Q&A with Valéria Piccoli, Mia’s first curator of Latin American art

By Tim Gihring //

For its first century-plus of existence, Mia never had a dedicated curator of Latin American art. Now, thanks to the support of longtime benefactors, the museum has Valéria Piccoli, the former chief curator of the Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo, in Brazil, one of the most esteemed art museums in South America.

As the Ken and Linda Cutler Chair of the Art of the Americas and curator of Latin American art, Piccoli will oversee not just a collection of objects but also the museum’s relationship with the growing Latino communities of Minnesota. Here, Piccoli talks about her journey to Mia and the potential road ahead.

How did your interest in art originate?

Growing up in Brazil, I was always interested in art, but it was only when I moved to São Paulo for college that I had the opportunity to visit museums and see works of art. In college, I volunteered as an educator for the São Paulo Biennial, this huge international exhibition that happens every two years. Seeing all those artists—how they thought, how their ideas became forms—I decided that was what I wanted to do: I wanted to work with artists.

You studied architecture as an undergraduate. Has that interest stayed with you as a curator?

Absolutely. I have many friends who are architects, and in fact I have collaborated with friends who are designing the Brazil pavilion for the upcoming World Expo in Osaka. The perception of space is very important to my curatorial practice, and how narratives become an experience for the visitor, and I think that comes from architecture school.

Some of your early work focused on European “traveler” artists who came to Latin America in the 16th to 19th centuries. Who were these artists and what were they doing there?

Some were just tourists having exotic experiences abroad, but most were part of scientific or diplomatic expeditions that had to do with colonial enterprises. They were mapping the natural resources of Latin America and the inhabitants—the people and their costumes and all that. It’s very important source material to understand how life in Latin America was seen and described from a certain perspective—and how we in Latin America incorporated some of those ideas in our own identity.

For example, there’s a painting at the Pinacoteca by an artist from Naples, Italy, who came to Brazil in the 1840s. He painted this beautiful view of the bay of Rio de Janeiro. But when you look at it, it’s really the bay of Naples—the light and everything has nothing to do with the tropics. He doesn’t paint what he sees, he paints what’s in his mind. These artists are fascinating because they’re trying to describe something but cannot see what they’re really looking at—they just see through their filters the things they already know.

At the Pinacoteca, you led a reorganization of the permanent collection on display. How do you approach that process?

I really understand museum work as a collaboration. It’s never the work of one person. It has to come from all the knowledge that already exists in this place—how can we interweave all these stories and create a big narrative and speaks to the history of the institution, the history of the collection, and also the power of what these artists are saying. It’s super-challenging and something I really love to do.

How would you describe Mia’s Latin American art collection at this point?

It’s very disconnected. There’s a beautiful collection of textiles, some ancient American objects, and even some 20th-century pieces. But they don’t tell a story. There are also some things that I really don’t know how they came to the museum—precious things, like prints by Arthur Luiz Piza. He’s a fantastic Brazilian artist but no one knows about him, so how did his work end up here?

What do you see as the role of museums today, particularly historic museums like Mia, which grew out of a 19th-century imperialist mindset?

I think all museums have roots in imperialism, and many institutions all over the world are making the effort to reshape themselves. What I see as important is how the museum can be a safe space for people to share ideas, to express themselves, to see themselves. How can we be an agent for social change in this way? I think this is what museums need to be at this point.

Artists have this impressive power to propose to us other ways of looking at the world, of being in the world, of experiencing the world. And the museum has to make space for this, to show people they are free to imagine other things.

What do you plan to work on first?

We’ll begin with an exhibition opening next summer called “ReVisión: Art in the Americas,” which is built around the Latin American art collection of the Denver Art Museum. It brings together storytelling and works of art to talk about issues that have shaped the identity of the Americas over time. We’ll be looking at ways to introduce some pieces from Mia’s collection into the show to begin presenting to our audiences what the museum already has, and how we are beginning to shift our attention to this part of the world.