Cu­ra­tor He­len R. Lucero


He­len R. Lucero’s child­hood was not an easy one. She grew up in Va­dito, a small town with a pop­u­la­tion of fewer than 300, ac­cord­ing to a 2010 cen­sus. Her fam­ily’s adobe home had no run­ning wa­ter, and the town had yet to be wired for elec­tric­ity. Lucero did her home­work by the light of a kerosene lamp. But she was de­ter­mined to make a bet­ter life for her­self. Not only was she the first in her fam­ily to get a col­lege de­gree, but she took her stud­ies all the way to a doc­tor­ate in art his­tory from the Univer­sity of New Mex­ico. Lucero has since been an ad­vo­cate for the preser­va­tion of His­panic arts and a sup­porter of con­tem­po­rary His­panic artists, many of whose pres­ence in state and na­tional in­sti­tu­tions are, in no small mea­sure, be­cause of Lucero’s ef­forts and those of her col­leagues.

While work­ing to­wards her PhD, Lucero spent two years at the Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art in New York City and an­other three years at the Dal­las Mu­seum of Art. She then served as cu­ra­tor of South­west­ern His­panic art at the Mu­seum of In­ter­na­tional Folk Art, and as cu­ra­tor of His­panic arts at the Univer­sity of New Mex­ico Art Mu­seum. Lucero was also an as­so­ciate cu­ra­tor at the Smith­so­nian’s Na­tional Mu­seum of Amer­i­can Art. Few cu­ra­tors have had such distin­guished ca­reers as Lucero, who is one of the first His­panic women art cu­ra­tors in the na­tion. De­spite her ven­er­a­ble ca­reer, she re­mained close to her roots, pre­fer­ring to hob­nob with some of the low­er­paid em­ploy­ees within the mu­seum sys­tem. When she started work­ing at MoIFA, Char­lene Cerny, the di­rec­tor at the time, said to her, “I won­der who you’re go­ing to end up spend­ing more time with, the cu­ra­tors or the sec­re­taries and guards.”

At MoIFA, she was in­stru­men­tal in estab­lish­ing the long-run­ning His­panic Her­itage Wing, the na­tion’s first mu­seum gallery ded­i­cated ex­clu­sively to His­panic arts, and co-cu­rated its first ex­hibit, Fa­milia y Fe (Fam­ily and Faith) in 1989, which stood for nearly 20 years be­fore the wing’s 2008-2009 re­model. “So much of that ex­hibit was about learn­ing about your own her­itage and giv­ing back to your com­mu­nity,” she said. She would travel the state, re­search­ing Span­ish churches and il­lu­mi­nat­ing their his­tory for the peo­ple in the com­mu­ni­ties where they were lo­cated. “Out of all the things I’ve done in my ca­reer, that was the most spe­cial,” she said. “We would bring the peo­ple from the com­mu­ni­ties to the mu­seum and into our col­lec­tions so they could see the art first­hand.”

An ex­pert in Chi­mayó weav­ing, Lucero also coau­thored, along with Suzanne Baiz­er­man, Chi­mayó Weav­ing: The Trans­for­ma­tion of a Tra­di­tion. She is a con­tribut­ing au­thor to Nuevo Méx­ico Pro­fundo: Rit­u­als of an Indo-His­pano Home­land, pho­tog­ra­pher Miguel Gan­dert’s pho­to­graphic es­say on the Indo-His­panic rit­u­als of the Mat­achines and Co­manches. She con­trib­uted to Mari Lyn Sal­vador’s book Cuando Hablan Los San­tos: Con­tem­po­rary San­tero Tra­di­tions From North­ern New Mex­ico, as well.

But she saw some low points in her ca­reer, too. In 2006, she was forced from her job as di­rec­tor of vis­ual arts at the Na­tional His­panic Cul­tural Cen­ter in Albuquerque af­ter re­fus­ing to choose pol­i­tics over pro­to­col when Gov. Bill Richard­son in­sisted she mount an ex­hibit of paint­ings by Elias Rivera. The gover­nor wanted to push the show through, by­pass­ing the mu­seum’s pro­ce­dure for choos­ing ex­hi­bi­tions, but Lucero stood her ground. Many in the New Mex­ico arts com­mu­nity felt Richard­son’s ac­tion was an in­stance of gov­ern­men­tal over­reach. “It was painful in many ways. It was such a shock. I was told it was a man­date from above, and I would do it or else.” Lucero chose to re­sign from her po­si­tion in­stead. “I was sorry it ended that way,” she said. She went on to win sev­eral awards for her arts ad­vo­cacy soon af­ter­ward, in­clud­ing the New Mex­ico As­so­ci­a­tion of Mu­seum’s Edgar L. Hewett Award for Ex­cel­lence. “It felt like vin­di­ca­tion,” she said. — Michael Abatemarco

He­len R. Lucero He­len R. Lucero,

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