ifa: How did your institution cope during the crisis and how has it managed since then? How has the current situation changed the work of your institution and its conception of itself?
Manuela Otero: In Argentina, cultural spaces have been closed in lockdown since March 20th. Since then, Proa has been working on the idea that a cultural institution, an art space, is also an educational space, and intensifying our virtual educational meetings. Given the lack of education in our country and having archive material of our activities on our various digital channels (proatv, proaradio, proaeditorial, etc.), we focused on remote education. After three months of free classes for all audiences, organized by the educational department, researchers, and academics, we have built a specific study program in contemporary arts. The program has since grown, with a positive response from the public in Argentina and in the region. We have decided to continue to incorporate this work in the future.
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?
Otero: The first thing we considered was how to differentiate between Fundación Proa's in-person audience and the diversity of a new remote audience, whom we should try to engage to the maximum. At the beginning of the pandemic, all the great museums of the world put their remarkable assets online, which for our country was a true gift. Competing was impossible. But we also noticed that museums put up their archives passively for silent, individual viewers. We decided to fight isolation by building community. For us, it was very important to combine notions of globality and closeness through Zoom and other virtual encounters. Our courses, classes, and meetings are with a present audience, trying to generate dialogue and reflection on each activity. It seemed opportune to bring together a community, not silence. These virtual activities allowed a public who did not previously have access to Proa, whether because of physical distance or because of a lack of information, to access our space and our content.
ifa: What do you consider to be the primary social tasks of your museum?
Otero: Fundación Proa is located in La Boca, a neighborhood with a long history, since it is the historic heart of the city of Buenos Aires. Built by the first immigrants, the neighborhood has an enormous cultural richness derived from its historical artistic scene, tango, and anarchism. Latin American immigration is a foundational part of the neighbourhood. Different social strata come together in this district, with a tension between a thriving contemporary art scene and very vulnerable communities. Since the mandatory lockdown, we've created different study materials for local families and have partnered with different civil organisations to use our restaurant, Café Proa, to produce food for around 500 low-income families in the neighborhood every week.
ifa: How should museums convey and reflect stories, images, and narrative patterns?
Otero: The present time is changing ways of narrating or leaving testimony of our time. Artistic creation from any discipline may account for an era, despite its quality of abolishing chronological time. Currently the viewer is an active participant. Given the tools she possesses, she can take photos, film, record. This quality modifies the ways of narrating and reflecting stories. We consider that the concept of artwork must be reconceptualized and anonymous production acquires a value that questions the categories of art.
ifa: Do you see your museum as a place of political discourse?
Otero: We consider Proa a sounding board for political and social issues in our environment. Issues such as gender diversity, feminist rights, and the specific needs of our neighborhood occupy a place in our programming, and we regularly assess the presence of these themes in our exhibitions, books, eBooks, seminars, etc. Proa also offers artivist groups a space of reflection in order to analyze international and local vicissitudes.
ifa: How can museums work internationally, post-nationally and responsibly today?
Otero: Motivated by the current situation, and in light of the uncertainty surrounding the organization of international exhibitions, we have designed new strategies to keep talking to the world. One of them is to organize contemporary exhibitions where videos, exhibition copies, replicas of works, and new site-specific works allow us to bring and show the most outstanding contemporary practice. We rethought some of the international projects on our agenda with a new perspective focused on the site specific, favouring local production. We consider it important to rethink what should and can be in museums, and the works of different platforms and modes of production, applying new standards for visits according to established protocols.
ifa: Museums nowadays perform many functions. How would you define what the museum is or should be today?
Otero: I believe the museum must be closely connected with reality, and show itself as a space for reflection and debate, allowing social and structural issues to penetrate the walls of the institution, generating a permanent change in multiple points of view. Art brings new perspectives on what is known, and our role is to bring those perspectives closer to public. Today, both the visiting public and the virtual public constitute a community that is attentive to art, and require specific programs.
Manuela Otero is program manager and curator at Fundación Proa in Buenos Aires.
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.