Artist and Educator Pablo Helguera Hosts Club Americano at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The Exhibition, Performance Art and Social Gathering Space Features Works from MFA’s Renowned Collection

BOSTON (April 12, 2017)—This spring, New York-based artist and educator Pablo Helguera (born 1971, Mexico City) explores historic and contemporary definitions of American identity in Club Americano at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA). The exhibition takes aesthetic inspiration from 19th-century university clubs and gentlemen’s lounges—exclusive spaces for elite groups of one gender and race—but breaks with tradition by welcoming people of all backgrounds to gather, lounge, read and participate in a series of events. The intimate space created in the Bernard and Barbara Stern Shapiro Gallery offers visitors a seat at a 19th-century dining table, surrounded by paintings, decorative arts, photographs and prints from the MFA’s renowned collection of art from the Americas. Helguera, acting as an artist-in-residence at the MFA, selected the objects in collaboration with curators and conducted research on their history and function. His Pan-American selection ranges from Henry Sargent’s The Dinner Party (about 1821), a painting that provides a glimpse into early Bostonian upper-class life, to embroidery samples made by women in 19th-century Mexico and a 1935 lithograph by José Clemente Orozco about the power of people convening. The artworks in the gallery will serve as subjects for a series of three performance art gatherings delivered by Helguera, guest speakers, musicians, artists, youth and activists, who will address the objects’ histories through a present-day lens. Additionally, a video of Helguera performing a speech on the origins of a social club will be projected inside an 18th-century frame. On select Wednesday evenings, when admission to the MFA is free, local student and community advocacy groups will use the space to host public events related to topics of inclusivity and cultural understanding. Club Americano is on view from April 22 to June 4, 2017. Performance Art at the MFA is supported by Lorraine Bressler.

“In a moment where the politics of divisiveness have had such presence in the public discourse, I believe it is important to point out how art and culture are not subject to borders. Club Americano is meant to be a place where all sorts of borders, be they geographical or socioeconomic, are eliminated,” said Helguera. “It is my hope that Bostonians—and beyond—might be able to visit and participate in this experiment of education and curatorial practice.”

Club Americano was organized by Liz Munsell, Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art and Special Initiatives, a position supported by Lorraine Bressler, with colleagues Dennis Carr, Carolyn and Peter Lynch Curator of American Decorative Arts and Sculpture, and Layla Bermeo, Kristin and Roger Servison Assistant Curator of Paintings, Art of the Americas. Curators from four departments—Textile and Fashion Arts, Prints and Drawings, Art of the Americas and Contemporary Art—collaborated with the artist to select the works on view.

“As an artist-in-residence, Pablo has brought a distinct perspective to our collection and generated new modes of welcoming more diverse publics to the MFA,” said Munsell. “Through the performance series, Club Americano invites people from very different walks of life to take a seat at the same table.”

Performance Series

Three Friday evening gatherings will take place at 6:30 pm on April 21, May 19 and June 2. The performances are inspired by the tradition of the “after-dinner speech,” a longstanding practice of social clubs that can be traced back to the 19th century. The programs will feature a range of voices, including local academics, artists and activists, as well as members of the MFA’s Teen Arts Council and Urbano, a nonprofit community art studio based in Jamaica Plain. Each performance, hosted by an MFA curator, will take on a different theme.

What Is a Club?
Friday, April 21

Hosted by Munsell, this evening program reflects on the history of social clubs, which were popularized in much of the world during the 19th century as private establishments for upper-class members. Four presentations exemplify how some objects in the gallery—including a 20th-century reproduction of Paul Revere’s Sons of Liberty Bowl—come to embody a sense of belonging, while others were designed to distinguish and divide. The program addresses racial hierarchies as depicted in Spanish colonial casta paintings by Ignacio de Castro, and examines how this legacy survives in a contemporary society through personal perspectives. Additionally, academic and poetic lectures provide context on mestizaje in Spanish colonial music and contemporary culture, and Helguera performs a negrilla—a type of 15th-to-18th-century carol incorporating elements of African slaves’ music and speech.

Guest speakers and performers include:

  • Benjamín Juárez, professor at Boston University
  • Zaira Meneses, Mexico’s premier classical guitarist
  • Yvette Modestin, founder of Encuentro Diaspora Afro, author, poet and community activist
  • Darianna Young, member of the MFA’s Teen Arts Council

Worldly and Otherworldly Perspectives
Friday, May 19

This evening gathering addresses how distant times and places are perceived through optical illusions and the literary tradition of “magical realism” in Latin America. Writers associated with this movement blurred distinctions between past and present, reality and the supernatural, to portray the complex underpinnings of daily life. Helguera pays tribute to Alfonso Reyes, a foundational figure in modern Mexican literature, with a performance of the author’s surreal 1912 short story “La Cena (The Dinner).”

Carr, the MFA host for the evening, presents on the perspective machine, an 18th-century technological marvel, an example of which is in the Museum’s collection. This optical device and parlor toy was used to view prints that “transported” the viewer to faraway places or recounted notable moments in European history. Audience members are invited to peer into the MFA’s perspective machine to view historic and contemporary prints, demonstrating how images have long held the power to shape our impressions of reality.

Guest speakers include:

  • Doris Summer, Director of the Cultural Agents Initiative at Harvard University and the Ira and Jewell Williams Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures and of African and African American Studies
  • Marina Nguyen, member of the MFA’s Teen Arts Council

Inventing América
Friday, June 2

This evening program, hosted by Bermeo, presents academic and personal perspectives on contemporary notions of American identity. It also compares the hemispheric and nationalist definitions of the term “America,” which has been subject of multiple reinventions since 15th-century Europeans arrived in the Caribbean islands and described them as a land of supernatural beings and fantastical landscapes. The program explores how the term has shifted from referring to a single continent that Christopher Columbus “discovered” to the use of the word in English to refer only to the United States—even as many people in Latin America have long identified themselves as americanos.

Guest speakers include:

  • Jennifer De Leon, fiction writer, editor, and community education advocate
  • José Falconi, Lecturer at Brandeis University, Fellow at Harvard University and photographer
  • Kevin Brea, member of the MFA’s Teen Arts Council • Aisha Donna, teen member of Urbano

A Community Space

The MFA will welcome local student and community advocacy groups to organize public events in the space on Wednesday evenings, when admission to the Museum is free. These community group hosts include the MFA’s Teen Arts Council (May 12); Sociedad Latina, a Roxbury-based organization that cultivates leaders among Latino youth and a longtime MFA community partner (May 17); Intelligent Mischief, a creative action design lab that uses culture, narrative and design to hack social change and shift the “common sense” (May 26); and Beyond Conflict, a Boston-based organization that engages leaders and diverse communities to advance peace (May 31).

Pablo Helguera

Born in Mexico City in 1971, Pablo Helguera is a New York-based artist and educator working with installation, sculpture, photography, drawing, socially engaged art and performance. His most renowned projects include The School of Panamerican Unrest (2003–2006), a nomadic think tank that traveled from Alaska to Patagonia, making 40 stops in between, and Librería Donceles (2013–2017), an itinerant Spanish-language secondhand bookstore addressing the lack of educational outlets that serve Latino communities. The most recent installation of Librería Donceles was hosted at Urbano in Jamaica Plain. Drawing from his experience as an educator, Helguera’s artistic projects often incorporate pedagogical devices such as the classroom setting and lecture format. In 2008 he was awarded the John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship and also was the recipient of a 2005 Creative Capital Grant. Helguera is the author of Education for Socially Engaged Art (2011) and The Pablo Helguera Manual of Contemporary Art Style (2007), among numerous other publications, and is the maker of Artoons, a series of cartoons poking fun at the art world. He has exhibited widely in museums and biennials internationally, most recently at Manifesta 11 in Zurich, and is currently the subject of a mid-career survey at the Museo Jumex in Mexico City.

Performance Art at the MFA

The MFA is one of the first encyclopedic museums in the US to fully integrate performance art into its collection, exhibitions and programs. Since the opening of the Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art in 2011, the MFA has commissioned and presented dozens of performance artworks by international, national and local artists, including live works that unfold in the Museum’s galleries and engage with its collection, performances that form part of cross-media contemporary art exhibitions, and interventions that appear in unexpected spaces inside and outside the Museum. These foundational, artist-driven projects question the role of performance art in a museum environment and reframe visitors’ experience of the MFA. Performances this past year included Urban Play—Playing Data (July 8, 2016), Lake Maligne (April 6–10, 2016) and Marilyn Arsem: 100 Ways to Consider Time (November 9, 2015–February 19, 2016). The MFA’s growing archive of performance art and videos of past events are available on mfa.org.

Urban Play–Playing Data was supported by the Museum Council Artist in Residency Program Fund/Lorraine Bressler.

Marilyn Arsem: 100 Ways to Consider Time was presented with support from The Contemporaries. Performance Art at the MFA is supported by Lorraine Bressler. Generous support for this publication was provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Publications Fund.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), is recognized for the quality and scope of its collection, representing all cultures and time periods. The Museum has more than 140 galleries displaying its encyclopedic collection, which includes Art of the Americas; Art of Europe; Contemporary Art; Art of Asia; Art of Africa and Oceania; Art of the Ancient World; Prints and Drawings; Photography; Textile and Fashion Arts; and Musical Instruments. Open seven days a week, the MFA’s hours are Saturday through Tuesday, 10 am–5 pm; and Wednesday through Friday, 10 am–10 pm. Admission (which includes one repeat visit within 10 days) is $25 for adults and $23 for seniors and students age 18 and older, and includes entry to all galleries and special exhibitions. Admission is free for University Members and individual youths age 17 and younger. Wednesday nights after 4 pm admission is by voluntary contribution (suggested donation $25). MFA Members are always admitted for free. The Museum’s mobile MFA Guide is available at ticket desks and the Sharf Visitor Center for $5, members; $6, non-members; and $4, youths. The Museum is closed on New Year’s Day, Patriots’ Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. The MFA is located on the Avenue of the Arts at 465 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA 02115. For more information, call 617.267.9300, visit mfa.org or follow the MFA on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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