A Curator Who Wanted to Work In International Relations Is Using Art Instead

Marina Reyes Franco, credit Oswaldo Colón Ortiz
Marina Reyes Franco, credit Oswaldo Colón Ortiz

“I was very lucky to come of age at a moment when the artists that belong to my generation, slightly younger, slightly older, are very exiting!” shares with me Puerto Rican curator Marina Reyes Franco. She is also pleased that some older artists are finally getting the recognition they deserve, while admitting that the time is ripe for more to get their due. “There are so many artists here, and artist-run institutions, Puerto Rico is very active”. Since she is so enthusiastic about the scene, it is just as well that last May she joined the ranks of the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Puerto Rico (MAC), the museum of contemporary art in San Juan, known for its community engagement as well as its collection. At the time of our interview, she was installing a new show with veteran Puerto Rican artist Daniel Lind Ramos (b.1953), “check his work at the Whitney Biennale!”, she drops. For MAC PR, they are installing four sculpture-assemblages, two of which are part of the museum collection, and two that were commissioned for this exhibition. “Last night the artist was in the museum until four am!” she exclaims.

The thing is, Reyes Franco didn’t always want to be a curator—she was into politics. Her major, when entering the University of Puerto Rico was Political Sciences, which turned out disappointing for a number reasons. Mainly, the limited possibilities of the political education provided, but also the lack of opportunities on the other end, at least opportunities aligned with her political views. Or as she puts it “the sad panorama of living in a colony and never be able to work for my own diplomatic corps”. Eventually she switched to the Faculty of History, where there was art history too. That was 2004, which happened to be a pivotal year for the Puerto Rican art scene as she would soon realise. It marked the end of M&M proyectos, a residency started in 1999 that was doing “ground breaking work” says Franco Reyes, who met a lot of the artists from that community that year, and the first edition of the San Juan Poly/Graphic Triennial, that was an update, and rebirth, of the formerly named “The San Juan Biennial of Latin American and Caribbean Engraving” (1970-2001).

Reyes Franco was hanging out in bars in old San Juan, going to galleries and events, liking what the artists were doing, and basically, developing friendships. Ironically, she realised that she was living a similar life to that of her mother’s when she moved to San Juan and surrounded herself with older artists, eventually opening a gallery in 1980. “My dad was a poet, he died in 2001. My mum studied literature and printmaking, but she has always worked in the airlines and travel industry […] because she wanted to travel. Basically all my teens, until 9/11, we traveled for free”. It was her mother who took her to the USSR when Gorbatchev was under house arrest in 1991, and everything was falling apart. She laughs at the memory of that improbable holiday destination. When she asked her mother why she decided to take them there, the answer was “to see if the bad propaganda was true.” Her mother loved it.

Sucursal – La Ene en MALBA, Buenos Aires, 2014

“I grew up surrounded by writers and artists” she remembers. And although she turned to international relations and diplomacy when she was around seventeen years old, she found working in the art world and cultural sector is diplomacy as well. Unlike her prospects in the political world as a Puerto Rican, art offered her hope, “I can work within the art world and there is something that comes out of this mess that we are in, in this country, and that is culture”. Not to mention that she can collaborate with artists and partners from countries not necessarily sanctioned the way they are in the diplomatic field, because of the island’s relationship with the US, that is, being a colony still.For her Master’s degree she went to Buenos Aires in 2008, after a final paper on the concrete poet Esteban Valdés, a research she wanted to develop further which wasn’t possible in Puerto Rico where some art history books were “straight up bullet points”.  It’s in Buenos Aires, that she made her fist significant shows, “I guess I really started to come into myself when I started La Ene”. La Ene, a museum-as-project, was born from a space opportunity that came through her friendship with artist and curator Gala Berger in 2010. They went on a summer retreat together for two weeks and came up with a plan based on their own critique of the scene. Surprise, surprise, her first projects were rooted in politics, either the political reality of Argentina at the time, Esteban Valdés’s fundamental influence in the ’70s on politics, arts, and literature in Puerto Rico, or one about artists doing protests in museum with artists Felipe Ehrenberg and Mónica Rodríguez.

Ultimately the type of curator Reyes Franco is today, and the way she researches and writes, can be attributed to all of these influences. She grew in a very politicised family where her father, poet by day, was involved in the pro-independence movement by night, so to speak. Her fascination with the ’70s in her studies was about trying to understand the world her parents lived through and the trouble and consequences of that kind of cultural conditioning. But also in Argentina, at the IDAES-UNSAM in Buenos Aires, the education emphasised artists’ conditions of production, not just the pieces of art by themselves. As she describes it herself it was “derivative of marxist ideology”. And back in Puerto Rico, it only took her to observe her compatriots’ lives to see how politics and culture strongly influence them on a daily basis, from textbooks that still obscure a colonial situation, to what happens in situations of crisis as with Hurricane Maria in 2017.

Watch your step Mind your head, Exhibition View 2017, ifa-Gallery, Berlin

She started doing research on the visitor economy because of her “visceral reaction” to the shift she was “seeing in public policies related to tourism and the service industry, and how it created this feedback loop of poverty” she says. Her first show on the subject was “Watch your step / Mind your head”, at ifa-Galerie in Berlin, in June 2017, with artists Irene de Andrés, from Ibiza, and Sofía Gallisá Muriente from Puerto Rico. This exhibition started as a conversation in 2015, when de Andrés was doing a residency in Puerto Rico, and grew into a research where the three of them identified similar issues between the Caribbean island and Ibiza—the “club island”. She speaks of the “impulse to turn where people live into fantasy places for people from abroad” lamenting that the needs of the locals become secondary to the fantasies created.

In 2017 she was granted the CPPC Travel Award for Central America and the Caribbean, traveling the region to research about the visitor economy in the different places it was affecting. Her second show on the subject was last’s year “Resisting Paradise” in Puerto Rico, supported by Apexart, with Jamaican and Dominican artists Deborah Anzinger, Leasho Johnson, and Joiri Minaya. Through their conversations around the exoticised body and its perception, the show worked on the subject of a shared Caribbean landscape that historically took part of the population from slavery and plantation work, to resort-oriented development, and sexual tourism.

So what is so wrong with tourism, one wonders? It is really about the cruise ships, she notes. Having fourteen of them in the port at a time is very detrimental to the environment, while their passengers only spend a few hours on the island and expect to be entertained a certain way. The thing is, “tourism only accounts for 8% of Puerto Rico’s economy”. Yet its impact on people’s self-worth and image, constructed by advertising agencies, comes out of a particular, patriarchal and racist ideology that tends to whiten the population, dictating what beautiful and sexy is, which in turns, permeates all aspects of society. She links it to Puerto Rico’s obsession with beauty queens: since the ’30s those were taken to New Jersey to promote the island. And to the slogan of its international outreach ‘Discover Puerto Rico’, the same it has ever been. The early campaigns, reinforcing a colonial view of the island, were created at the time of the Ponce Massacre, a violent episode of the island’s history when in March 1937, 19 unarmed protesters were shot with the support of the U.S. government. I can see that her outcry raises many questions of which the territory’s self-determination is only one of many, with identity at its core.

Resisting Paradise, exhibition view, Fonderie Darling, Montreal, 2019

Reyes Franco is now transiting from being an independent curator to working in a museum, bringing her network along. The most rewarding thing about curating she says, is to be able to convey ideas through aesthetics experiences. “I am not the artist, but putting together a series of works that tell stories and can offer a take on things that is not considered the status quo” is what motivates her forward. She would like to believe that she’s contributing, by helping artists present their ideas more cohesively and clearly, and by making conversations that ultimately contribute towards a better society.

I can’t help but laugh with her, when she confides about her fear that the recent attention given to Puerto Rico is only linked to disasters, as it is bitter-sweet indeed. At the time of this interview she mentions that 5,000 or more people are still living in shelters from loosing their home in the earthquake that shook the south of the territory in January. Although the island is still recovering from the aftermath of the September 2017 Hurricane Maria, communities and helping hands are already organised because of it. She has friends taking part in the relief effort, “we have a trust system, a way to activate humanitarian networks”. She mentions that help is sent in form of food, clothes and water, but also entertainment such as music and theatre. I often see debates about whether art should be political or not. Working in the Puerto Rican context, at least from this curator’s perspective, seems to bypass the debate entirely. It rather reminds us that politics, like art, both strongly relate to human life and its organisation—and it’s ok to embrace both.

Marina Reyes Franco

Curator, Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Puerto Rico (MAC)

San Juan, Puerto Rico

Biography:

Marina Reyes Franco (b. San Juan, 1984) is an art historian and curator at the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Puerto Rico (MAC). She co-founded La Ene, a museum as critical project which has become mobile after 8 years based in Buenos Aires. Some recent projects include “Watch your step / Mind your head” at ifa Galerie-Berlin; The 2nd Grand Tropical Biennial, co-curated with Pablo León de la Barra, Stefan Benchoam, and Radamés “Juni” Figueroa (2016), “A Summer in Puerta de Tierra,” an exhibition and day outing in a San Juan neighborhood in response to the policies of population displacement and tourism focus in the area (2015); “Calibán,” a selection of Puerto Rican contemporary artists at the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Juan (2014) and “Sucursal,” an exhibition of the collection of La Ene, at the Museum of Latin American Art in Buenos Aires, co-curated with Gala Berger, Sofía Dourron and Santiago Villanueva (2014), as well as numerous exhibitions at La Ene while she was director. Research interests include the work of Esteban Valdés, artistic and literary manifestations on the frontier of political action, new museology, and the impact of tourism in cultural production. She received the 2017 CPPC Travel Award for Central America and the Caribbean, and was nominated for ICI’s 2014 Independent Vision Curatorial Award.

Art critic and writer.

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