"I have to admit that I'm enjoying the shock value of this," says Venezuelan collector Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, walking into a display of 20 Spanish colonial objects at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "People know our collection of modern geometric abstraction from Latin America. No one associates us at all with Spanish colonial art. These are things we live with. But it's all about beauty and appreciation of our heritage."
The selection of 17th- and 18th-century paintings, furniture, silver works and carved ivories is the first long-term loan to a U.S. museum of Spanish colonial works from the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, a collection of Latin American art based in New York and Caracas, Venezuela. Recently unveiled as a complement to LACMA's "The Arts in Latin America, 1492-1820," the loan will remain at the museum along with three Cisneros objects in the big show -- a mahogany chest of drawers from Cuba, a leather-over-wood trunk from Peru and a mother-of-pearl and painted wood sewing box from Peru or the Philippines.
"Technically, it's a 10-year loan," Cisneros says, "but we'll see how things develop and what Michael would like. He knows that our collections are at his disposal for his dream."
Michael, of course, is Michael Govan, who took charge of LACMA less than a year and a half ago. As director of a museum that's undergoing a sweeping transformation, he has many dreams. The one that has captured Cisneros' attention is the notion of using art from Latin America and Asia, as well as Europe, as a framework for art history.
The first big step in that direction will convert the modern and contemporary art wing, formerly known as the Anderson Building, into the Art of the Americas Building, with galleries for art from North, Central and South America. But with strengths in pre-Columbian and modern Mexican material -- and little in between -- LACMA has a big gap to fill. That's where Cisneros comes in. The new installation will have a space for Spanish colonial art featuring the loans and a few pieces recently acquired by the museum.
Although Cisneros hadn't met or spoken with Govan until her recent trip to Los Angeles, she had heard about his plans from mutual friends and her curator, Jorge Rivas, and had followed developments at LACMA in the news. Ilona Katzew, LACMA's curator of Latin American art, told Rivas about her efforts to fill gaps in the collection during a casual conversation at a professional meeting. He suggested the loan and presented the idea to Cisneros, who gave her blessing. The two curators chose the objects on view.
"We felt that this collection was going to get much more visibility and scholarship and good will here than it would at home," Cisneros says, pointing out a silver chandelier that used to hang in her bedroom. Then she moves on, stopping here and there to comment on iconography, materials and craftsmanship.
"This bit of whimsy is very rare," she says of a painting attributed to 18th-century Mexican artist Miguel Cabrera. It depicts the Virgin Mary not as an adult with the Christ Child but as a baby with her father. Dressed in white, Mary has a red ribbon around her head, with a tiny bow on her forehead. Her father, St. Joaquin, wears an elegant fur-trimmed cape -- and a frumpy brown hat.
Another odd couple turns up in a Venezuelan tabernacle depicting two saints, Antonio and Barbara, with Christ crucified. "This is a family altar," Cisneros says of the heirloom. "We think the people who commissioned it might have been named Antonio and Barbara because it's the only instance we know that they are together."
An Ecuadorean painting depicts the traditional Virgin and Christ Child, but Cisneros notes that the image is almost abstract when compared to its original, ornately carved frame.
It's all fascinating to Cisneros, but she's particularly proud of pieces from her homeland. "This is one of Venezuela's great contributions to the world," she says, nearing a lineup of upholstered wood chairs. The most imposing, "St. Peter's Throne," is a ceremonial piece made for a church.
But what she wants to talk about is the butacas, or easy chairs. The low-to-the-ground seats with slanted backs were invented by indigenous people and adapted by Europeans who eventually brought them out of their back rooms into parlors as they adopted a more relaxed lifestyle. "For the time," she says, "this was avant-garde furniture."
ENERGETIC and unpretentious, Cisneros is known to one and all as Patty. The great-granddaughter of William H. Phelps -- a New York ornithologist who classified the birds of Venezuela, moved to Caracas and made a fortune importing American products -- Cisneros was educated in the United States and is thoroughly bicultural. Her husband, Gustavo A. Cisneros, has parlayed his family's Caracas-based business into an international telecommunications, media and entertainment conglomerate. The art collection is part of a family foundation dedicated to improving the lives of Latin Americans and increasing international awareness of Latin America's contributions to world culture.
Having grown up with Spanish colonial art, Patty and Gustavo began collecting Latin American abstraction after their marriage, in 1970.
"Venezuela was one of the great centers of Modernism in the world," she says. "We were surrounded with this aesthetic. There's a stereotype of Latin American art, but it's not all figurative and tearing your hair out. There's a sophistication of thought process, a search for a utopian order. We began buying abstract pieces by Jesús Rafael Soto and other artists, and it just evolved from there. About 20 or 25 years ago I got a call from a writer at an art magazine who wanted to hear about our collection. We hadn't thought of it as a collection, but then it became a responsibility."
That led to a more systematic approach to building a collection that encompasses all of Latin America. Over the years, it has grown to more than 2,000 pieces, including about 200 Spanish colonial objects. In addition, the couple have amassed a vast holding of ethnographic material from the Amazon. They also have been active lenders. About 300 works from the art collection were shown at various institutions last year. "The Geometry of Hope," an exhibition of Latin American abstraction, opened at the University of Houston's Blanton Museum of Art in the spring and will be at New York University's Grey Art Gallery this fall.
In light of heightened attention to issues of cultural patrimony, Cisneros' activities might be expected to raise questions in Venezuela. But she says she has experienced no problems because she collects art from many countries to preserve it and make it accessible to the public.
Cisneros' association with LACMA is brand new, but she has been affiliated with New York's Museum of Modern Art for a couple of decades.
"Patty is a dream trustee," MoMA Director Glenn Lowry says by telephone. "She and Gustavo were major contributors to our capital campaign, and they have consistently acquired important works of art for the museum whether they are from Latin America or Asia or elsewhere. But the part I have enjoyed the most is that Patty really opened my eyes to the possibilities of Latin American art."
She chairs a Latin American collectors group, provides travel funds for curators to go to Latin America and supports the library's collection of books on Latin American art.
"She has been a catalytic force in issues of Latin American Art," he says. "And she is a lot of fun."
In Los Angeles, Cisneros uses the "fun" word to describe her experience of exhibiting a relatively little known part of her collection. But she takes her mission seriously.
"We want to do everything we can to share and shake up the world a bit and say, 'We are here and we're great,' " she says. "The big exhibition here, at this great museum, gives our culture the status that it certainly deserves."