When Luis Vargas-Santiago (Ph.D., Art History, 2015) was looking to continue his studies in art history, the talented historian and curator had his pick of top graduate programs around the world. Then the Chiapas, Mexico native won a prestigious Fulbright fellowship, offered by the U.S. government and partner institutions to international students who want to pursue their doctorates here. Vargas-Santiago very quickly settled on the Department of Art and Art History, home to the Center for Latin American Visual Studies (CLAVIS)—a research center at The University of Texas at Austin that advances the understanding of modern and contemporary art in the Americas in the U.S. and abroad.
First the faculty drew him in, he said, describing founding director Andrea Giunta as “a rockstar.” Then there were the unmatched collections at the Benson Latin American Collection and the Blanton Museum of Art. But what finalized his decision to join UT was the strong community of scholars created through CLAVIS on campus and beyond, including research seminars held in Bogotá and Sao Paulo with the support of the Getty Foundation, dissertation workshops in partnerships with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and publications in journals based in Buenos Aires and Paris.
“Due to the quality of the program and the quality of research projects and dissertations, a network was built up,” said Vargas-Santiago, now deputy director for public programs at Museo Universitario Arte Contemporaneo in Mexico City, one of Latin America’s major collectors and exhibitors of contemporary art. “The network I made during my time at CLAVIS is still part of my life.”
Founded in 2008, CLAVIS leveraged UT’s pioneering history of studying Latin American art, dating back to the 1970s, said George Flaherty, the center’s associate director. It established several programs that sought to drive the increasingly global conversation among scholars and curators forward, including the Permanent Seminar on Latin American Art, which offered a regular space for developing works in progress, whether lectures or articles, and reflecting on methodological issues for the field. The participation of graduate students from throughout the U.S. and Latin America was especially important, contributing to increased scholarly exchange between the two regions going forward. Flaherty said the collaboration facilitated by CLAVIS is unmatched by peer institutions.
“A major focus is effective graduate training, and now our students are going out into the world and taking even more prominent positions in the field,” Flaherty said, adding CLAVIS graduated Ph.D. four students and one M.A. student in the past year.
CLAVIS is currently home to five Ph.D. students researching a variety of topics related to Latin American art, such as photography and architecture from 1950s Mexico, the use of Xerox machines and other reproductive technologies in 1970s Brazilian art, and artists in Mexico City in the 1990s who created their own exhibition spaces.
“There are many countries in Latin America where you can’t study for a Ph.D. in Art History,” Flaherty said. For this reason, CLAVIS students come from all around the globe, and then some, like Vargas-Santiago, go back home to become major players in the art world.
Dorota Biczel, doctoral candidate in Art History with CLAVIS, is working on her dissertation, which focuses on artistic and architectural experimental practices and the notions of the public in Lima, Peru, between 1978 and 1989.
“The diversity of program and its scope was incredibly enticing,” she said of choosing CLAVIS.
Drawn into the program for its diversity and the unique conversations that it creates among students and faculty, Biczel said she found the exploratory environment she was seeking.
“The number of rewarding, critical conversations that I’ve had here over the years, I really can’t imagine having gotten them elsewhere,” she said.
Though currently in Houston to finish her dissertation, Biczel returned to campus this fall to install the exhibition Moving Mountains: Extractive Landscapes of Peru by Edi Hirose & Nancy La Rosa at the Visual Arts Center (VAC), where she was a Curatorial Fellow in 2015-16. After multiple research stays in Lima, Biczel wanted to bring these Peruvian artists to U.S. audiences.
“They are artists who are already established, but youngish. I felt that the type of engagement that this generation has with their immediate surrounding—being Lima or Peru—is very intense, like everything that’s going on in Peru socially,” she said. “It’s not the type of art you see in Austin generally.”
The exhibition project, on view Sept. 23 through Dec. 10, received financial support from CLAVIS, and Biczel said she feels lucky and privileged to have it.
“I’m really excited about what conversations this exhibition can start here and what kind of larger networks with U.S. artists can be built,” Biczel said. “I am fairly close to being done with my dissertation, so what’s next? This exhibition in a way is possibly a nugget of the next larger project. It will be bridging the two hemispheres.”