The phrase “man of the world” could have been coined with Julián Zugazagoitia in mind. He was born in Mexico City into a family steeped in history, creativity, and culture. He has lived in Paris, Rome, and New York. Since 2010, when he was named director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Julián Zugazagoitia has called Kansas City his home.
What is it about Kansas City that has made it feel so much like home for you?
The most beautiful surprise that this city has given me is to have the murals at UMKC by Spanish painter Luis Quintanilla. He was exiled because of the Spanish civil war and he ends up in Kansas City painting some murals. He dedicated them to my grandfather. [Julián’s grandfather fought the Fascists in Spain of the 1930s. He was eventually captured by the Gestapo and executed.] Those murals make me feel that this is really home.
Does your family’s amazing history impact you and what you do, on a daily basis?
It’s different moments of consciousness in which you start realizing the complexity of your own identity. Growing up in Mexico City there were not a lot of questions, but I left for the UK for the first time when I was 12 and that was the first big shock. It was the beginning of my understanding that we’re all immigrants all the time. Identity is such a complex thing.
As we speak, the museum is closed due to COVID-19, and the world is also seeing protests demanding equal treatment and opportunity for all people. What does a place like the Nelson-Atkins mean in times like these?
When society and humankind come to moments that really challenge us, humankind needs to express itself. Art has found ways to tackle even these things. We have had pandemics in the past. Our collections have examples of artists creating art during very difficult moments. What I see is art that goes beyond the forms we normally celebrate. New generations expressing so much through social media and digital form. People can connect with us in the digital world.
The inside part of the museum is closed but people can still come and enjoy the landscaping and the sculptures. I trust that just being in the environment, in front of the art, is inspiring.
Some may look at places like the Nelson-Atkins and think, ‘Well, that isn’t really for me because of my socio-economic status or education or skin color.’
I know you and your staff work hard to make this a place for everyone.
We have made a lot of efforts to be a place of openness, of inclusivity, of making sure that everyone feels ownership of the museum’s legacy. Today’s events call for more effort. I would say from the moment we opened this building in 1933, the first speech at that time said this place is for all groups, all races, all creeds. This is work that has to be done by society at large and work that we have to do together. We have a wonderful and wide diversity of people enjoying the museum and that is something we need to continue to foster.
We are using this time to look at ourselves as staff, look at our history as an institution, to reassess our collections, how collections have come to be. We need to be more cognizant, more attuned to our times. We also need to understand that we are part of a stream of history, knowing others have also faced times like these. Society today is waking up to many things. The younger generations are making us more aware of where we should be going.
In these uncertain, unsteady, unchartered times, should we look to art and places like the Nelson-Atkins as some sort of constant?
The nature of expression is always going to be there and museums like ours provide the ability to travel, not only the geographies of distant cultures but also in time. To see how time and different cultures and different civilizations and different ways of thinking are represented through art. A museum like ours can teach you that there’s hundreds of ways of thinking. That should give us a sense of awe. A museum like ours gives you a variety of possibilities. You see that humanity has so many ways of expressing and being. We can engage in dialogues that enrich and enlarge our perceptions and make us have more points of view than one.
Article taken from Fall 2020 edition of Today Kansas City Magazine, a publication of Soave Automotive Group. Interview by Joel Nichols.