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Cultural Diplomacy: DC’s Art Museum of the Americas

By Mary Jeffers

At the edge of the National Mall, hardly more than a stone’s throw from the Department of State, is the Art Museum of the Americas, one of the world’s leading collections of modern and contemporary art from the Western Hemisphere.

The Art Museum of the Americas (AMA) forms part of the Organization of American States (OAS), and is an increasingly important public diplomacy tool in furthering the OAS’s goal of promoting democracy, peace, justice, and solidarity among its 35 member countries – one of which, of course, is the United States.

Not only does the AMA hold a fantastic collection, it is housed in a jewel of a building, and regularly hosts art openings, receptions, concerts, lectures and other events – thanks in part to the private non-profit “Friends of the AMA,” the other half of a vigorous public-private partnership dating back to the 1970’s.

PDAA members with an interest in Western Hemisphere affairs and/or cultural diplomacy will be intrigued by this unique art museum, and even more so by the fascinating history of the museum’s collection and how it came into being. 


Painting titled “Heroes and Artists Come to the Pan American Union to be Consecrated, 1962” by Nicaraguan artist Asilia Guillen, at the Art Museum of the Americas

A Brief History

As early as the 1930’s, the Pan American Union (precursor to the OAS) took on an active role as “promotional epicenter” for Latin American art under the leadership of Concha Romero James, director of its Division of Intellectual Cooperation. Romero’s unit embarked on long-term projects such as creating an archive of art documents and initiating a temporary exhibitions program.

From the late 1940’s, Cuban-born art criticJosé Gómez Sicre took over as chief of the OAS Visual Arts Unit and played a key role in building up the collection over many decades. He invited an array of young Latin American artists to host exhibitions at the OAS, many of whom went on to well-known careers throughout the region.  Cundo Bermúdez (Cuba), Jorge de la Vega (Argentina), Alejandro Obregón (Colombia), and Agustín Fernández (Cuba) are among the well-known artists who had their first solo exhibitions in the Gallery of the Pan-American Union, now the OAS. At a time when women artists faced widespread discrimination, Gómez Sicre regularly promoted them too, organizing exhibitions for, among many others: Raquel Forner (1957), Elsa Gramcko (1959), Olga Albizu (1965), and Tomie Ohtake (1968)

Starting in 1957, the OAS provided funding for the purchase of artworks, strengthening the institution’s catalytic role in the development of Latin American artists. Many of the works in the AMA’s core collection were acquired directly from artists whose first international exhibitions were organized by Gómez Sicre in Washington, DC.

For decades, José Gómez Sicre worked towards establishment, within the OAS, of a museum of Latin American and Caribbean Art, and was named the Art Museum of the Americas’ first director at its official launch in 1976. Today the AMA collection has more than two thousand works complementing and documenting its regional focus.

Catalog Project

In the 21st Century, AMA director Pablo Zúñiga and collection curator Adriana Ospina have sought to bring the AMA collection and resources to wider audiences, promoting cultural exchange to advance the OAS four pillars of democracy, human rights, multidimensional security, and integral development.  

A key element of this revitalization has been a major, 5-year project to update the catalog of the permanent collection and digitize it.

“The Latin American art field has grown so much,” Ospina noted in a recent interview with the Washington Diplomat. “There are programs teaching Latin American art history all over the world, all over the country. Our archives are getting more popular.”  Ospina gathered a group of curators and scholars who were familiar with the permanent collection to tackle the project. She created a voting system among the group to select the pieces that would be included, and then the participants chose particular works to research and write about.

The result is an astonishingly beautiful and informative work of almost 300 pages, with over 100 full-page, full-color reproductions of the selected works, detailed descriptions in both English and Spanish, and an extraordinary introductory essay that frames and contextualizes the AMA collection both historically and in the art world today. 

For example, U.S. diplomats are familiar with the role of art in our own country’s Cold War public diplomacy, including controversies around abstract vs. representational works and covert funding of specific art initiatives. It should come as no surprise, then, that global Cold War politics affected artists from Latin America and their sponsors, including the Pan American Union/OAS, which was in turn influenced by U.S. Government imperatives. 

The emergence of Cold War studies in the past two decades has revived interest in the role of the OAS in Western Hemispheric art movements and ideologies of the era.  As the catalog notes:  

“Revisionist accounts of postwar American art…have elaborated on the co-optation of the New York School…as an insignia of the U.S.-led ‘free world’ and its cultural, no less than its ideological, authority. The implications of this scholarship have reverberated in the emerging field of Latin American art history…and its critique of modernism’s entrenched Euro- and North-American bias.  The cultural phenomenon of the Cold War endures in AMA’s permanent collection, evidenced particularly well in its cache of work by José Luis Cuevas and of neo-figuration in general.”

Similarly, a resurgence of interest in “geometric abstraction” in Latin American painting, as well as a burgeoning art market for works by Cuban artists in the wake of openings between the U.S. and Cuba, also lead directly to strengths of the AMA’s core collection in ways that the new catalog addresses with both comprehensive scholarship and fascinating details.

In fall of 2018, the AMA unveiled an interactive, online version of the catalog,  conceived and designed as a tool for expanded OAS public diplomacy.  The web module, from its overall design as a searchable site with metadata, to the incorporation of images with zooming capabilities and hyper-resolution digital photography of core artworks of the collection, includes documentation “to broadcast beyond gallery walls, continuing the conversation.”

You can read more, and take a visual tour of the beautiful building and many of the works, via the online catalog here.

Or, the next time you visit the Department, why not take a few extra hours and pay a visit to the Art Museum of the Americas?  It’s located at 201 18th Street, NW, and the hours are 10am-5pm, Tuesday through Sunday. 

Author Mary Jeffers has kept up with the OAS over the years via Jane Thery, who is not only a friend from college but also currently the Acting Director of the OAS’s Department of Strategic Initiatives and Public Diplomacy. Mary is the new PDAA Treasurer, succeeding Jim Bullock.