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,