Let’s face it: museum professionals have a certain nearsightedness for the field. Don’t get me wrong, I think this intense focus on the details of our work is great. Curatorial practice, exhibition design, visitor experience — all of these things require great attention to detail, especially if your mission is to use these tools to educate people and hold space for the underserved populations in your community. But this practice of education and space-making depends on objects to ground the conversations, art and artifacts that bring to light something about our culture that should be discussed.
The art world and the museum field have a close relationship, but we don’t often hear the artist’s perspective on the collection and exhibition of their work. Artists are often politically aware, and politically active — what do they have to say about the growing trend of community-building and space-making that is happening in museums? What lessons can museums take from the world of public art?
To find out, we sat down with artist Adriana Corral to get the artist’s perspective on what museums do best, what it was like to move from grad school to the art world, and why geography is always present in her work.
AF: To start, I would love to have you describe to us what you see your work as being about.
AC: My work has always dealt with the body, whether internally or externally, even in an abstracted way. My undergrad was spent taking care of my aunt. She was an incredibly talented painter who decided to pursue medicine instead because she felt she could help more people in that way. She was incredibly critical — when I was taking anatomy or life drawing classes she would tell me when I was wrong. In such a short life she did so much, shining a light on so many people who are in the margins or invisible in a sense. Those are the things that I hold onto with a kung-fu grip, having to see something that isn’t there. It’s like being in a fog, as you make your way things start to be able to be seen. In the arts right now, the only other latina artist people can name is Frida, but we’re out there.
AF: One thing that I really notice is your attention to space. You and I both come from the same hometown, so the importance that you treat that borderland really resonates with me. How do you reconcile that attention to the specifics of a single place, even as you are creating art that is installed all over the world?
AC: I feel like growing up in El Paso and Juárez, that teaches you to be a global citizen. It teaches you about the dynamics of polar opposite political views, about commerce and trade, suppression, about borders and margins between people of the same land. I feel like all those things, these are things that “happen” globally but are acted out here. I feel very fortunate that my father was constantly teaching me about art history and world history, and I think that gave me a sense of trying to understand the distance, how something that happens over there can have a direct link back to where we are. Especially in regard to El Paso and Juárez, and immigration and border patrol, the conversation can go on and on. All those things really informed me in a way that has driven me to want to travel, want to understand. Is there something that can be learned and shared? There are things falling through the cracks. We have all these international organizations to deal with the human condition, human rights, so where is it being inflected or not? There’s something that can be learned in that.
AF: I think a lot of people really see the arts as being focused on aesthetics and the visual aspects of a piece. A lot of your work is really informed not just by a visual design or a certain aesthetic but also by hard research into the issue you want to address. How did you learn to do that research, and what does your method look like?
AC: In college and grad school I really learned to harness my resources, really diving into my artistic practice, sculpture and installation, but also law, anthropology, english, sociology, gender studies, everything. I still had a very organized sense of how I was going to maneuver, but I was still very organically led. When I first started researching the feminicidios for my artwork, I saw a specific article about the crimes and saw that the lead expert was at UT Austin where I was going to school. So I connected with him and asked if he would be willing to meet. He and other individuals were so gracious and helped make connections for me. I followed a trail of people leading me to others, and I realized we are all working towards the same goal in different ways. Law, writing, anthropology, they all revolve around the human condition, so I learned to use these resources to the fullest extent. I am always asking, how do I reassess?
AF: It sounds like an academic space was really important to you. We consider BGMB to be really academically-oriented as well. What did graduate school offer you in terms of your practice?
AC: What was so precious about grad school is that when I started making works geared towards social/political issues, it allowed me to prioritize the most important thing. It wasn’t just about making work to make money. I was able to dive into my work and develop it from a really genuine and sincere point and let it speak to me. I was very tenacious, I wanted to get out of Texas, I wanted to continue surrounding myself who had a similar drive. I was learning, and I’m still learning, how to balance that drive with the rest of your life. I felt an urgency to do residencies, which would allow me to have my own space, so I could see what next things that needed to come after this work.
AF: We talk a lot about BGMB about the importance of young people of color being able to see themselves in museums. You’re now in a position to provide that experience to a new generation of museum-goers, but can you talk some about being in museums and galleries yourself as an aspiring artist, maybe earlier in your career?
AC: Right before grad school I was in a bad car accident. I had a two-year total recovery. In undergrad I had anticipated going right to graduate school, but everything had to be put on hold. Right at the end of my recovery, my mother sent me to Austin with my sister so I could just get out of the house and my hometown. Neckbrace, wheelchair, and all, my sister took me to Austin and I met a professor at UT who said to me, “I think you should go to the Blanton Museum of Art, I think there is an exhibition there that will resonate with you.” So I went, and it was Teresita [Fernandez’s] show, a full solo show. For me, walking into this space, and seeing the name was like, wow, this is a woman of color and she has phenomenal work. It lit something inside of me in such a deep way, it was like, okay, you have to apply to grad school. You just have to move upward now. That was a really defining moment for me. I was already in such a vulnerable place, mental and physically. My priorities were just to get better. This was an awakening.
AF: What is it that you look for now when museums or private collectors are interested in your work? What kind of relationship do you have with your art after it has been “collected” in that very formal sense, and what would you ask of future collectors?
AC: For me it’s important to find collectors who are supportive and understand the work. Like with academic experts, these are lifelong relationships. It’s really been a community that helped me get here, and to be honest it’s been very difficult. Not everyone wants to purchase this kind of work, or live with it. Finding collectors is about harnessing relationships with different people, and in turn it makes me happy when these pieces can find a home where they are loved.
Featured image photo credit: Vincent Valdez. Installation photo credit: Adriana Corral.