'Carretera al mar' ('Road to the Sea'), developed in collaboration with the Goethe Institute. The name is taken form the road that connects Cali, the big city in the valley, and Buenaventura, the main sea port in the Pacific. Buenaventura is also one of the poorest cities in the country, with a large black population, who live in the most difficult conditions. The previous year, in 2017, the biggest political demonstration took place in Buenaventura, with people taking to the streets to reclaim their rights.

Our project addressed the many tensions that exist between Cali and Buenaventura, the contradictions of modernity, the colonial legacy, capitalist exploitations, and violent consequences.  It allowed us to address one of the most difficult issues in the region: structural racism. And we did it by thinking not only about the city but also the region, and migrations past and present.

In 2019, most of our program was dedicated to addressing the issues of memory of conflict, in the wider national context of the peace treaty signed between the government and the FARC guerrilla movement. We brought together a big photography exhibition of one of the most important photojournalists, who documented many of the most conflicted places over many years. We put this work in dialogue with other photographers and also other ways to reconstruct the conflict. It created a strong public engagement, with collaboration between many local, national, and international institutions.

ifa: Museums nowadays perform many functions. How would you define what the museum is or should be today?

Maldonado and Buchelli:

Public Space (Arena)
Common Ground (Memory)
Collaborative Imagination (Future)

We also love the definition given by Luis Camnitzer, one of the main artists in the history of the museum:
The museum is a school
The artist learns to communicate
The public learns to make connections.

Alejandro Martín Maldonado is curator at the Museo La Tertulia, Cali

Carlos Hoyos Buchelli is head of education at the Museo La Tertulia, Cali


Under the title 'MuseumsNow', ifa asked actors from international museums about their current experiences, challenges and visions –  also against the background of the COVID-19 pandemic. The interviews and reports provide an insight into current museum practices and civil society actions of museums worldwide.

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