THE HISPANIC SOCIETY CAME HOME (TEMPORARELY)
by (TGSM/ DECEMBER 2017)
The Hispanic Society was just awarded the 2017 Princesa de Asturias Prize for International Cooperation. It is therefore a good occasion to explore the origins and meaning of this extraordinary cultural institution. Its founder, Archer Milton Huntington (1870-1955), was the heir to a U.S. tycoon’s fortune. His stepfather, Collis P. Huntington, built the Central Pacific Railroad and, as fame has it, was one of the most notorious political operators of his time. Enthusiastic about Spain and the larger Hispanic world and well endowed with money and good taste, his stepson travelled across the Iberian Peninsula and the Americas collecting art and befriending some leading artist, particularly the Spaniard Joaquín Sorolla who by then had acquired a solid reputation as a landscape painter and portraitist. As a patron of yore, in 1911 Huntington commissioned Sorolla to paint a series of large panels depicting different regions and customs of Spain. The paintings were to be exhibited in a museum built specifically to host Huntington’s precious collection of art, rare books and coins from the Hispanic world, including works by Velazquez, El Greco, Zurbaran, Goya or Zuloaga as well as relevant pieces of gothic and renaissance sculpture, colonial paintings and ceramics and early editions of Spanish literary classics like Don Quixote or La Celestina.
To fulfill his vision, in 1907 Huntington completed the construction of Audubon Terrace, at 155th and Broadway, in Washington Heights, a then well-to-do neighborhood north of Manhattan that soon felt out of fashion and became the home of waves of impoverished immigrants from different parts of the world. As originally devised, Audubon Terrace was designed to be the seat of several intellectual and academic institutions clustered around the Hispanic Society of America, prominent among them The American Academy of Arts and Letters and The American Geographical Society. But with the passing of time, while other museums located in the Upper East like the Metropolitan and the Frick Collection thrived, the Hispanic Society gradually went off the beaten track and mostly remained out of sight. Several attempts at reviving its fortunes, including relocations and a change in its denomination to adapt it to a very Anglo-American tradition of naming museums and collections after their founders and benefactors, came and went. But even so, or perhaps precisely so, the Hispanic Society has survived and endured ensconced in the equivalent of the Arctic Circle of New York cultural globe, as a New York Times journalist put it once. It has few visitors and a low income, but also limited expenses. In this way it could go on and on while other more up-to day and up-and-coming cultural institutions go through all kind of roller coaster experiences even in the most cosmopolitan capitals.
The best- meaning conservatism, though, can have its costs and even the most immobile institutions require care and maintenance just to stay put. The Hispanic Society – or should their overseers think again about re-naming it the Huntington Collection of Hispanic Art? – could be no exception. Fortunately, a refurbishing plan is now in place and it will take at least a couple of years to complete. So a relevant portion of Huntington’s beloved collection is now on a tour that has started where it all began. The Prado Museum in Madrid hosted some treasures of the Hispanic Society from April till September 2017. Some voices, not many, were asking why those wondrous paintings, maps, books and engravings should not return permanently where they belong, that is in Spain or Mexico or Peru? But then, by the same reasoning, or lack thereof, why should there be so many Italian paintings, Flemish tapestries or Chinese porcelains, scattered in collections around the world? Art knows no boundaries. Legitimate public collections formed by foreigners via a combination of money, market conditions and, above all, a discerning good taste, are in fact one of the best possible ways for a cultural tradition to be known and appreciated beyond its own turf. The Hispanic Society of America belongs in New York. If only more of its inhabitants and visitors to the Great Apple were more familiar with its treasures… Any ideas?
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