Virginia Fields dies at 58; scholar of early Mesoamerican art, archaeology at LACMA
Virginia M. Fields, a leading scholar of early Mesoamerican art and archaeology who joined the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s curatorial staff in 1989 and devoted 22 years to making the museum a vital center of Latin American culture — partly by organizing major exhibitions such as last year’s “Olmec: Colossal Masterworks of Ancient Mexico” — has died. She was 58.
Fields, who had suffered from diabetes since her youth, died Wednesday night of long-term complications from the disease in a hotel in Mexico City. She had traveled there with her husband, photographer and filmmaker David Miller, to attend a professional conference and finalize plans for an upcoming exhibition, LACMA Director Michael Govan said.
“Virginia had very big ideas,” said Govan, who took charge of the museum in 2006. “She accomplished so much, but she had so much more to do. When I came to LACMA, it was pretty clear that our biggest opportunity to stand out was to build on existing resources. In the case of Latin American art, we had a strong geographic position, extraordinary collections and Virginia.”
On Govan’s watch, Fields landed a rare collection of Colombian ceramics, among many other valuable acquisitions. She also worked with artist Jorge Pardo on a strikingly contemporary installation of ancient Latin American objects and organized “Lords of Creation: The Origins of Sacred Maya Kingship,” an exhibition accompanied by a catalog that won the Assn. for Latin American Art’s 2007 book award. The Olmec show inaugurated the museum’s Resnick Pavilion with massive portrait heads and smaller sculptures produced by Mexico’s earliest civilization.
The museum’s holding of ancient American art grew from about 700 pieces to more than 3,000 objects during Fields’ tenure. Her legacy will also include “Children of the Plumed Serpent: The Legacy of Quetzalcoatl in Ancient Mexico,” a traveling exhibition opening at LACMA next April, and a planned research center that’s expected to develop the premier digital resource for the study of the ancient Americas.
“Her work here was intended to be larger than collecting and exhibitions,” Govan said. “It was also about the sharing of ideas, a real effort toward education and scholarship. That was her spirit.”
Fields’ longtime colleagues praised her as an inspiring, forward-thinking force with a talent for bringing scholars together in collaborative projects.
“She cared deeply about disseminating Mesoamerican culture to a wider audience,” said Karl Taube, a professor of anthropology at UC Riverside who contributed to the catalog of “The Road to Aztlan: Art from a Mythic Homeland,” a 2001-02 exhibition organized by Fields and Mexican scholar Victor Zamudio-Taylor.
“Her exhibitions were very important to the Los Angeles area,” Taube said. “The public only sees the final result, not the incredible amount of work that goes into obtaining the funding, securing permissions [to borrow artworks] from governments and institutions, transporting the objects and setting up the exhibits. She was the kind of person who could actually pull it off.”
Joanne Pillsbury, director of pre-Columbian studies at Dumbarton Oaks, a research institute of Harvard University in Washington, D.C., where Fields served on the advisory board, portrayed her as a soft-spoken person with “herculean energy and powers of persuasion.”
“She did so much to make us understand that the traditions of the ancient Americas are central to life in the United States now,” Pillsbury said. “In Spanish there’s a phrase about someone who walks well between cultures. She was someone who could do that. She touched the lives of hundreds of thousands of people through her exhibitions and publications.”
Fields, who called herself a Connecticut Yankee, was born Virginia Mary Monk in 1952 in Manchester, Conn., the second of eight children in an Irish Catholic family that moved to Denville, N.J., when she was in high school. After a year of study at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, she transferred to the University of San Francisco and then to San Francisco State, where she received a master’s degree in anthropology and archaeology in 1982. She studied with Maya scholar Linda Schele at the University of Texas at Austin, which granted her a doctorate in Latin American studies in 1989.
Her first marriage, to actor Michael Fields, ended in divorce. She met David Miller, her second husband, in 1989 while preparing a LACMA blockbuster, “Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries.”
Fields began her museum work as curator of a Native American collection at the Clarke Historical Museum in Eureka, Calif., from 1984 to 1987, and taught pre-Columbian and Native American art history at UC Santa Barbara, UCLA, Humboldt State and Cal State Northridge. She arrived at LACMA as the museum’s first curator of pre-Columbian art; in her final position she was senior curator of art of the ancient Americas.
Nancy Thomas, the museum’s deputy director who was instrumental in hiring Fields, described her as a perpetually lively scholar who was “a master at bringing new information to her exhibitions and other projects.”
In a 2007 interview published in Bomb magazine, Fields said anthropology appealed to her “because it was a marvelous, eye-opening experience; I was learning about so many different people around the world and all the different ways they had of living in the world. But this great stuff that anthropologists, archaeologists and historians have discovered is usually not accessible to the general public. The museum is the way to make that accessible.”
In addition to her husband, Fields is survived by her mother, Virginia Monk of New Jersey; brothers Joseph, Timothy and Michael Monk of New Jersey and John Monk of Georgia; and sisters Anne Marie Monk of Massachusetts and Mary Debatte of Pennsylvania.
Plans for a memorial service are pending.
Muchnic is a former Times staff writer.