Texit: A Conversation with María C. Gaztambide

by Jessica Fuentes June 1, 2024

In June 2023, Public Art University of Houston System (Public Art UHS) announced the departure of María Cristina Gaztambide, its Executive Director and Chief Curator. Gaztambide went on to accept the position of Executive Director of the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico (MAPR) in San Juan. Prior to her five years at Public Art UHS, Gaztambide was the Associate Director of the International Center for the Arts of the Americas (ICAA), the research arm of the Latin American art department at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH). 

Recently, I corresponded with Gaztambide via email about her nearly two-decade career in Houston and the work that she has undertaken in her first year at MAPR.

A photograph of cultural worker and curator María Cristina Gaztambide.

María Cristina Gaztambide

Jessica Fuentes (JF): You spent nearly two decades of your career in Houston. What drew you to the MFAH or Houston in particular after your time at Tulane University in New Orleans?

María Cristina Gaztambide (MCG): I trained as a Latin Americanist in graduate school and, at that time (much as it remains today), the MFAH led a very small number of U.S.-based museums in creating space for Latino and Latin American artists. l was intrigued by the possibility of transforming the field from within a mainstream art institution and had come across a position at the MFAH which I applied to on a whim, literally, the day before Hurricane Katrina. Much like everyone else in New Orleans, I was completely unprepared for the irrevocable changes precipitated by the storm. As luck would have it, the museum called months later and ultimately offered me the job. Little did I know that I would put down roots in Houston, that my two sons would be born there, and that we would call Houston home for close to two decades.

JF: What ideas did you have about Texas and the Texas art scene before you came here?

MCG: I must confess that I didn’t know much about Texas other than the quality of museums across the state and the work being done by these institutions. But upon moving to Houston in early 2006, I was quickly impressed by the vibrancy and diversity of the arts field in the state and that the institutions reflected this. 

JF: What are some of your proudest moments from your time at the MFAH and Public Art University of Houston System?

MCG: I have to say that my proudest moment at the MFAH was looking back at how our painstakingly slow work of exhibiting and documenting Latin American and Latino art literally transformed the field. It’s hard to believe now that when I started there in the early 2000s it was still necessary to confront the art historical canon, to press for increased space for our artists in the U.S. museum field, and to justify why their art production mattered. Thanks to the efforts of countless cultural workers, myself included, we now know that there is more to what we are as “Americans” than what was being told and taught to us or displayed in mainstream museums.

At the University of Houston, what I am most proud of is establishing the foundation for new ways of coming together through art while integrating underrepresented publics. Widening access to art while complicating (or even disrupting) mainstream narratives — initially through Latin American and Latinx voices, but also through the inherently community-based field of public art — has served as the backbone of all of my activities over the years.

JF: Tell me a little about your decision to leave Houston, or Texas in general.

MCG: Being from a small place, and an island at that, there are limited opportunities for advancement. Sadly, migration, movement, and displacement are all-too-common parts of the Puerto Rican experience. After having spent the better part of my life in the U.S. mainland — and the bulk of it in Houston — not in a million years did I expect to return home to live, and much less to work. However, I recognized the enormity of the opportunity to effect meaningful change on the island and to put my experience and training to the best use possible in the best possible place. And yet, the privilege of this civic duty necessitated extraordinary personal sacrifices. Needless to say, leaving Houston was especially bittersweet.

A photograph of the front of the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico.

Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico with a drawing by Alexis Díaz.

JF: What has it been like returning to Puerto Rico to live and work? I know that you have stayed connected with the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico since your time there in the 1990s, but what has changed about San Juan since you last lived there?

MCG: I left Puerto Rico for New Orleans when I was 17. Training, work, and life took me across a variety of places around the world. While I stayed current with news from home, I only returned for short periods of time during all those years away. Although Puerto Rico has obviously changed quite a bit in the years that I have been away, especially since 2014 — with a collapsed government, Hurricane Maria, earthquakes, and COVID — nowhere is the expression “the more things change, the more they remain the same” truer than here. In all the ways that really matter, I’ve come back to a place that is abuzz with warmth, beauty, and creativity. I’m home. 

JF: What were your top priorities when you began your role as Executive Director of the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico? How did you decide what to prioritize, and what is the status of those projects?

MCG: I’ve been at the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico (MAPR) since 2023. A lot of my priorities this first year have centered on housekeeping. It’s been hard to prioritize when so much needed to get done after the MAPR — along with the entire cultural ecosystem in Puerto Rico — came to a crashing halt in September 2017 with Hurricane Maria. As we turn the corner on a steady stream of disasters that also included debilitating earthquakes (2020) and COVID, my team and I have worked through a number of important projects. 

Some of what we’re presently immersed in includes: reducing organizational inefficiencies, restructuring operations and building up staff levels, investing in diversity and expertise of staff, more clearly defining lines of work and the focus of public-facing divisions, including our Center for Innovation in Education (educational and public programs for school and general audiences), curatorial department, and the newly-relaunched Creative Community Development Center (capacity-building programs and engagement of artists and/or professionals in the creative economy), actively working to secure new support from mainland-based donors, etc.

A photograph of María Cristina Gaztambide engaging with visitors at the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico.

María Cristina Gaztambide, artist Pepón Osorio, and curator Juan Carlos Lopez Quintero engage with visitors at the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico.

JF: What has been most challenging in your first year? 

MCG: Undoubtedly the greatest challenge has been trying to drive change with such a small staff team while facing significant financial constraints.

JF: What has been most rewarding?

MCG: Establishing the conditions for a team of dedicated area heads to truly thrive in a challenging environment. When I joined the museum, it had an existing strategic plan in place that, in my opinion, was out of touch with its hard facts (not enough people, resources, way too ambitious, etc.). I am currently working with our leadership team and the Board to refresh our strategic plan and, in the process, gain more clarity about what we are and where we stand as an institution. We’ve opened up the process to a broad range of participants across the staff and this aperture has resulted in stronger cohesion among the ENTIRE team.

JF: Can you share the new strategic goals?

MCG: They are:

  • Opening up to the community. 
    • MAPR will ultimately only be able to achieve its mission if it becomes an outward-facing museum, focused on serving the entire community. This will require analysis of the communities we serve and development of the appropriate education and outreach programming to engage those who have not traditionally engaged with us.
  • Becoming a sustainable organization.
    • MAPR must achieve sustainability with respect to financial performance and energy independence. The entire organization will strive to place renewed focus on ecology and nature.
  • Embracing the new through a focus on experimentation, innovation, and collaboration.
    • MAPR must be known for its never-ending pursuit of excellence. This will require experimenting with new ways of educating, new ways of displaying art, new ways of engaging the community, and new ways of working. MAPR will not have expertise in every area and will need to collaborate with other institutions to reach this goal.
  • Internationalizing the Museo by building visibility and programming off Puerto Rico.
    • As the premier museum of Puerto Rican art in the world, MAPR must play a major role on the world stage. This will allow the organization to achieve its mission and will attract resources needed to maintain excellence.

Needless to say, we’re working on departmental goals reflecting the institution’s overarching ambition.

JF: Is there anything more you can share about your upcoming projects with the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico?

MCG: As mentioned, we’ve just recently relaunched the museum’s Creative Community Development Center [or Centro de Desarrollo para la Comunidad Creativa (CEDE)]. The center seeks to support, activate, engage, and inspire the artistic production and lives of emerging and established creatives. We contribute to their long-term well-being and sustainability by co-creating meaningful experiences that support careers through innovative capacity-development programming, mentorship, peer-to-peer learning, human-centered leadership, and intergenerational, equitable, and accessible opportunities. 

CEDE also manages an emergency artist fund that provides financial support to assist those who are facing unforeseen threatening emergencies (health, natural catastrophes, housing needs, etc.) as means to support the well-being of visual artists. Through an ongoing dialogue with the community, the museum identifies and supports artists with special needs and provides fixed $500 micro-grants.

We’re also in the midst of planning and staging an ambitious roster of exhibitions highlighting work created along multiple spaces of Puerto Rican culture — whether here on the island or on the mainland — by a variety of artists and projects ranging from an exhibition of the work of eighteenth-century master José Campeche y Jordán to a site-specific outdoor project by the Kalamazoo-based Nayda Collazo-Lloréns, which is part of a series of projects titled Homeward Bound, focusing on mid-career and established Puerto Rican artists working abroad.

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