The new museum director talks about moving to Minnesota from Puerto Rico, her past work, her visions for the future of WAM and more.
For Alejandra Peña-Gutiérrez, museums are more than just historical institutions. She sees them as essential resources that adapt to meet the ever-changing needs of their surrounding communities, which is just one philosophy that will influence her work as director of the Weisman Art Museum (WAM).
Peña-Gutiérrez is an accomplished leader in the international art world. After studying architecture and obtaining a master’s degree in art history, she has directed art museums in Mexico and Puerto Rico, is currently a member of the Association of Directors of Art Museums and serves on the Council Museums International (ICOM) in the United States. Advice. She recently embarked on the next chapter of her career when she assumed the role of Director of WAM in November 2021.
After several months of closure due to building maintenance, the WAM fully reopened on January 19. In addition to the permanent collection gallery, visitors can experience two new temporary exhibitions: ‘Foundling: 100 Days’ and ‘The Nature of Shoreham Construction sites.
A&E spoke with Peña-Gutiérrez about her move to Minnesota from Puerto Rico, the visions she has for the future of WAM and more.
What made you want to work in museums originally?
“I was actually invited to work in a museum in Mexico as an architect, and it was really interesting. At the same time, when I was doing my master’s in art history, I had a professor who was director of the Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City. She said she would be interested in me applying for a curatorial position there, so that’s how I kind of gave up my architecture background and started working more in the history of the art and museums.
Where did your career take you from there?
“I entered this universe in Mexico which had many possibilities, which is the National Institute of Fine Arts. It is basically one of the largest institutions that not only does research but also promotes creation and education in the arts. That’s where I sort of developed my career in that regard. Then I moved to Puerto Rico, where I spent almost the last 10 years working at the Museo de Arte de Ponce. I started as deputy director, then I was appointed director of the museum.
What prompted you to move to Puerto Rico?
“I really liked working in museums because I felt that you could establish a more direct relationship with your community. So when this opportunity to move to Puerto Rico presented itself, I just jumped at it.
Has the opportunity to work with art from various parts of the world taught you anything about the roles, responsibilities and ethics behind museums?
“I really think that in art, like in everything, it’s important to stay connected and to know what’s going on in the world. Not just what is happening in terms of artistic creation, but also questions about the relevance of museums, how museums evolve, how their visions need to change and how we adapt to the expectations of our communities.
How will this influence your work at WAM?
“I would like to bring this discussion about the future of museums to WAM. How do we change? How do we become more relevant to our communities? How do we address some of the day-to-day issues that our communities face?”
I’m interested to know what sparked your interest in this position. What were some of the things about WAM that appealed to you?
“There were different things. The fact that it is part of a university where there are so many resources and all this young energy. You are surrounded by young people who, ultimately, are the future of the field and of the world. I was also very drawn to the diversity of the Twin Cities, and how the Twin Cities being the epicenter of the Black Lives Matter movement would inevitably impact everything.
How has your move from Puerto Rico to Minnesota been going so far? It’s a big change.
“It’s been great, my staff have been amazing. Before I even started, they had some kind of happy hour so I could meet them. I was also very well received by the directors of the other museums in the Twin Cities, which was incredible, and in general by the university community. Even other Mexicans and Latinos who are here reached out to me, so I got together with some of them and it was really nice.
What are your daily responsibilities as director of WAM?
“I think my main responsibility, at least for now, is to observe and see what the team has done. It has been a very difficult time for everyone with the pandemic and the fact that the museum has been closed for so many months. So I think another responsibility is really getting the team together and working on a vision for the museum. And then of course, I have to raise funds. Every museum director needs to be involved in the development part of things.
What are some of your visions for the future of WAM under your leadership?
“I would like to think that we could have a closer relationship with the University and its resources, as well as with the students. I want them to feel included, to have a voice and a presence in the museum. I would really like to see this through collaborations where students and their work are included. I also believe that we have a responsibility to the various underrepresented communities in the Twin Cities, and I would like to strengthen the relationship with them. It’s important to partner with organizations that are already doing some work and see how we can come together and do things that will benefit the community. There are some important topics that I think we need to address, like mental health and climate change. As times change and museums’ relationships with their communities are also transforming, I think we need to look at this and see how we can become more relevant to the communities within our university and our city.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length