More than 15 years ago, local Chicano artist and poet Dougie Padilla talked with then-director of the Minneapolis Institute of Art, Evan Maurer, about hiring a curator of Latin American art.
Padilla pointed out "towns like Denver are so far ahead of us in terms of [Latino] contemporary art… Austin is way ahead of us, and naturally places like Los Angeles," he told the Star Tribune in 2021.
But in recent years, visibility has started to change for artists who are Latino, Latina and Latinx, a gender-neutral term that many in the visual art community prefer.
In December, Mia hired its first Latin American Art curator, Valéria Piccoli from the Pinacoteca de São Paulo in Brazil, where she was chief curator. A year before that, the Weisman Art Museum hired Alejandra Peña-Gutiérrez, a Mexico-born curator who was executive director at the Museo de Arte de Ponce in Puerto Rico.
In February, Leslie Ureña joined Mia as associate curator in the department of Global Contemporary Art. In May, the Walker Art Center hired Argentina-born contemporary art curator Rosario Güiraldes from the Drawing Center in New York. Around the same time, Afton Press released the book "Latin Art in Minnesota: Conversations and What's Next," edited by William G. Franklin, with photographs by Nicole Neri and Andy Richter.
Outside of the museum world and in the local community, Minnesota-based Latinx visual art collective Serpentina Arts became more public facing.
"One of the issues that we experienced here in the Twin Cities is not just a racial or ethnic stigmatization, but also a regional stigmatization," said Jessica Lopez Lyman, artist, assistant professor in the Department of Chicano and Latino Studies at the University of Minnesota and Serpentina board chair. "You're not only just a Latinx artist or black Latinx artist or Indigenous artist or gender non-conforming Latinx artist, but you're also a Midwest artist and not a Chicago or Detroit artist. You're a Minnesota Latinx artist, and that is a barrier for a lot of people because outside of the Twin Cities, the nation doesn't understand that Minnesota is the number one place for arts funding."
The Latino population makes up 9.8% of Minneapolis and 8.7% percent of St. Paul, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Serpentina Arts purposefully kept a low profile, meeting privately for three years to work with interested artists on bilingual creative and professional development in Spanish and English.
In late 2022, it started to host pop-up art events and exhibitions and its social media presence grew.
The group now has a leadership council of 10 Minnesota-based visual artists and 168 artists of various cultural backgrounds on its roster.
Serpentina Arts Director María Cristina Tavera, who is also a 2023 U.S. Latinx Artist Fellow, and the first from Minnesota, stressed that, "Latin American, [which is] Mexico/Central & South America/Caribbean, is different than Latinx, [which means] of Latin American descent residing in the U.S. or Puerto Rico.
"There is also no gallery representation for Latinx visual artists in Minnesota," she added.
Artist and graphic designer María José Castillo, originally from Montería, Colombia, is on the leadership council and designs social media content. Castillo works alongside Luis Fitch of UNO Branding, which specializes in multicultural, Latino, Hispanic and Latinx branding and creative designs.
"There's always a need to create spaces where the professional development of Latinx artists is nourished and encouraged," Castillo said. "We indeed are a minority in this state."
At the Minneapolis Institute of Art, Piccoli is unearthing Latin American art from the museum's permanent collection. She discovered gems such as prints by Mexican Modernist José Clemente Orozco, Brazilian printmaker Arthur Luiz Piza, and pictures by Peruvian Indigenous photographer Martín Chambi, among others.
Some of these works will be on view at Mia's Gallery 255 starting Sept. 16.
She's also actively acquiring works for the collection, including Afro Brazilian artist Rubem Valentim and Venezuelan artist Elsa Gramcko, and beginning to explore more ambitious projects and reaching out to Latin American institutions about potential collaborations.
"It's good that the museum committed to building a collection and building a program to Latin American art," Piccoli said. "In time, I'm sure we will have a collection and a program that will be as strong as the other museums in the U.S."
New Walker Art Center curator Güiraldes, who is originally from Argentina, thinks of herself as a contemporary art person.
"I always think that curators and institutions are like cultural gatekeepers of sorts," she said. "I think I take responsibility in that role, when you're in a role where you really have the ability to kind of visualize a practice and write someone into a history, and contextualize their work. I think that that's where kind of your own personal politics come in."
Lyman is optimistic about the future because of all the new curators and directors of Latin American art in the Twin Cities, and she also acknowledged smaller community run centers like Electric Machete Studios.
"One reason I am hopeful is because of the positions institutionally, and because Minnesota State Representative María Isa Pérez-Vega [DFL-St. Paul] is in office and one of the main things that she ran on her platform as an artist, rapper and musician was to uplift the arts," Lyman said. "We have never had a state-funded Latinx cultural and arts center in Minnesota, and I am hopeful that we will be getting one, and I would guess in the next five to 10 years."