A century ago, in 1893, the World’s Columbian Exposition was held in the city of Chicago. Expressing the optimism of that era, this international fair celebrated the idea of universal progress, the promise of science and industry, and the seemingly limitless prospect of economic growth and prosperity. The assumptions and values reflected in the organization of this exposition were also evident in the growth of the city and the vast transformation of the man-made environment in the United States during the late nineteenth century. Founded in 1832, Chicago was newly rebuilt after the catastrophic fire of 1871. It developed as a powerful manufacturing and commercial center as the tide of immigrants flowed from Europe and the Atlantic states, across the Midwest, toward California. A process was underway whereby cities, suburbs, factories, farms, and transportation networks were expanding and being organized with increasingly specialized functions. Within twenty-five years, the appearance of the North American landscape was profoundly and permanently changed. In the World’s Columbian Exposition, this process was seen as a natural outcome of that spirit of enterprise and free outward expansion that had also marked the voyages of Columbus and others in the European Age of Discovery.
Today, in 1992, the Quincentennial Year is being commemorated in Chicago by an exhibition of far different scope and character. “The Ancient Americas: Art from Sacred Landscapes” examines a central theme of Amerindian art and culture, concerning the deep-seated, unifying idea of the integration of society and nature. The Art Institute of Chicago has organized this exhibition in cooperation with national museums in Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Chile, as well as with museums and collections in the United States and Europe. The project is presented in a time of profound and pivotal global change in the physical, economic, political, technological, and aesthetic environments. While the impetus of exploration continues in the inhospitable reaches of the solar system, we have also seen pictures of the earth from the moon taken by astronauts. We know that we live on a planet of limited resources, and we perceive a widening abyss between human existence and the delicate networks of life in the biosphere. This is also a time when the peoples of countless communities, long thought to have been subsumed or absorbed by larger nations or empires, are again voicing their old traditions and asserting their cultural identity and origin as we move toward the twenty-first century. In this decade of passage, The Art Institute of Chicago affirms its fundamental educational mission to bring to broad public attention ideas and languages of form that will extend our concept of art and its purposes, in communicating the deepest human values and aspirations.
The idea of the “Ancient Americas” project was proposed to me by Dr. Richard F. Townsend in 1987. With funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, he embarked in that year on travels to Latin America to explore the notion of this exhibition with museum directors, scholars, and cultural officials. Strong favorable response from these countries and from museums and scholars in the United States and Europe led to an international planning conference at The Art Institute of Chicago in October 1988. This conference was supported by the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. From the outset, the overarching aim of this project was to bring to a new and wider public an understanding of the significance of the arts, thought, and history of the first civilizations of the Americas and their descendants today. Reflecting the recent interpretive work of art historians, archaeologists, and ethnologists, as well as scholars in related disciplines, the exhibition and book occasioned by it focus on ways that ancient communities perceived their connections with the earth, the sky, and the waters. Still unfamiliar to many, the spectacular arts of Amerindian civilizations were sometimes surrounded by myths and rites of intense and fearsome life-and-death drama. Yet, we find within their protean variety a widely shared notion of humankind as an active participant in the process of annual renewal, and the concept of cities and temples designed as places of dialogue with the deified forms of the landscape. The essays in this book outline the shape of an ancient body of knowledge, transmitted through the visual arts and oral tradition, which held the earth as a giver of life, a framework of order, and an inspirer of song. By calling this theme to public attention, we seek to incorporate a cultural history that reaches far beyond the first encounter of European and Amerindian peoples in 1492, and to present ideas and images that may usefully point to a more meaningful and habitable future. To reach traditional and new, expanded museum constituencies in the United States and Latin America, we are accompanying the exhibition project with an innovative international educational program, in addition to this book.
The Art Institute is delighted to be cooperating in the presentation of this exhibition with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. I would like to thank Director Dr. Peter Marzio and former Director Dr. Earl A. Powell III, for their cooperation and support, which has assured that this exhibition will be experienced by a broad public across the United States. To many colleagues and friends in Latin America, who have so generously participated in the formation of this complex project, we owe a special debt of gratitude. For their indispensable support and expressions of interest, I particularly wish to thank Carlos Salinas de Gortari, President of Mexico; Alberto Fujimori, President of Peru, and Jaime Paz Zamora, President of Bolivia. In the initial stages of the exhibition, the directors of cultural institutions in various countries were especially helpful in launching our project: Carlos Valencia Goelkel, former Director, Instituto Colombiano de Cultura, of Colombia; José M. Jaramillo Breilh, former Director of the Instituto del Patrimonio Cultural of Ecuador; Marta Regina de Fahsen, former Vice-Minister of Culture and Sports of Guatemala; Fernando Cabieses, former Director, Instituto Nacional de Cultura of Peru; Carlos Urquiso Sossa, former Director of the Instituto Nacional de Arqueología of Bolivia; and Enrique Florescano, former Director of the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia of Mexico. All of these individuals contributed significantly to the realization of the project in the discussions held during the 1988 planning conference in Chicago, as well as subsequently in their respective countries. In Mexico, the counsel and help given by Victor Flores Olea, former President of the Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y los Artes, and by current President Rafael Tovar y de Teresa, have been critical to the development and successful outcome of the project. The gracious participation of Luis F. Capurro Soto, Director, Archivos, Biblioteca Nacional de Chile of Chile, helped to complete the exhibition display with loans from the southernmost outposts of high civilization in ancient South America. Many more participants from the United States, Latin America, and Europe to whom we are most grateful are named by Richard F. Townsend in the Acknowledgments on the following pages.
I wish to acknowledge the generous financial support given to the five-year project by the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Federal Indemnity Program. It is no exaggeration to say that the concept would have been stillborn without early commitment by these enlightened government agencies. We also owe special thanks to the Rockefeller Foundation, the J. Paul Getty Trust, the Sara Lee Corporation, and American Airlines. Without their commitment, an undertaking of this magnitude would clearly have been beyond our reach.
Finally, I would like to personally thank Richard F. Townsend and his able and talented staff for the intelligence and persistence, over half a decade, to transform the discoveries and theories at the forefront of Amerindian archaeology and art history into an exhibition, a publication, and an educational program that have a comprehensible and compelling message for scholar and layman alike, in this the Quincentennial Year of the encounter of European and Amerindian cultures.
James N. Wood, Director