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0 Comments | Feb 05, 2020

The Art of Leadership: Richard Aste

IMG_6188“Art is empathy. When you experience a work of art, you’re seeing the world through someone else’s eyes. Now more than ever, as the world is experiencing an empathy deficit, museums have even more of a responsibility to the communities they serve.”

We’re barely a minute into our interview, but Richard Aste’s thoughts go straight to the passion that informs his life and his life’s work—the visual arts—and in particular, the sharing of that art with the world, or, more specifically, with the citizens of the city of San Antonio, his adopted home of three years. As director of The McNay Art Museum since September of 2016, it is his charge, and his privilege, to transform the museum from “an exclusive place of high art” to a community resource that simultaneously engages, enriches, and educates. Aste came to the McNay as the board’s unanimous choice to succeed retiring director Bill Chiego, who had filled the director’s role for the preceding twenty-five years. It’s been a rewarding and impactful first three years on the job, but before diving into the details of Richard’s tenure thus far, it’s important to take a moment and describe the journey that brought him to the Alamo City.

That journey began in Lima, Peru, where Richard was born. He didn’t stay long, though, emigrating to Miami before the end of his first year, a journey he describes as self-imposed exile to escape the dictatorship of Juan Alvarado. His mother and father brought the young Ricardo and his newborn brother Eduardo to the states, while an uncle moved to Houston with other family members, decisions that gave Richard strong family ties in both cities.

“I was raised in the U.S., first as a resident, and eventually as a citizen. But our family at that time lived in two cultures—Latino inside the house and Anglo outside. It was still early days for Miami’s transition to the strongly Latin influenced city that it is today. Many Anglos felt resentment at the gradual transformation of their city and they made sure we knew how they felt. I was called an illegal alien at school (we weren’t), and I recall seeing bumper stickers at the time that said things like “Will the last American to leave Miami, please take the flag with you.”

That early feeling of exclusion is a powerful motivator in Richard’s life today, both personally and professionally. The pressure to assimilate at that time was so strong that both brothers changed their names to the more Anglo Richard and Edward.

“The first time I really experienced a feeling of inclusion was during a trip to Florence at age ten. We visited the Ufizi Gallery, where I recall being especially affected by Botticelli’s Birth of Venus painting (1480). It was in that moment that I felt that the art world might become my path in life. Unfortunately I allowed myself to be talked out of it at the time.”

Richard’s parents were not college educated, but they had a vision for the two brothers, one that included a strong cultural upbringing and an education that would lead to a professional career as a doctor or attorney. His strongest subjects in school were math and history, and by the time college rolled around, he was on a path to become a psychologist or psychiatrist, based at least in part on an aptitude test he had taken that indicated a high degree of empathy. But it turned out that he, in fact, had far too much empathy, so much so that he found it difficult to avoid internalizing the psychological issues of the patients he worked with.

“And so, at age twenty-four, I sat down with my parents and told them that medicine was not going to be my path after all. I wanted more beauty in my life, and so I began taking art history courses. It was for me a genuine calling. And though my professors were brutally honest, informing me that the career options would likely be limited for someone with this sort of degree, I nevertheless pressed on with what was fast becoming my true passion. It was just bigger than me.”

As a professional art curator and now director, it seemed a natural thing to ask about his own artistic tendencies. Richard laughs, waves off the suggestion, then hesitates.

“My father painted in oils as a hobby, but it didn’t really rub off on me. He would paint on the walls of our house in what I would describe as a very abstract Franz Kline-esque way. But the closest I ever got was being pretty good at drafting in school. My brother and I would draw together and I had one high school teacher who said I had some aptitude. But there was, at that time, all that parental pressure to do medicine or law.”

Fast forward a few years, through college, graduate school, and a Ph.D. thesis on Michelangelo and art patronage during the Renaissance, and Richard found himself as curator at the Brooklyn Museum in New York. He had originally come to New York to study at Hunter College under Janet Cox-Rearick, whose book on Agnolo Bronzino had caught the young scholar’s attention.

“I wanted—really wanted—to work with her. At that time I got almost as much joy from reading about art as I did from the art itself. I read a lot of Erwin Panofsky and he talked a lot about the artists of different periods and their differing worldviews. It was just beautiful and it helped to set me on the path that has gotten me to where I am today.”

Richard arrived at the Brooklyn Museum—today a global museum leader in community impact through artistic excellence—after Director Arnold Lehman had already shifted the institution’s focus toward one of engaging with the diverse community the museum was committed to serving, co-creating artistic experiences throughout. It was a direction widely derided as populist and pandering, but the new curator had the privilege of contributing to a model every museum would soon look to as a paragon of the twenty-first century museum.

“Arnold was one of my early mentors and the transition of the Brooklyn Museum was one of the reasons I joined the team in 2010,” Richard recalls.

It was also in 2010 that Richard made his first visit to San Antonio, as curator for an exchange exhibition between the Brooklyn Museum and the McNay. He had no idea at the time that just six years later, he’d be back and taking the reins at San Antonio’s premier art museum. But as tantalizing as the opportunity was to come here and lead in the evolution of the McNay, the move from New York wasn’t without its personal costs. It meant making significant changes in a long-term relationship.

“Max and I met in the basement of our building in New York. I know: it sounds like an episode of Friends that never aired! We were cut straight from the stereotype in which New Yorkers are a lazy lot who never date beyond their own building. But we’re making the long-distance relationship thing work. Max lives in Los Angeles and is involved in children’s television, and he shares my love of visual culture. He often goes with me when I’m checking out artworks for possible acquisition by the museum. If the piece connects with Max, I know it’s going to be a home run.”

So, how is life different between the curating and directing worlds?

“At Brooklyn, I had a much narrower worldview. My professional life there was eighty percent art and twenty percent people. Here at the McNay it’s precisely the opposite. A day here is a series of meetings where I’m preaching the gospel of the McNay, talking with city leaders, partner organizations, and citizens about the impact that the museum can have on the community. It’s my first director role, and it’s been an immensely challenging and rewarding opportunity.”

And how was the transition from the Big Apple to the Alamo City?

“I’ve never received a warmer welcome any place I’ve traveled on this earth. I met with something like six hundred people in my first six months here, and I spent the vast majority of that time just listening. I was constantly being stopped and thanked for coming. People demonstrated a real faith that what I was bringing was going to make the museum, and the community, a better place. I came from a very jaded city that demands that you first prove yourself before being accepted. Here in San Antonio, people embraced our vision right away.”

Richard’s vision for the McNay has been forged by a number of influences throughout his life, starting with that feeling of exclusion that he felt growing up in Miami. But a strong later catalyst may have been an essay written for the New York Times by art critic Holland Cotter, “Toward a Museum of the Twenty First Century.” It’s a piece from 2015 in which Cotter verbally chastises the global museum community for its failure to evolve in a way that provides genuine value to the communities the museums serve. Cotter—and now Aste—regards museums as not only places of engagement and education, but, perhaps more importantly, shapers of community values, not unlike the role that churches played in our distant past. Richard is now living, and working hard to bring to life in San Antonio, Cotter’s vision for what art museums could become.

“The contribution we make is in what we show, who we represent, the stories that we tell. Those of us in museums need to take our jobs very seriously. We make a statement every time we acquire and display a piece of art. This really matters.”

Richard’s mother still lives in Miami, but she has had the opportunity to visit the McNay and to witness the work that her eldest son has undertaken.

“She actually wept the second time she came—she was very proud. Now, when I give tours, she will usually stay back for fear of becoming too emotional.”

We talked a great deal about Richard’s and the McNay’s relationship with the San Antonio community, which instantly brought us back to one of the recurring themes of his journey, the telling of stories and the shaping of community values. Rather than talk in generalities, Richard described a very specific example that’s close to his heart.

“Because the McNay was founded by a woman, we have always worked hard to represent female artists in the collection. We had, for a long time, aspired to add an Alice Neel painting to the collection. Well, one day in 2018, at an art fair in New York, we came across a 1943 painting in which a very young Puerto Rican girl is holding a white blue-eyed doll in her arms. Max’s observation at the time was ‘What a shame this young girl doesn’t see herself.’”

Indeed, after acquiring the piece and undertaking a bit of follow-up research, it turned out that psychologists around that time had been conducting experiments in which they asked children of various ages and ethnicities which type of doll they preferred to have, and overwhelmingly the children chose white dolls, regardless of their own ethnicity. And so, to help create the context for the painting, a photograph from that experimental work is displayed next to the piece along with an explanation of its significance, one that might well have been missed absent the accompanying description.

And so, what steps has Richard taken to engage the community and to attract people from the non-traditional museum-going public? A car show, for one. The exhibition, which took place last summer pairing ten classic cars with paintings from similar time periods, attracted a wide range of new attendees, including many car club members.

“Last year we also put together the first ever TransAmerica/n exhibition focused on issues of gender identity and scheduled to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of Stonewall. To prepare for the exhibition, which we knew in advance would be a groundbreaking and potentially controversial one, we held several town hall information sessions with the community to help ensure their acceptance of our goals for the show.”

At the end of January, the McNay continues breaking new ground and attracting new audiences with its first fashion-centric exhibition Fashion Nirvana: Runway to Everyday. It will run through May 17th, and promises to celebrate everything fashion “from gowns to grunge,” celebrating designers, models, and everyone else who played a role in the iconic decade of the nineties.

Reflecting back on the legacy of Marion McNay, Richard notes

“She set us up for success back in 1950 when she donated seven hundred works—Cezanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, and many others—and this beautiful home as an enduring testament of her commitment to the arts and to the people of San Antonio. Today we have almost twenty-three thousand works in our collection, but we’re able to only display about five percent of them at any one time, which is why we keep updating the displays from time to time, trying hard to tell new stories each time we do.”

When he’s not focused on the museum and its mission, Richard is an avid biker and hiker who delights in exploring the Salado Creek Greenway trail and hiking in Friedrich Park and others around town. He’s also become a serious foodie since coming to San Antonio, bemoaning as many of us do, the weight gain associated with living in such a diverse culinary city. As for his personal bucket list,

“There’s an art island in Japan called Naoshima that Max and I would love to visit. They have architecture by Tadao Ando and sculpture by someone who’s one of my all-time favorites, Yayoi Kusama.”

And the obligatory bit of personal minutia about Richard that no one knows about (until now, of course):

“I have a small tattoo on my shoulder blade of a ram’s skull. It’s an homage to Michelangelo, whose life and art inspired my graduate work.”

Following our talk, Richard guides me to where the Alice Neel painting is displayed and we talk about the community and the social impact of creating stories and shaping values through visual art. He summarizes his life to this point, and the past and future of the museum.

“The McNay has a lot of momentum and a lot of love from the community about our future. We were set up for this future in 1929 when Mrs. McNay decided to transform a goat farm outside of San Antonio, the site that would become the first modern art museum in Texas. She was committed to two guiding principals—unwavering artistic excellence and bringing that excellence to the residents of San Antonio. We continue to honor and be guided by those two principles. She believed San Antonio was a global destination for the best of modern and contemporary art. We are working hard to build on that vision.”



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