Seventh in a series on extraordinary women in Costa Rica
“All art stems from a political position, which can be very evident or subtle, but there is always a link between the artwork that remains, and the time and context in which it is produced,” says Virginia Pérez-Ratton, the internationally acclaimed curator, art critic and founding director of the San José-based project Ars TEOR/éTica.
With an absolute passion for art, the charismatic Pérez-Ratton is profoundly knowledgeable about her subject. The 58-year-old Costa Rican artist is considered one of the major protagonists in the transformation of artistic practice in Central America.
Decorated with the order of the Chevalier des Arts y des Lettres of France in 2000, she is also a 2002 recipient of the Netherlands’ Prince Claus Award for culture and development, the anniversary volume of which describes her as an “art activist and re-inventor of Central America.”
Pérez-Ratton calls herself “a facilitator for contemporary art in Central America.”
“One of the main things to me is not only getting the world to know us, but also getting to know ourselves and getting to value our own space as a legitimate one,” she says.
Traveling extensively, Pérez-Ratton visits artists’ studios and participates in lectures and symposia in various parts of the world.
Since 1992, she has been working as an independent curator and jury member for art biennials in Latin America, Europe and the United States. She has also written numerous articles and catalogue text for artists and local and international institutions, as well as newspapers, art magazines and compilations.
In 1994, Pérez-Ratton became the first general director of the newly created Contemporary Art and Design Museum (MADC) in San José. In addition to drafting and helping pass a law to define and protect MADC, Pérez-Ratton opened the museum to art from all over Central America and made it a model for museum practice in peripheral countries. Under her guidance, more than 60 exhibitions in and outside of Costa Rica have been organized, and the RegionalCenter for Documentation and Research as well as the National Board of Curators were created.
“The field of work as the director of MADC was complex, but very enriching at the same time,” she says. “I would not have missed this challenge. It was like living some kind of revolution. My work period from 1994 to 1998 defined the character of the museum as an independent institution in Costa Rica.”
Because of a disagreement with then-Culture Minister Astrid Fischel, Pérez-Ratton resigned from her position after four years. Shaken by the experience but motivated to continue, she founded Ars TEOR/éTica, a small, nonprofit space in San José’s historic Barrio Amón neighborhood, in 1999.
“I really wanted to work with young artists, particularly in the construction of meaning of contemporary art, placing the emphasis on linking art with theory,” she says.
With a revival of civil society taking place in Central America, a new cultural energy has evolved, Pérez-Ratton explains.
“The young artist’s work is often critical, socially committed, experimental and breaking away from prevailing stereotypes,” she says. “Throughout the isthmus, intellectuals have founded nonprofit spaces for the promotion of art, and artists and curators have established networks. They know each other, exchange among themselves, and exhibit and publish beyond national boundaries.
“Apart from the regional arena, art from (Central) America has begun to move globally in international exhibitions and biennials, a process in which TEOR/éTica has become a driving force.”
Pérez-Ratton has been involved in art all her life. As a child, she preferred to draw, read or write rather than play with dolls.
Born to a Costa Rican father and a mother of Scottish descent, she grew up bilingual, recalling both her parents as strong role models. From her father’s side, she says she learned honesty, responsibility for the community and the value of hard work. Her mother is still a model for solidarity and is a joyful supporter of all family members.
Pérez-Ratton studied literature at the University of Costa Rica (UCR) in the eastern suburb of San Pedro, where she later worked as a faculty professor in the modern languages department for nine years. In 1981, she began her independent art studies in Costa Rica and continued with printmaking in Paris and Strasbourg, France.
Working with different media, she exhibited paintings, engravings, objects and installations in group and solo shows from 1983 to 1995.
The profession of her engineer husband brought the family to Europe, where they lived for several years.
“While living and working in Europe at the end of the 1980s, I realized the absence of Central American art in general,” Pérez-Ratton says. “When I showed my own prints in Strasbourg in 1989, exhibition visitors told me that my art did not look Latin American. Noticing a misunderstanding, I began to reflect on the identity of being Hispanic. It was like an ignition for my future commitment as a curator and director of MADC.”
At present, Pérez-Ratton is working on publishing three books. For the coming year, readers can look forward to the portraits of three 20th century women artists in Central America, entitled “Three Women, Three Memories.” The two other projects include a book on Central American photography since 1990 and a compilation of her writings since the early 1990s.
Among Pérez-Ratton’s future projects, the opening of a museum has priority. Across the street from TEOR/éTica, the art deco mansion that formerly housed Bakea restaurant is soon to be transformed. At regular three-month intervals, the freely accessible venue will host permanent collections of contemporary Central American art.
The woman who has turned a commitment to art into her life mission considers the isthmus a stimulating environment for her work.
“Since our historical background is fragmented, not having that linear reading of history, like in Europe, there is still space to do things – you can invent,” she says.