Chile’s Museum of American Popular Art launches new exhibition

The museum that received only 500 visitors annually in its former space attracted as many as 800 in just three days after opening in its new home.

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The Museo de Arte Popular Americano Tomás Lago (Tomás Lago American Popular Art Museum, or ‘Mapa’) has never been one of Santiago’s more prominent museums.

Since the Universidad de Chile founded the museum in 1944, Mapa has bounced from space to space, at times completely out of public reach. But on March 16, Mapa moved into its most prominent location yet in the Chilean capital, an exhibition space in the newly-inaugurated Centro Cultural Gabriela Mistral.

The idea for the museum dates back to 1942, when beloved Chilean writers Marta Brunet and Pablo Neruda were among the most vocal advocates for a museum dedicated to folk art. The debut of the museum’s original collection took place in 1944 at the Castillo Hidalgo atop downtown Santiago’s Cerro Santa Lucía, just blocks from its new home, and featured works donated by Mexico, Peru and Argentina amongst others.

Tomás Lago, the museum’s first director and now its namesake, immediately noted the lack of space, setting into motion a set of moves that ended when the Museum’s collection was relegated to a storage facility at the Museo Bellas Artes. In 1997, the collection moved to its last location, a small space in the city center where annual visits hardly reached 500.

The museum’s obscurity has already begun to fade in its new space. Within its first three days at the Gabriela Mistral Center, the new Mapa exhibition of miniature ceramics from the 19th century attracted nearly 800 visitors.

Nury González, an artist and Mapa’s current director, told La Tercera, “this heritage belongs to all of us, but until now some of the pieces haven’t been shown in 60 years, and others have never been seen at all.”

The current exhibition features 123 painted ceramic figurines produced in Chile at the end of the 19th century. The technique used to create these miniatures, declared as part of Chile’s cultural heritage by UNESCO in 2009, began at the Santa Clara convent. The tradition has been carried on by artisans in Santiago and Talagante, a township within the present Metropolitan Region between Santiago and the Pacific coast.

In the coming year, Mapa will a new project to document the life of the Museum’s first director, Tomás Lago, funded with a grant of about US$8,000 (CP$4 million) from the Universidad de Chile. One of the historians working closely on the project, Constanza Acuña, said to La Tercera, “he was an essayist, critic, and promoter of the national folklore. His memory has been little known, much like the museum he founded.”

Now that history, and the Museum that is its legacy, will take its rightful place in Santiago’s heart.

The exhibition runs March 16 to June 30 at the Centro Cultural Gabriela Mistral. For more information, visit their website.