You started to acquire art with your husband, Gustavo Cisneros, in 1970. When did you first recognize the significance of the collections that you were building?
It was when we received a phone call out of the blue from an international arts magazine asking about our collection, and our first response was ‘what collection?’. That simple call made us sit down and think seriously about what had started as a hobby or passion, as we started to realize that we had the potential to build something really unique, that could tell a comprehensive story of the development of material culture in Latin America.
The holdings of the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros (CPPC) are extensive, and while it’s perhaps best known for its strengths in modern Latin American art, it also embraces other fields – among them colonial art created in Venezuela and ethnographic objects made by the indigenous communities of the Venezuelan Orinoco River Basin. Which works do you choose to live with?
We have lived with almost every object in the collection at some point, but almost by accident, as we have always given priority to having the objects tour in our own exhibitions, and by lending to other institutions. As a consequence of the intensity of this policy, we have periodically had to rotate works a lot in our home, which is actually a real joy as it has allowed us to appreciate the collection in different ways over the years. Living with art is a privilege, but ultimately, I think we are only temporary custodians of artworks, so I’m even happier when I see them in a museum.
The CPPC loans works around the world, and has made abundant grants and donations, not least transformative gifts to MoMA that have been buttressed by the foundation of the Cisneros Institute for the Study of Art from Latin America. How has the international perception of Latin American art evolved since you founded the CPPC in the early 1990s?
I would say it has changed beyond recognition. When we started, if people knew anything at all about Latin American art, it was Frida Kahlo and Mexican Muralism, but nothing else. We were convinced that people should be aware of the diversity of art from Latin America, and also its historical depth. Today people are aware of Muralism, but also abstraction, conceptualism, Indigenism, 19th-century traveler artists, Colonial art, and so much more. This makes us really happy, as it pushes back against a stereotype of Latin America that is only defined by its exoticism.
Where does your passion for sharing the collection with the public stem from?
When I grew up in Caracas in the 1950s, there was great public art everywhere. The campus of the Universidad Central has large public works by Arp, Calder, Léger, Jesús Rafael Soto, Carlos Cruz-Diez, Alejandro Otero, Gego, and many others. It was literally an open-air museum. I think that made a big impact on me, as did the natural history work of my great grandfather William H. Phelps, who dedicated his life to researching, cataloguing, and conserving the birds of Venezuela and sharing that information with the public.
In terms of exhibition-making and research, what further aspirations do you have for modern and contemporary art from the region?
Now that art from Latin America is very much on the map for museums and galleries, I still think that it is so important to encourage scholarly research and travel to the region. For many years we supported a travel grant for curators at MoMA to travel to Latin America, and now we have the Cisneros Institute for the Study of Art from Latin America at MoMA. We had a great collaboration with the Getty Research Institute as part of their Pacific Standard Time LA/LA project in 2017, where we worked on the scientific materials and techniques of modern painting. Over the years we have worked with academic museums, such as the Fogg at Harvard, the Blanton at University of Texas, the Grey at NYU, and the Museo Universidad de Navarra. This synergy between academia and the museum is very important for the field.
Has the acceleration of the market for geometric abstraction surprised you?
Absolutely! When we started collecting, my budget was very modest, but there were great masterpieces available for reasonable prices. I never expected to see so much growth, but I guess it’s also a sign of greater acceptance and demand.
You’ve spoken before about the responsibilities of being a collector. Who or what should collectors feel responsible towards?
Above all they should feel responsible to the artist and to history. It’s easy to purchase art, but the hard and demanding part is keeping and documenting it professionally. We are in a moment where the headlines are dominated by what it costs to buy art, but the more important question, I think, is the cost of preserving and understanding it.
What advice would you give to people new to collecting who might be looking to make their first serious acquisition?
I would encourage people to look deep into their souls to understand why they want to collect. It’s a wonderful and enriching personal journey, but you are also taking on responsibility for a part of human cultural history that will survive much longer thaN you. I would also encourage people to think seriously about connecting with their local museum as a way to learn, but also to support that institution in its goals.
Beyond the strengths of the CPPC, have you ever quietly dreamed of collecting in a completely unrelated field?
Over the years I have made small forays into areas that I love, like Indian miniatures, French decorative arts, or Abstract Expressionist works on paper, but at the end of the day, Latin America is where my heart is, and I have always followed that preference; I’m very proud of our art and culture.