Richard Aste

Director, McNay Art Museum

Last August, the McNay Art Museum appointed Dr. Richard Aste to serve as its new director, only the third person to hold that title since the museum opened in 1954.

Born in Lima, Peru, Aste grew up in Miami and developed an interest in the visual arts early on thanks to trips to Europe and Latin America. Though his first college degree was in psychology, he eventually switched to art history, earning both a master’s and a Ph.D. in this discipline, the latter from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His curatorial experience includes several years as the associate curator of European art at the Museo de Arte de Ponce in Puerto Rico, followed by six years at the Brooklyn Museum in New York, where he first worked as curator of European art and later became the managing curator for the arts of the Americas and Europe. In his curatorial work, Aste has strived to show the historical connections between the arts of different countries and continents.

In addition to his professional expertise, what appealed to the McNay’s board was Aste’s culturally varied background, his international perspective and successful community outreach initiatives.

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The Brooklyn Museum is an old, established institution with an enormous art collection. Why did you leave to take the McNay job?
Three reasons: 1) You are a minority-majority city, and that is the future of our country. 2) The McNay’s collection. I have known about this collection since I was a graduate student at Hunter College studying Cubism and looking at the works of Picasso – the McNay represents him beautifully. That encouraged me to explore the rest of the collection, and I realized the quality and the commitment to excellence of this museum is consistent throughout. It is a leader in artistic excellence. 3) My predecessor, Bill Chiego, whom I met in 2010 when we worked (on an exhibit) together. He received me with such warmth and enthusiasm for the McNay that it was contagious. I left with that enthusiasm for the collection, the beautiful grounds and the facilities. So those were my three Cs – community, collection and (then) current leadership. I knew that following Chiego’s leadership would be seamless because he and I speak the same language.

One reason you were hired is the museum’s desire to reach people throughout the community. How will you strengthen outreach?
It’s about providing points of entry. A point of entry may be the language that appears on our labels and panels or the language we use online and on social media. That language should take into account every San Antonian. We need to speak with no assumptions. We should not assume that everyone who comes here has been to a museum before or knows anything about art or art history, and we don’t assume that our visitors feel safe in their lives. So we remind them that this is a safe place. These are challenging times that we live in. Some of our visitors may not even feel safe in their schools or the playground. This is a safe place to be inspired, to dream, to grow and even to question.

We will be investing in social media to reach more people. We want to let them know that museums are becoming less and less temples of art and more community centers. The core of what we do is engage with our visitors through the visual arts, but while you are here, you can also experience our great programming and education. Also, every time we have a social event — for example our free events on second Thursdays of every month — we activate the outdoor grounds, but at the same time we give tours of the collection. Someone may come here for the music or the food truck, but then they are here. That’s the biggest challenge — bringing them here, and it presents opportunities to introduce them to the museum… We are also sensitive to price as a barrier to the arts. That’s why we now have free access for everyone younger than 19. There’s a critical moment in your development to connect with the arts. If it happens early in life, it will forever change your relationship with art and art museums.

How did you discover art?
My father pursued painting as a hobby, and my mother was a culture vulture. She was focused on educating my brother and me in world culture. Both parents worked in the airline industry, and one of the privileges was free travel. So every summer we were taken to a different country, and in every city we took tours that included art museums … When I was 10, my mother took us to the Uffizi in Florence. That’s where I saw Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. That was my first transformative experience with a work of art. I have pursued a career in the arts because I always remembered that moment of great passion in front of the Botticelli, and I was determined to feel that passion every day. (His parents expected him to become a doctor, however. Though he tried, “It was not a good fit.”)

The McNay was founded as a modern art museum. How do you define that period and the scope of
the McNay as a growing institution?
Our founder, Marion Koogler McNay, defined it based on her collection, from post-Impressionism to the present, her present. She passed away in 1950. We continue to expand the definition of “modern,” like she did, through today. For that reason, our focus continues to be modern and contemporary art. But we also have treasures from the 16th and 17th centuries.

What I did in Brooklyn is what I would like to do here, too, and that’s to expand our traditional view of art history. We are a global society. The movements that we celebrate at this museum, from post-Impressionism trough contemporary, were and are global. We are interested in making room in our narratives for artists who are not traditionally represented in U.S. museums. We are not in the business of privileging one culture at any time. We think broadly and we think inclusively. The European art history is not the only art history. We would like to achieve a more truthful representation of the past.

What are the McNay’s strengths at present?
The core of the collection, post-Impressionism and early modern, is certainly one of the strengths. Also works on paper and in particular Mexican modern prints. These are world-renowned. Our collection of theater arts rivals that of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and our contemporary collection, post-WWII to the present, is strong. Works from the theater arts collection are always requested for loans, and when they are lent internationally, that’s an opportunity for the McNay to be represented at the very high level.

What are some immediate goals?
Increasing accessibility. You will see a bilingual website, bilingual messaging on social media and collaborations with Hispanic Heritage Month, Black History Month and Native American Heritage Month. And you will also see more social consciousness in our work — in other words, artists who are dealing with social justice and are committed to advancing society through their practice. An example is Vincent Valdez, a gifted San Antonio painter and printmaker, who is focused on raising awareness (of societal issues) through his artwork. In addition, you’ll see more exhibitions that reflect our community’s heritage because visitors want to see themselves in art museum collections and exhibitions. Through the art we present here, we can provide opportunities for self-discovery. I’ll give you a personal example. I was born in Peru but left when I was very young. I knew little about my own heritage. So every time I see an exhibition of global art, if there are examples of Peruvian art, I take a closer look, and I learn a little more about my past.

By Jasmina Wellinghoff
Photography by Candace Schaddelee