The University of Houston (UH) has announced that, under its newly developed strategic plan, it has named María C. Gaztambide as director and chief curator of its public art program. This appointment comes just a few years after UH formally established an arts college (the Kathrine G. McGovern College of the Arts), to go along with its other subject-focused colleges, and just weeks after the university’s president, Renu Khator, emphasized the school’s commitment to the arts in an open letter. The letter read in part:
“The arts are crucial to our campus, to our community and to our country….At the most basic level, the arts—and, by extension, art education—obviously matter for their economic impact but, even more importantly, they matter for their inherent power to fuel a community’s passion and sustain its cultural identity.”
Public art pieces throughout university campuses have the ability to impact students as Khator describes. The various walkways, paths, and open fields of the university all have sculptures and other public art pieces strategically placed in the hopes of engaging students. Over the past few years, UH’s public art program, which includes nearly 700 works, has been making a conscious effort of reaching out to the larger Houston community to share its collection, mainly in the form of campus walking tours led by guest artists or by the collection’s curator, Mike Guidry, who will be staying on as the collection’s curator and will work with Gaztambide on preserving and adding works to the collection.
The university’s appointment of Gaztambide marks the program’s first staff expansion in 50 years, and according to the school it follows Khator’s charge for UH to “to put the ‘public’ back in public art.” Gaztambide comes to UH from the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, where she worked as the associate director of the International Center for Arts of the Americas, a center focused on studying Latin American and Latino visual art. During her nearly 13-year tenure at the museum, she worked towards creating an accessible digital archive of publications and writings by Latinx and Latin American curators, artists, and critics from Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean and the United States. Prior to her time at the MFAH, Gaztambide worked at Tulane University’s Woldenberg Art Center (her alma mater — she graduated from Tulane with an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Latin American Studies and a Master of Arts in Art History), and at the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American art. Gaztambide said of her new position at UH:
“I have long admired UH’s links to our region’s diverse communities. As the UH system-wide public art collection turns 50, I look forward to spearheading its transformation into a program that will build on that legacy through strategic collection stewardship, increased public outreach and engagement and new temporary public art installations.”
Along with Gaztambide’s new role as director and chief curator, UH’s public art program will launch an ongoing Temporary Public Art Program to run during the 2018-2019 academic year. The short-term projects, which will include programming bringing in music, visual, and performing arts components, will be installed in Wilhelmina’s Grove, a courtyard area between the school’s College of the Arts buildings.