Merle Schipper


[1] [2]

(1) MOCA curator Alma Ruiz
(2) Roseangela Renno, "Siamese Twins", gelatin/silver print/plexiglass plate/4 curved bolts with nuts, 110 x 50 cm, 1991.

The name Alma Ruiz may not ring a bell for everyone, even if mentioned in association with MOCA, where she tends to stay out of the limelight despite the magnitude of her job, or more correctly, the multitude of jobs it encompasses. I suspect that without her presence both MOCA buildings might just fall down.

Indeed, although small in stature, Ruiz is a demon for work, her energy unabating. Quiet in demeanor but warm and engaging on encounter, besides her role as Exhibitions Coordinator, the position she has held since 1989, Ruiz has now added to her responsibilities the title of Project Director of the recently inaugurated Latin American Art Research and Exhibition Program. That enterprise, now joined by museum partners New York's MOMA and the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC), is the fulfillment of a dream that has been floating around in her head for a considerable length of time.

Born and raised in Guatemala City, Ruiz had little exposure to art of any kind while growing up, but her devotion to the study of history, especially that of ancient times, led to an interest in Greek and Roman art as well as medieval frescoes. At age 19 she joined her mother and brother, who had moved to this city, and enrolled at Los Angeles City College. From there, where her chief interests were cultural history, international relations and languages, she transferred to USC as an art history major. With only a small scholarship to help offset costs, she supported herself by working until her graduation in 1979.

Modern art was among Ruiz's undergraduate studies, but a special interest in Italian Baroque art underlay a decision to enter the Italian School at Middlebury College and attend the Universita di Firenze--the opportunity to study among masterpieces was too compelling to resist. She earned her M.A. there in Italian Language and Literature. Following that, Ruiz remained in Florence as assistant to the director of the Italian School until 1982, when she returned to Los Angeles, and was hired at MOCA the following year.

Starting out as executive assistant to Director Richard Koshalek, Ruiz brought a decidedly rich background to the museum. Before long she became coordinator of touring exhibitions, supervising shows both originated by MOCA and those in which it participates. She still handles those duties within her present job. Her role in that capacity includes setting up tours, negotiating contracts, supervising exhibitions, and even setting departmental budgets.

A few projects dependent on her efforts in this capacity were the John Baldessari, Robert Irwin and Louis Kahn retrospectives, Rolywhollyover: A Circus (John Cage) and Urban Revisions, as well as the very recent Sigmar Polke: Photoworks, all initiated by MOCA. Hand-Painted Pop was among numerous tours organized at other institutions. Upcoming under her supervision are solos of Jeff Wall in 1997, Charles Ray, Richard Serra, Cindy Sherman and Sam Francis in 1998 (Whew!), and in 1999, Barbara Kruger. Right now she is overseeing preparations for the Ed Moses retrospective, opening this coming April.

On top of all that Ruiz has served as curator for many shows during the '90s, not only in an assistant capacity, as for Helter Skelter, Ad Reinhardt, and Women's Work, but as sole curator for presentations of May Sun and Piero Manzoni, as well as exhibitions drawn from the permanent collection. In the latter instances, she tends to focus on younger and less well known artists.

Only a couple of years have gone by since Ruiz first suggested the need for bringing more attention to Latin American artists, that term including South as well as Central American artists, to MOCA Director Koshalek. It led to continuing informal conversations between the two before plans were actually set down. Eventually, and ultimately bringing the two other museums into the picture, the Latin American project became a reality.

The project embodies three components, beginning with research as a continuing aspect, but initially focused on Mexico and three other countries. That exercise will provide a model for future endeavors. Research, with Ruiz at the helm, will also engage AIC's Madeleine Grynstein and MOCA's Lilian Tone, along with two still unnamed Latin American curators. This group will fill out the team for the first three years.

The second component, Information Dissemination, will be undertaken through a battery of publications, symposia and lecture series--not to mention the potential to be explored by tapping into the Net. "For this program," Ruiz points out, "a lot of research is going to be done and one of the things we need to think about is how to disseminate that information to make our research available for free to a large number of museums in the U.S." How that will be achieved is still being studied.

The third component, designated Exhibitions and Permanent Collection, is the realization of the project's initial goal. Within its parameters, each institution will use research findings to organize exhibitions that are compatible with existing presentations. Thus solos of Latin American artists at MOCA will be part of its ongoing Focus Series. The first of these will be presented in September of this year.

Curated by Ruiz, the show will feature the work of Brazilian artist Rosangela Renno. Typical of Renno's work is the use of negatives discarded by street photographers, such things as I.D pictures of ordinary people, particularly female images. The upcoming show, titled Cicatrix, the Spanish word for scar, however, will be drawn from a medical archive she discovered in a Brazilian prison, containing photographs of prisoners' tattoos made beginning in the 1920s and somehow left lying about in the prison. Crudely made, the tattoos were the work of the prisoners themselves.

Renno, born in 1962, has had several solos in Brazil, and was featured at the 1992 Sao Paulo Bienal. Her 1994 group shows include exhibitions in Berlin, Madrid and Havana, and in 1995 Amsterdam's Appel Foundation. Upcoming are shows in Frankfurt and Copenhagen.
In this country, Renno's work appeared in Ultramodern: The Art of Contemporary Brazil, at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in 1992, and in the same year, Space of Time: Contemporary Art from the Americas, at the Americas Society, New York. Discovering her work at the latter exhibition, Ruiz was convinced the artist merited museum attention in a solo show. Consequently, she selected Renno for the first show on the new program.

Ruiz explains, "Initially, we are dealing with this program in a separate manner but the idea is to integrate these artists into the regular schedule without separating them by ethnicity. We are doing that with Rosangela, and we are not putting a lot of emphasis on the fact that she is from Latin America. More Latin American artists are going to show up in the museum schedule, but they will be presented in the same way we show American or European artists. They will be integrated into the program. I think that we just want to make sure their presence is more frequent. And when I talk about Latin-American artists, I feel that the Latino artists here should be a part of it. That needs to be worked out and we're going to find a way to do it. I think it is important to show those artists in the museum, not just because the museum is downtown, but because it is in Los Angeles. We are a major city and there are many Latino artists here who are doing great work."

Even now, for that matter, Curator Julie Lazar is working on a David Avalos/Deborah Small exhibition, and a show featuring Jorge Pardo is being planned. Along with the solos in the Focus Series, group shows will include Latin American artists. Two planned exhibitions to be coordinated by Ruiz are Out of Actions: Performance and the Object (1998), which will examine the impact of performance, action, and process on art movements from the mid-'40s to the '70s, and End of the Century (1999), tracing the evolution of architecture in its relation to society over the past hundred years.

These exhibitions will be truly international, comparing and contrasting art in different world regions, rather than falsely "ghettoizing" a particular country's artistic output according to the Prospectus on the Latin American Art Research and Exhibition Program. The document also points out that the museum plans to increase the representation of Latin American artists in the permanent collection, in keeping with its mission to collect contemporary art of international significance.
It is expected that more institutions located in this country will join in the program, to participate, as the Prospectus notes, in a "larger" dialogue that will benefit ongoing cultural understanding and address the social, political and cultural realities of Latin America. For Los Angeles, it's inception underscores MOCA's commitment to and involvement with its people, benefitting audiences of adults and children alike in new and highly significant ways.

For Ruiz, who looks forward to the program's raising the level of consciousness in this community, adding such sizeable new responsibilities to her schedule doesn't appear to be a problem, although she admits that finding the time is difficult. Eventually, although it will encompass projects that are part of her ongoing schedule, its increasing demands will undoubtedly require her to relegate some duties to another staff member. Time spent in finding artists will also make demands, since, as Ruiz points out, Latin America lacks the infrastructure that other countries have, and few publications emanate from them. Thus she is dependent on a network--dialogue with people who travel to those countries and finding contacts resident there. For sure though, the energy of this diminuative dynamo will continue undiminished!