Archival analysis and cold war Pan Americanism

Courtyard of the Pan American Union, Washington, DC, 1943. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection (LC-USW36-734). Photograph by John Collier.

Among the buildings on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., only the Pan American Union (PAU) houses an international organization. The first of many anticipated “peace palaces”constructed in the early twentieth century, the PAU began with a mission of cultural diplomacy, and after World War II its Visual Arts Section became a leader in the burgeoning hemispheric arts scene. In Making Art Panamerican (2013), Claire F. Fox situates the ambitious visual arts programs of the PAU within the broader context of hemispheric cultural relations during the cold war.


Associate professor in the departments of English and of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Iowa

My interest in cold war Pan Americanism arose from a desire to pursue lingering questions raised in my previous work on the cultural dimensions of NAFTA-era trade liberalization. But I felt dissatisfied with the existing cold war scholarship’s frequent appeals to the covert and the money trail as ultimate interpretative horizons for art and culture.

The Pan American Union, Washington, DC, 1943.

Institutional analysis and cultural policy studies in contrast provided models that enabled me to conceptualize connections among aesthetics, audiences, economics, and politics in a transnational context. Focusing on the Pan American Union as a hub of cold war visual culture in the Americas, I found that the familiar U.S. coordinates of Washington, D.C., New York, and McCarthyism diminished in centrality, and instead postrevolutionary Mexican arts and institutions, as well as a generation of Latin American intellectuals who had spent formative years affiliated with avant-garde and left-progressive political movements, emerged as protagonists of ambitious projects in hemispheric art worlds, including continental canon formation, the promotion and circulation of new aesthetics, and corporate patronage for the arts.

The most exciting and gratifying aspects of working on Making Art Panamerican have been the connections I’ve made to scholars, curators, and artists engaged in parallel projects about cold war visual culture in the Americas. Alongside this new wave of research on museums, exhibitions, periodicals, and cultural movements, several ambitious archival and digitization projects are also underway, making sources available to the public that have previously been inaccessible or dispersed throughout the hemisphere. These include the Primary Documents series of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Surrealism in Latin America project of the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles; and the Documents of 20th-century Latin American and Latino Art digital archive, housed in the International Center for the Arts of the Americas (ICAA) at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. To spend even a few minutes digitally meandering through the ICAA labyrinth, created through the collective labor of numerous regional coordinating committees, suggests the dizzying possibilities for new narratives to emerge as scholars begin consult these materials within a transamerican framework.

At the same time, my research on this project continually reminded me of the limitations of archival sources, as for example, when my colleague Laura Gutiérrez, a specialist in Latina/o American performance, forwarded to me a YouTube link (above) featuring newsreel coverage of the Mural efímero (Ephemeral Mural, 1967), a happening organized by the Mexico City-based artist José Luis Cuevas, who figures prominently in Making Art Panamerican. The newsreel shows how cleverly Cuevas appropriated the language of commercialism through this collaborative event, all the while enveloping it in an aura of 1960s global youth culture, which incorporated media, music, fashion, and libido. Though the newsreel itself is an archival artifact, its images suggest the rich experiential register of live performance that Cuevas utilized effectively to parody not only the Mexican school of art and ruling party, but also the liberal, “mentalist” values of Pan American Union cultural policy.

The cold war institutional configurations that I trace in Making Art Panamerican continue to bear on contemporary American art worlds, as in the work of Mexico City-based artist Francis Alÿs, whose video essay Politics of Rehearsal (2005) cites the 1949 inaugural address of U.S. President Harry S. Truman as a sort of locus classicus for the artist’s own exploration of modernity and developmentalism in the Americas. As in the case of Alÿs, my thinking about the cold war has given me fresh insight into the contemporary profile of art movements under neoliberalism, a line of inquiry that I am eager to pursue in a future project.

But for now, it looks as though I will be making at least one more archival research trip to the Pan American Union. This past summer I received a message from art historian Alejandro Anreus informing me that he had just returned from the AMA | Art Museum of the Americas, where he reviewed thirteen boxes of recently located documents related to the institution’s cold war visual arts programs. “Great stuff in there!” he wrote, “You got to get to DC to go through those boxes!”

Of course, even as Making Art Panamerican went to press, I appreciated both the finitude and inexhaustibility of archives, but as long as materials remained inaccessible, I pushed them to the recesses of my subconscious. Thanks to the labor of AMA education coordinator Adriana Ospina, key documents from the trove described by Anreus will be digitized as part of the ICAA project. And I am looking forward to revisiting the topic of the cold war in the Americas once again next fall, as the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at Oklahoma University prepares the exhibition Libertad de Expresión: The Art Museum of the Americas and Cold War Politics, scheduled to open in October 2013, a show that invites further reflection about the relationship between cold war Pan Americanism and aesthetic movements.


Claire F. Fox is associate professor in the departments of English and of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Iowa. She is author of Making Art Panamerican: Cultural Policy and the Cold War (2013) and The Fence and the River: Culture and Politics at the U.S.-Mexico Border (1999).

“Making Art Panamerican brings understandings of cultural policy into conversation with many other areas of concern, and therefore greatly expands the sense of that policy sector’s relevance to political, economic and broadly social frameworks. This allows for an invigorated sense of why and how cultural policy matters, and is reflective of the complexity of the space in which it takes place. It is brimming with strongly argued points and clearly articulated insights.”
—Rachel Weiss, author of To and from Utopia in the New Cuban Art

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