Greater Mexico refers both to the geographic region encompassing modern Mexico and its former territories in the United States, and to the Mexican cultural diaspora. Exhibitions of visual and material culture from greater Mexico have played an important role in articulating identities and affiliations that transcend limited definitions of citizenship. Following an introductory text by Jennifer Josten, five scholars offer firsthand insights into the intellectual, diplomatic, and logistical concerns underpinning key border-crossing exhibitions of the “NAFTA era.” Rubén Ortiz-Torres writes from his unique perspective as a Mexico City–based artist who began exhibiting in the United States in the late 1980s, and as a curator of recent exhibitions that highlight the existence of multiple Mexicos and Americas. Clara Bargellini reflects on a paradigm-shifting cross-border exhibition of the viceregal arts of the missions of northern New Spain. Kim N. Richter considers how the arts of ancient Mesoamerica and the Americas writ large figured within the Getty Foundation’s 2017 Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA initiative. Xóchitl M. Flores-Marcial offers insights into productive institutional collaborations with transnational Indigenous stakeholders, focusing on two recent Southern California exhibitions of the Oaxaca-based Tlacolulokos collective. Luis Vargas-Santiago discusses how Chicana/o/x art entered Mexico City’s Palacio de Bellas Artes in 2019 as a crucial component of an exhibition about how Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata’s image has migrated through visual culture. Together, these texts demonstrate how exhibitions can act in the service of advancing more nuanced understandings of cultural and political interactions across greater Mexico.

El Gran México se refiere tanto a la región geográfica que abarca el México moderno como a sus antiguos territorios que hoy forman parte de los Estados Unidos y la diáspora cultural mexicana. Las exposiciones de cultura visual y material del Gran México han jugado un papel importante en la articulación de identidades y pertenencias que abarcan más que nociones relativamente estrechas como la de ser ciudadano de un estado-nación. Tras un texto introductorio de Jennifer Josten, cinco académicos comparten sus experiencias personales acerca de las cuestiones intelectuales, diplomáticas y logísticas que había detrás de algunas importantes exposiciones transfronterizas de los llamados “años del TLC”. Rubén Ortiz-Torres escribe desde una perspectiva singular: como artista originario de la Ciudad de México que comenzó a exhibir en los Estados Unidos a finales de la década de 1980, y como curador de exposiciones recientes en las que se ha destacado la existencia de múltiples Méxicos y múltiples Estados Unidos. Clara Bargellini reflexiona sobre una exposición transfronteriza y rupturista de las artes virreinales de las misiones del norte de Nueva España. Kim N. Richter considera cómo las artes de la antigua Mesoamérica y de las Américas figuraron dentro de la iniciativa Pacific Standard Time: LA / LA de la Fundación Getty del año 2017. Xóchitl M. Flores-Marcial ofrece una perspectiva acerca de colaboraciones exitosas entre instituciones y interlocutores indígenas transnacionales; examina específicamente dos muestras del colectivo oaxaqueño Tlacolulokos, realizadas recientemente en el sur de California. Luis Vargas-Santiago analiza cómo el arte Chicana/o/x ingresó al Palacio de Bellas Artes de la Ciudad de México en 2019 como un componente crucial de una exposición sobre las migraciones de la imagen del revolucionario mexicano Emiliano Zapata en la cultura visual. Juntos, estos textos demuestran que las exposiciones pueden servir para promover una comprensión más compleja de las interacciones culturales y políticas en el Gran México.

Grande México se refere tanto à região geográfica que abrange o México moderno e seus antigos territórios nos Estados Unidos, quanto à diáspora cultural mexicana. Exposições de cultura visual e material do Grande México há muito desempenham um papel importante na articulação de identidades e afiliações que transcendem definições limitadas de cidadania. Seguindo um texto introdutório de Jennifer Josten, cinco estudiosos oferecem sua perspectiva sobre as preocupações intelectuais, diplomáticas e logísticas por trás das mais influentes exposições transfronteiriças da “era do NAFTA”. Rubén Ortiz-Torres escreve de seu ponto de vista singular como artista originário da Cidade do México que começou a expor nos Estados Unidos no fim dos anos 1980, e como curador de exposições recentes que destacaram a existência de múltiplos Méxicos e Américas. Clara Bargellini reflete sobre uma exposição transfronteiriça transformadora focada na arte vice-real das missões do norte da Nova Espanha. Kim N. Richter considera como as artes da Mesoamérica antiga e das Américas em geral figuraram em grande escala na iniciativa Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA de 2017 da Fundação Getty. Xóchitl M. Flores-Marcial oferece sua visão sobre colaborações institucionais produtivas entre interlocutores indígenas transnacionais, examinando específicamente duas exposições recentes do coletivo oaxaquenho Tlacolulokos no sul da Califórnia. Luis Vargas-Santiago discute como a arte chicana entrou no Palácio de Belas Artes da Cidade do México em 2019 como um componente crucial de uma exposição sobre as migrações da imagem do revolucionário mexicano Emiliano Zapata na cultura visual. Juntos, esses textos demonstram como exposições podem servir para avançar compreensões mais complexas de interações culturais e políticas através do Grande México.

Golden Kingdoms and Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA

Like the concept of greater Mexico—a framework for understanding the movement and exchange of people, objects, and ideas as transcendent of temporal, geographic, national, and cultural boundaries—the exhibition Golden Kingdoms: Luxury and Legacy in the Ancient Americas (2017-18) sought to complicate traditional models for understanding transregional interaction. Organized in collaboration between the Getty Research Institute (GRI), the J. Paul Getty Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the exhibition opened at the Getty Museum on September 16, 2017, as part of the Getty Foundation’s Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA (Latin American and Latino Art in LA) initiative.1 The exhibition then traveled to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where it was on view from February 28 to May 28, 2018. While in Los Angeles, Golden Kingdoms represented the ambition of PST: LA/LA to be “a celebration beyond borders,” a slogan featured in a promotional video the Getty Foundation launched in March 2016 to announce the initiative.2 The spirit of this video was light, airy, celebratory, and fun, calling attention to the broad participation of art institutions across Southern California and their collective aspiration to showcase Latin American art and highlight the deep roots of Latinx culture in Los Angeles. This inspiring message suddenly took on a revolutionary tone in the wake of Donald Trump’s election as president on November 8, 2016. His racist remarks about Latin American and especially Mexican immigrants, and his campaign promise to build a wall along the border to Mexico, cast PST: LA/LA in a new light and added to the historical importance of this institutional collaboration in California. The coupling of LA and LA (Latin America and Los Angeles), moreover, spoke directly to what is inherent to any immigrant experience: to be of more than one place, even as one is made to feel like not fully belonging to any place. Resistance to singular notions of cultural identity is at the heart of Américo Paredes’s conception of greater Mexico as a cultural geography. In this sense, the construct LA/LA can be interpreted as a challenge to anti-immigrant and nationalist white supremacist rhetoric in the United States, even if that was likely not Getty’s intended message. Along these lines, one goal behind Golden Kingdoms was to underscore the movement of luxurious objects, precious materials, and people across the pre-Hispanic Americas, transcending geographic and cultural boundaries.

A mission to put three thousand years of Indigenous art of the ancient Americas on display and thereby to counter negative and stereotyped political narratives about Latin America fueled Joanne Pillsbury’s and my work as curators of Golden Kingdoms. At the time, it was uncertain what effects the election would have on our loan negotiations, which were in full swing by late 2016. The diplomatic relationship between Mexico and the United States continued to unravel into early 2017, with Trump and Enrique Peña Nieto, then president of Mexico, feuding over the border wall. In our ongoing conversations with institutional partners across Latin America, and especially in Mexico, we emphasized that state and local governments of California and Los Angeles resisted the increasingly aggressive measures by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement and US Customs and Border Protection to detain and deport immigrants.3 We argued for the importance, now more than ever, of putting the artistic heritage of Latin America on full display, both for local Latinx and Latin American audiences in Los Angeles and New York and for national and international audiences. Our lenders agreed and supported our exhibition—and those of the many other PST: LA/LA exhibitions—with generous and exceptional loans in a show of solidarity between institutions in Latin America and Los Angeles. For Golden Kingdoms, this “celebration beyond borders” of the Indigenous Americas ultimately amounted to substantial loans of some three hundred objects from fifty-six institutions in thirteen countries, many of them in Latin America.

The context of PST: LA/LA exhibitions at more than seventy institutions in Southern California provided rich opportunities for visitors to contemplate the significance and influence of pre-Hispanic art on subsequent Latin American, Latinx, and Indigenous art making. Yet within this vibrant celebration of modern and contemporary art from across Latin America, only nine exhibitions covered art from the pre-Hispanic through the colonial periods, relegating this older history as a backdrop to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. To us as curators, the gradual understanding that our exhibition would be one of only two pre-Columbian exhibitions (the other being Art of the Americas: Mesoamerican, Pre-Columbian Art from Mingei’s Permanent Collection at the Mingei International Museum) significantly influenced how we came to conceive and develop the show. In what follows, I will reflect on the development and reception of the exhibition, offering insights into some of the curatorial decisions and compromises that often remain off view to the public, and scholars.

Developing the Exhibition Narrative: Beginning at the End

Dressed in a fashionable mix of rich European and Andean garments, a man identified by a gloss as Don Francisco de Arobe peers out from a portrait painted in Quito in 1599 by the Indigenous Andean artist, Andrés Sánchez Gallque (fig. 1). Don Francisco’s two sons, Don Pedro and Don Domingo, sporting similar finery, appear by his side. Among the portrait’s most captivating aspects are prominent nose, ear, and lip ornaments set off in gold leaf from the sitters’ brown skin. The fascinating story of the making of this portrait and the biography of these men, the descendants of an escaped, enslaved African man and an Indigenous Andean woman, can be read elsewhere.4 This painting was the last work encountered by viewers in Golden Kingdoms. Deliberately placed at the end, the portrait served as an epilogue to the exhibition that explored the use, circulation, meaning, and value of luxury arts and precious materials in the pre-Hispanic Americas. Furthermore, it reflected how themes developed throughout the exhibition continued and accelerated at a global scale from the sixteenth century onward, following the invasions, wars, and conquests of the Americas. This painting was also one of the very first works Joanne and I added to the presentation we created in 2013 to pitch the idea for the show. In addition to its visual appeal, we recognized the painting’s ability to do a lot of heavy lifting to conclude the show’s narrative, specifically in regard to the identity of the painter and the sitters, the elevated political status of Don Francisco and his sons, the presence of gold and other precious materials as bodily adornments, and the themes of slavery, conquest, and transculturation. The presentation of three powerful, regal Black men on the walls of the Getty Museum, an institution better known for its European collections and exhibitions, was also intended to be a powerful statement, both to white visitors and visitors of color—as it also would later be at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This statement would become even more significant following the contentious 2016 US presidential elections and the increased public visibility of police brutality against Black people.

Figure 1.

Andrés Sánchez Gallque (Andean, active in Quito c. 1599), Portrait of Don Francisco de Arobe and His Sons Don Pedro and Don Domingo, 1599, oil on canvas, Museo de América, Madrid, and Museo del Prado, Madrid (artwork in the public domain; photograph © Museo de América, Museo del Prado, and Art Resource, NY)

Figure 1.

Andrés Sánchez Gallque (Andean, active in Quito c. 1599), Portrait of Don Francisco de Arobe and His Sons Don Pedro and Don Domingo, 1599, oil on canvas, Museo de América, Madrid, and Museo del Prado, Madrid (artwork in the public domain; photograph © Museo de América, Museo del Prado, and Art Resource, NY)

The seed for Golden Kingdoms was planted in late 2012 and early 2013, when Joanne and I began contemplating what exhibitions the GRI and the Getty Museum could contribute to PST: LA/LA. Thomas W. Gaehtgens, then the director of the GRI, proposed a pre-Hispanic exhibition—an amazing and surprising proposal considering Getty has no pre-Hispanic collections. The museum quickly warmed to the idea because The Aztec Pantheon and the Art of Empire (2010), the first exhibition of pre-Hispanic art at Getty, had been one of the most successful exhibitions at the Getty Villa. Plus, the Getty Museum had no curators of pre-Hispanic or Latin American art who could have proposed alternatives. In contrast, the GRI did at the time have two experts on the subject of pre-Hispanic art on staff: Joanne Pillsbury, then associate director at the GRI and specialist in Andean art, and me, a scholar of Mesoamerican art.5 Initial ideas of curating an exhibition on a single culture—Moche was one possibility—were quickly dismissed in favor of representing a fuller breadth of pre-Hispanic art once we realized that none of the major partner museums with significant pre-Hispanic collections, such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) or the Fowler Museum at UCLA, were going to tackle the subject. We saw it as our responsibility to represent the “ancient” Indigenous Americas as broadly as possible and to acknowledge the deep artistic and cultural legacies of diverse civilizations in the Americas dating back more than three thousand years in the context of PST: LA/LA. When Joanne became the Andrall E. Pearson Curator of Ancient American Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in September 2013, our exhibition became a joint venture.

The research for the show originated at the GRI. The theme grew out of Joanne’s decades-long research on socially specific values and meanings of precious materials, especially Spondylus shell.6 As director of pre-Columbian studies at Dumbarton Oaks prior to joining the GRI in 2012, Joanne had worked with Cathy Costin, professor at California State University Northridge, on a symposium on techné in the pre-Columbian world, a topic that focused on the processes of making objects and touched on the value and meaning of precious materials, which became two central leitmotifs of Golden Kingdoms. But it was the term luxury that defined the exhibition, despite its negative connotations in both English and Spanish. Luxurious objects—meticulously and exquisitely crafted by highly skilled, innovative artists who were commissioned by patrons with unlimited resources and who thought themselves godlike—became the focal point of the exhibition. Many of these precious artworks were portable, meaning they were able to travel great distances. They were also often cherished heirlooms that were passed down from one generation to the next for hundreds of years. As a result, these luxury objects are today an important means by which scholars identify long-distance interactions between cultures and regions in the Americas. Likewise, the procurement and circulation of luxurious materials, from which these exceptional works of art were made, was predicated upon broader networks of economic exchange and social interaction. We developed a vision to represent these civilizations as not isolated (as is frequently the case) but interconnected. Our goal was not to be hyperdiffusionist but to display the mounting artistic evidence revealing complex networks of interaction between the Andes and Mesoamerica, with Central America at the crossroads.

The development and spread of metallurgy became the central narrative by which we traced interregional interactions and provided a pivot to illuminate relative values, contrasting what we think of as precious today and what was considered precious in the ancient Americas. Pioneering scientific analyses of metallurgical techniques by scholars such as Heather Lechtman and Dorothy Hosler demonstrate that goldworking originated in the Andes early on—the earliest gold objects in the exhibition were from Kuntur Wasi in Peru dating to 800 BCE—and was introduced to west Mexico much later, around 650 CE, via exchange routes along the Pacific coast that traversed Central America.7 This late introduction of metallurgy into Mesoamerica raised the question of what other precious materials were valued prior to the use of gold. Jade, shells (especially Spondylus), textiles, ceramics, painted books, feathers, and, during later times, turquoise, were all essential to the luxury economy of Mesoamerica and were infused with religious ideology and embedded in ritual practices. Even in the Andes and Central America, where gold played a much more central role, textiles and feathers were likely valued more highly than gold. Indeed, the circulation of these preeminently precious materials drove the spread of metallurgical knowledge from South to North America. In our endless discussion about the title of the exhibition and whether to allude to materials other than gold, Joanne would always wisely advise that we would attract visitors with gold and have them leave dreaming of jade, turquoise, and feathers. Precious materials other than gold thus became our counternarrative.

The principal narrative of gold allowed us to invert the traditional approach to the Americas, going from south to north instead of north to south, and also served to limit the number of cultures we covered. We wanted to avoid creating a survey exhibition as a result of our broad geographical approach. The focus therefore was on cultures and sites that had important gold- and metalworking traditions. The sequence of cultures in the exhibition narrative was driven by the temporal appearance of gold, with occasional flashbacks to value systems prior to its arrival in Mesoamerica, where goldworking was introduced late.

Exhibiting Artistic Interconnections in the Americas

Few US exhibitions of pre-Hispanic or Latin American art to date have represented a wide swath of the region. One reason is that negotiating and shipping loans from across Latin America is both challenging and expensive. A few exceptions served us as models. The quincentennial of the European encounter with the Americas in 1992 prompted several ambitious exhibition projects, key among them Richard Townsend’s The Ancient Americas: Art from Sacred Landscapes (1992), which covered the US Southwest, Mesoamerica, Central America, and the Andes. Organized by the Art Institute of Chicago, it traveled to LACMA in 1993. Taking an even broader perspective, Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Exploration, shown at the National Gallery of Art in 1991–92, surveyed global cultures that came into contact during the “age of exploration.” In the accompanying catalog, the last of three sections is dedicated to the Americas and represents works from the US Southwest to the Andes and the Caribbean. Whereas in Sacred Landscapes, the relation to the sacred environment conceptually weaves cultures into an overarching narrative, the rationale for bringing cultures of the Americas together in Circa 1492 is contact with Europeans: each of the seven catalog essays on the Americas opens with a paragraph mentioning European discovery, exploration, or conquest. While we sought to avoid this paradigm, the topic of European greed for gold was certainly a point of overlap between our exhibitions.

For Golden Kingdoms, we took inspiration from these exhibition models to represent the Americas broadly, covering the preeminent civilizations from the Andes to Mesoamerica. “People and places” was our mantra. The spectacular aerial photography of archaeological sites in Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries (a blockbuster exhibition that originated at the Met in 1990 and traveled to LACMA in 1991) inspired some of our thinking about how to represent what Joanne called “crucibles of innovation”—key sites known for their artistic innovations—in the galleries and the catalog.

We also drew on the model of two colonial exhibitions, The Arts in Latin America, 1492–1820, and Contested Visions in the Spanish Colonial World, on view at LACMA in 2007 and 2011–12, respectively, which demonstrated the benefits of traversing both geographic and temporal boundaries. Contested Visions introduced the Spanish colonial world by looking at preceding pre-Hispanic traditions, thereby acknowledging the indebtedness of colonial art to earlier Indigenous artistic heritage. In Golden Kingdoms, the inclusion of a small but careful selection of colonial works signaled that Indigenous arts did not cease with the arrival of the Europeans but continued to be valued artistic practices throughout the colonial period and beyond.

Golden Kingdoms made a specific contribution to this body of exhibitions that considered the Americas across time and space. We highlighted what values and meanings various cultures attributed to precious materials and how these cultures were interconnected. We did so in the didactic materials and the catalog, where we showcased knowledge, materials, and objects that had traveled great distances and were circulated for many centuries. We relied heavily on maps to make our case that the diverse and distinct cultures of the Americas were shaped by transregional interaction (figs. 2 and 3). Our brilliant colleagues Robert Checchi, former senior designer in Exhibitions at the Getty Museum, and Jeffrey Cohen, designer for Getty Publications, developed visual signposts for the exhibition and catalog to distinguish regional differences while also visualizing connections. In this emphasis on interconnections and exchange, we did not seek to paint the Americas as a homogenous or coherent cultural entity—quite the contrary. The point was precisely to reflect on distinct and culturally specific value systems, divergent material and spiritual ideologies, and unique traditions of art making that arose in different places at particular historical moments, while at the same time thinking of them not in isolation but in context and in connection with each other. Movement of people and things is not only a condition of the present, but also of the past, and it fueled artistic innovations then as it does now.

Figure 2.

Map emphasizing the interconnections between cultures of the pre-Columbian Americas. Joanne Pillsbury, Timothy F. Potts, and Kim N. Richter, eds., Golden Kingdoms: Luxury Arts in the Ancient Americas (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2017) (map by Anandaroop Roy)

Figure 2.

Map emphasizing the interconnections between cultures of the pre-Columbian Americas. Joanne Pillsbury, Timothy F. Potts, and Kim N. Richter, eds., Golden Kingdoms: Luxury Arts in the Ancient Americas (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2017) (map by Anandaroop Roy)

Figure 3.

Jacket for the Golden Kingdoms catalog, showing a golden spiral pectoral, 200–900 CE, Nahuange, Museo del Oro, Banco de la República. The ornament evokes the meandering northward path of metallurgy in the Americas (photograph provided by the author)

Figure 3.

Jacket for the Golden Kingdoms catalog, showing a golden spiral pectoral, 200–900 CE, Nahuange, Museo del Oro, Banco de la República. The ornament evokes the meandering northward path of metallurgy in the Americas (photograph provided by the author)

The Research Phase

The scholarly and intellectual work that went into the exhibition and the catalog was the result of a multi-year research project at the GRI that brought experts from across the Americas into conversation and built on significant achievements in the field of Latin American archaeology. The exhibition’s advisory board was composed of colleagues based in both the United States and Latin America, all of whom contributed substantially to the scholarship of the catalog, with additional shorter sidebars written by site archaeologists.8

Although we prioritized objects from known archaeological contexts, we also included works that displayed unique material qualities, were made using innovative technologies, had important historiographies, or were simply spectacular. Guiding the selection of objects for the exhibition was our aim to showcase well-known masterpieces alongside works that had only recently been excavated, often by Latin American archaeologists. For instance, we paired a selection of the spectacular adornments of the Lord of Sipan, unearthed in the 1980s by Walter Alva, with those of the equally impressive regalia of the Lady of Chornancap, excavated more recently by Carlos Wester La Torre. Wherever possible, we underscored the positions of power held by women. In some cases, we failed to accomplish intended pairings. For example, we wanted to unite gold regalia from Sitio Conte, excavated in the 1930s and 1940s by notable American archaeologists, in particular Samuel K. Lothrop and J. Alden Mason, with those recently excavated at the neighboring site El Caño by Spanish-Panamanian archaeologist Julia Mayo Torné, but the loan for the latter fell through.9 Instead, Mayo Torné wrote a short contribution for the catalog so that this important juxtaposition could at least be realized in print.

As part of the research, the GRI hosted three workshops with our advisory board: the first in Los Angeles in early 2014, the second in Mexico City in late 2014, and the third in Lima in 2015. During these workshops we brainstormed ideas for the object list, visited local collections, and developed our collective narrative for the catalog. The act of uniting these scholars and seeing collections together, all of us breaking out of our silos of expertise, was a profound experience in which all of us came to grasp more fully the significance of cultural interchange in the Americas. These workshops were critical to shaping the scope and narrative of the exhibition.

Joanne and I, as well as James Doyle, assistant curator at the Met and scholar of Maya art, also traveled extensively through Latin America to visit collections, to learn about unpublished artworks, and to pitch the exhibition to prospective lenders. These research trips were important learning opportunities, because while we are each deeply familiar with collections in our respective specialized areas, we now got to expand our knowledge base by visiting collections and archaeological sites across Latin America. It became apparent how these regions, which are too often treated as separate culture areas in scholarship, were connected through long-distance interaction and exchange. The new connections we forged to institutions in Central America, Colombia, and Ecuador in particular allowed us to bring significant, innovative art traditions to a US public less familiar with these cultures.10 As a result, the Museo de Oro in Bogotá became a key lender to the exhibition; our collaborative work and intellectual interchange, which included residencies for Museo de Oro staff at Getty and the Met, will pave the way for future Colombian exhibitions in Los Angeles.

Our success in obtaining loans for Golden Kingdoms rested on the deep diplomatic relationships that our colleagues at Getty, the Met, and other LA institutions had forged while organizing earlier exhibitions. Exhibitions at LACMA and the Fowler Museum in particular helped us to identify collections and negotiate loans, and we relied heavily on the good advice we received from our colleagues. When we pitched the exhibition to lenders in Latin America, they were in many cases already deeply familiar with these colleagues, as well as with the expectation of reaching Latinx audiences in LA, all of which greatly facilitated the loan process. LACMA shows organized in collaboration with Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH), including Lords of Creation: The Origins of Sacred Maya Kinship (2005), The Road to Aztlan: Art from a Mythic Homeland (2001), Olmec: Colossal Masterworks of Ancient Mexico (2010), and Children of the Plumed Serpent (2012), all proved critical to the success of Golden Kingdoms.11 Despite their disparate topics, these exhibitions all had one thing in common: an impetus to explore interregional connections that defied the traditional model of a narrow focus on one culture. Lords of Creation and Olmec, while both taking a deep dive into single cultures, probed larger regional connections—such as with Teotihuacan in Central Mexico and the Pacific Coast in the former and with Guerrero in the latter—thus complicating simplistic notions of homogeneity and cultural purity in ancient Mesoamerican civilizations. The Road to Aztlan and Children of the Plumed Serpent pushed beyond Mesoamerica and highlighted trade relations between Mexico and the US Southwest. In thinking about these two shows, we debated whether to follow suit and include southwestern artistic traditions, especially considering the emphasis in PST: LA/LA on crossing national borders and seeking connections between what is now Los Angeles and Latin America. It would have allowed us to deepen the history of exchanges by which turquoise, macaws, and copper bells were traded across vast distances, forging connections between these culture areas. Ultimately, the emphasis on the road of gold, which did not lead north beyond west Mexico, precluded this direction.12

Audiences and Reception of Golden Kingdoms

Golden Kingdoms was meant to educate and inspire all types of audiences, but our key audiences were Indigenous and Latinx residents of Los Angeles—as well as of New York when the show was at the Met—as we hoped the exhibition would commemorate their ancestry and celebrate their cultural heritage. It was therefore essential that the didactics, digital media, and tours be offered in Spanish in addition to English—an uphill battle at Getty, an institution not accustomed to bilingual outreach.13 We also sought to recognize explicitly the voices and identities of Indigenous artists. One example is that we provided both endonyms and exonyms for ethnic identities where such an identification could be reliably made (such as Mixtec/Ñudzavui or Tarascan/P’urépecha).14 Another was to spell out the Indigenous authors’ names for colonial works, where known, particularly for the Florentine Codex. This bilingual (Nahuatl/Spanish) encyclopedia and history is usually credited only to the Spanish Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún, although it was written in close collaboration with Nahua authors and artists, of whom a handful of names are known thanks to Sahagún: Antonio Valeriano, Alonso Vegerano, Martin Jacobita, Pedro de San Buenaventura, Bonifacio Maximiliano, and Mateo Severino—all of whom we credited in the exhibition label for the manuscript (fig. 4).

Figure 4.

a. Display of the Florentine Codex in Golden Kingdoms at the J. Paul Getty Museum, 2017–18. b. Exhibition label for the Florentine Codex, listing the names of known Nahua authors and artists. Golden Kingdoms, J. Paul Getty Museum, 2017–18 (photographs provided by the author)

Figure 4.

a. Display of the Florentine Codex in Golden Kingdoms at the J. Paul Getty Museum, 2017–18. b. Exhibition label for the Florentine Codex, listing the names of known Nahua authors and artists. Golden Kingdoms, J. Paul Getty Museum, 2017–18 (photographs provided by the author)

While the exhibition received many positive reviews in the press and appeared on numerous “best of” lists, it is ultimately difficult to measure whether it had the intended impact or reached the intended audiences. With close to a quarter of a million visitors to the exhibition at the Getty Museum alone, it certainly attracted Latinx, Latin American, and perhaps even Indigenous visitors (based on my observations in the galleries and conversations with visitors during tours). I gave numerous tours in person and via social media in Spanish that were well received. At the Met, the Spanish-language outreach was far more robust: all didactics and much of the exhibition website were bilingual and a concerted effort was made to attract Spanish-speaking news sources in order to reach new audiences.15

The exhibition ultimately did not travel outside of the United States, nor was the catalog published in a Spanish edition—two desired goals we did not accomplish. Logistical issues, known all too well to curators working with pre-Hispanic cultural heritage, impeded these goals. One key hindrance was that objects from European and US collections cannot enter Latin American countries because of the risk that the artworks would be repatriated to their countries of origin, hence no lending institution would agree to such a loan. And because there was no showing of Golden Kingdoms in Latin America, our publisher deemed it impractical to seek partners to publish a Spanish edition of the catalog. So these aspirations were dashed.

Looking Back with a 2020 Perspective

I end with a reflection about how we conceived of the final section of the Golden Kingdoms exhibition and how it relates to the present moment, marked by COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter uprisings. I had many favorite moments in the show, but some of the most charged ones came at the very end with three colonial works with overt political messages that deeply resonate with the present: the Florentine Codex (1577, see fig. 4), the Mass of St. Gregory (1539), and the portrait discussed above (see fig. 1).16 The first is a manuscript that was painted amid recurring waves of epidemics that devastated New Spain’s Indigenous population during the sixteenth century.17 Moreover, the last section of the Florentine Codex documents the conquest of Mexico perpetrated by the Spaniards and their Indigenous allies, and especially the war against the Mexica, resulting in the fall of Tenochtitlan and its sister city Tlatelolco, which occurred in 1520–21—exactly five hundred years ago. We juxtaposed the image of amantecah featherworkers documented in the Florentine Codex with the feather mosaic Mass of St. Gregory, a singular work bearing an inscription that adds to its historical significance: it was commissioned by Mexico City’s Indigenous governor, Don Diego de Alvarado Huanitzin, and the Franciscan friar Pedro de Gante, as a gift to Pope Paul in commemoration of his papal bull Sublimus Dei of 1537, which recognized the humanity of Indigenous peoples of the Americas, forbade their enslavement and dispossession, and permitted them to receive the Eucharist. Finally, the last work in the exhibition, Andrés Sánchez Gallque’s painting, informally known as the “Three Mulattos of Esmeraldas,” represents three men of mixed heritage and elevated status in colonial society. All of these works forcefully speak one truth, in 2017–18 and now: across greater Mexico, the Americas, and beyond, Indigenous and Black Lives Matter!


I am deeply grateful for the thoughtful feedback and excellent edits by Joanne Pillsbury, Jennifer Josten, Brooke Wyatt, and Beth Chapple.



The accompanying catalog has a slightly modified title: Joanne Pillsbury, Timothy F. Potts, and Kim N. Richter, eds., Golden Kingdoms: Luxury Arts in the Ancient Americas (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2017).


The promotional video can be found on the initiative’s website: For the run of PST: LA/LA exhibitions in 2017-18, a new slogan was adopted: “There will be love. There will be art.”


On October 5, 2017, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill into law (SB 54, also known as the “California Values Act” or the “sanctuary law”) to prevent state and local law enforcement from cooperating with federal immigration authorities. The language of the law can be read online at


Tom Cummins, “Three Gentlemen from Esmeraldas: A Portrait Fit for a King,” in Slave Portraiture in the Atlantic World, ed. Agnes Lugo-Ortiz and Angela Rosenthal (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 119–45; Andrés Gutiérrez Usillos, “Nuevas aportaciones en torno al lienzo titulado Los mulatos de Esmeraldas estudio técnico, radiográfico e histórico,” Anales del Museo de América 20 (2012): 7–64; Susan Verdi Webster, Lettered Artists and the Languages of Empire. Painters and the Profession in Early Colonial Quito (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2017).


Aleca LeBlanc, then manager of the Getty Research Journal, was another expert on staff. As a scholar of modern and contemporary Brazilian art, she conceived of and co-curated Making Art Concrete: Works from Argentina and Brazil in the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, another PST: LA/LA exhibition at Getty. Idurre Alonso, now associate curator of Latin American art at the GRI, was hired by the Getty Museum as a research assistant to support Judy Keller, senior curator of their Department of Photographs, in the curation of Photography in Argentina, 1850–2010: Contradiction and Continuity, and she also ended up co-curating The Metropolis in Latin America, 1830–1930 with Maristella Casciato, senior curator of architecture at the GRI.


Joanne Pillsbury, “The Thorny Oyster and the Origins of Empire: Implications of Recently Uncovered Spondylus Imagery from Chan Chan, Peru,” Latin American Antiquity 7, no. 4 (1996): 313–40; “Luxury Arts and the Lords of Chimor,” in Latin American Collections: Essays in Honor of Ted J.J. Leyenaar, eds. Dorus Kop Jansen and Edward de Bock (Leiden: Tetl, 2003), 67–81.


Heather Lechtman, “Issues in Andean Metallurgy,” in Pre-Columbian Metallurgy of South America, ed. Elizabeth P. Benson (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1977), 1–40; Heather Lechtman, “Andean Value Systems and the Development of Prehistoric Metallurgy,” Technology and Culture 25, no. 1 (1984), 1–36; Dorothy Hosler, The Sounds and Colors of Power: The Sacred Metallurgical Technology of Ancient West Mexico (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994).


Members of the exhibition’s advisory board were Luis Jaime Castillo, Laura Filloy Nadal, Ulla Holmquist Pachas, John Hoopes, Stephen Houston, Leonardo López Luján, Blanca Maldonado, Julia McHugh, María Alicia Uribe Villegas, and Adrián Velázquez Castro. Additional contributing authors were Walter Alva, Alicia Boswell, Allison Caplan, Victor Castillo Borges, Bryan Cockrell, Christopher Donnan, James Doyle, Concepción García Sáiz, Christine Giuntini, Rebecca González Lauck, Andrew Hamilton, Ellen Howe, Ronda Kasl, Marcos Martinón-Torres, Julia Mayo Torné, Emiliano Ricardo Melgar Tísoc, Mary Miller, Yoshio Onuki, Edith Ortíz Díaz, Matthew Robb, José Luis Ruvalcaba Sil, Deborah Schorsch, Leticia Vargas de la Peña, Ricardo Vázquez Leiva, and Carlos Wester La Torre.


By Panamanian law, newly excavated archaeological patrimony has to be first put on display in Panama. The problem was there was no suitable venue in Panama to exhibit the collection of El Caño. The original Museo Antropológico Reina Torres de Araúz (M.A.R.T.A.), once the preeminent archaeological museum in Panama, had been closed indefinitely, including during the course of our loan negotiations from 2014 to 2017. There was no way to get the collection out, despite the willingness of the archaeologist to approve the loan.


We were especially keen on obtaining loans from Ecuador, precisely because pre-Columbian art, especially works of metal, are virtually unknown. The virtuosic works of gold, silver, and platinum, often inset with precious gems, represent key developments in Andean metallurgy. However, objects that we considered for Golden Kingdoms had already been committed to Shamans and Gods of Pre-Columbian Ecuador (2016) at the musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac, Paris.


Virginia Fields, former curator of the art of ancient America at LACMA, worked on all of these exhibitions. Her signature mark on these shows, besides their excellence, is their shared emphasis on crossing cultures and time periods. She was my mentor while I took classes with her at UCLA and worked with her at LACMA for a little over a year, while assistant curator Victoria Lyall was conducting fieldwork for her dissertation. During this time, I worked on the early research for Olmec and on the final phase of the reinstallation of the pre-Columbian galleries, which were designed by Jorge Pardo and spanned Mesoamerica, Central America, and the Andes (at least in the initial installation).


Copper was not only traded from Mesoamerica to sites in the US Southwest, such as Chaco Canyon, but was also worked into magnificent objects in the Southeast. However, the latter tradition appears to have originated in that region independently from the metallurgical techniques introduced to Mesoamerica from South America.


The exhibition Cave Temples of Dunhuang: Buddhist Art on China’s Silk Road (2016) at Getty was a notable exception. Featuring bilingual exhibition texts and a website in English and Mandarin, it provided an important precedent.


The issue is particularly relevant in Mesoamerica, where many ethnic groups are known by the imposed Nahuatl names dating to the period when the Triple Alliance (Aztec Empire) dominated much of Mesoamerica during the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. In some cases, such as Huastec (derived from the Nahuatl “Cuexteca”), where the modern term refers to a broad regional and cultural identity rather than a specific ethnic group, we refrained from specifying a single endonym because the region was multiethnic, and it remains uncertain if one ethnic group was solely responsible for the elite material culture that was on display.


The exhibition websites for the exhibitions continue to be available at Getty ( and the Met (


The Florentine Codex did not travel to the Met, where the end of the show was slightly reconfigured and consisted of a different set of colonial works, such as the Codex Ixtlilxochitl (1578–1650) and the Crown of the Andes (base, 1660; arches, c. 1770), neither of which were shown at Getty.


Rodolfo Acuna-Soto, David W. Stahle, Malcolm K. Cleaveland, and Matthew D. Therrell, “Megadrought and Megadeath in 16th Century Mexico,” Emerging Infectious Diseases 8, no. 4 (April 2002): 360–62; Diana Magaloni Kerpel, The Colors of the New World: Artists, Materials, and the Creation of the Florentine Codex (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2014).