In the latest installment of our occasional conversations with Fort Worth newsmakers, María Elena Ortiz, a new curator at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, spoke with arts and culture editor Marcheta Fornoff about how she’ll approach her new role.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For the unabridged version, please listen to the audio file attached to this article

María Elena Ortiz: My name is Maria Elena Ortiz, and I’m curator at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, also known as the Modern. 

Marcheta Fornoff: You recently started in this role. Tell me what you’re most excited about with this new gig. 

Ortiz: I’m excited about a lot of things. I mean, the Modern has an amazing collection, and I’m very excited to be able to work with some of those impressive holdings and also contribute to them.

I’m also really excited about working with the building. I mean, the building, as you know, is breathtaking. You just walk in there and you feel peace. This is just such a fantastic place, an ideal place to show art.

I’m also very excited to work with the audiences at the Modern. I’ve been there just for a couple of weeks, and I’ve been very impressed when I walk through the galleries, hearing people talking about art and the type of conversations that they’re having. I’ve just never seen anything like it, to be honest.

And (I’m) also (excited) to work with the team. The Modern has been doing fantastic shows for a long time, so I’m also delighted to be part of that history now. And that’s been (possible) because of the great team that they have and the support they have for team members. I’m also just really excited to be there and to be at the Modern right now. 

Fornoff: I want to pause for a second because you mentioned the conversations you’re hearing in the galleries are unlike what you’ve heard elsewhere. What sets them apart? 

Ortiz: I’ve been very impressed. I was just very captivated by people talking about — and I feel like I’m not being nosy —  but I heard conversations about just engaging with the artwork.

For example, I was there a couple of weeks ago and there (were) people talking about the Kehinde Wiley (painting) that is up right now — not only the aesthetic of the art, the curatorial lingo — but also how they felt and their impressions of the work.

That’s what art is for, to create conversations that really speak to our everyday lives. And I have to say that I did not only (see) that at the Modern, (but) also when I went to the Amon Carter or the Kimbell. I saw a similar dynamic where just people are very into looking and talking. And sometimes the artwork would take them to something else, but, to me, that’s what art is for.

Fornoff: Since you’re talking about starting and engaging in conversations, what kind of discussions do you hope to foster with the works that you select as a curator? 

Ortiz: I’ve always been interested in speaking on the contemporary moment and also the history of art. My expertise is in Latin America, Latinx, Caribbean (and) African diaspora. I am very excited to hone in on my expertise and continue to do that for the museum because the museum has been carrying some of those conversations in the past. I think that could be a nice way to show the robustness of contemporary and modern culture, perhaps also including histories that might not be well known.

For example, I think that the show we have right now at the museum (“Women Painting Women”) certainly speaks to that. (That show) is curated by Andrea Karnes, our chief curator.

Those types of shows really bring forward histories that are not often spoken about, and I definitely would like to continue that line of the curatorial framework, which is what I’ve done in the past in my exhibitions.

Fornoff: I’m wondering what lessons you’ll take away from some of your past jobs. You worked at the Pérez Art Museum Miami and the Caribbean Cultural Institute. What will you take away from those experiences? 

Ortiz: You know, those experiences were great, and they were great in the sense that at PAMM I was able to bring attention to art, contemporary and modern production that needed more attention… that was not part of mainstream conversations.

We were able to get $1 million from the Mellon Foundation to start this initiative, the Caribbean Cultural Institute. And what I took away from it is that there’s a lot of desire to know about stories that are not often spoken about. I feel like there’s a similar dynamic going on in Fort Worth. People are very interested, like I mentioned before, of looking at art and just experiencing it. They’re also just fascinated by being exposed to new things or just the things that they know but they might want to know more about. It’s great that there’s a desire because, after we started doing a lot of Caribbean art shows, other museums in the U.S. started doing shows like we were doing, which is great because we needed more of that. 

Fornoff: Is there anything else that you wanted to mention or you think is important to know about either the museum or how you’ll approach this job?

Ortiz: I’m very excited to just immerse myself in the DFW culture. I actually went to school at the University of Houston, so I lived in Texas in the past. I also have family that I would come (visit) before I moved here.

For me, Texas is such a rich state, culturally, socially and all the different cities are just so unique and special. So I’m just very excited to immerse myself in the environment and the context and see creative-wise what that instigates. 

Fornoff: I’m excited to see what you do here, and I’m really thankful for your time this morning.

Ortiz: Thank you so much. And yeah, please come by and say hello. Now you know you have another friend there.

Marcheta Fornoff covers the arts for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at marcheta.fornoff@fortworthreport.org or on
Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Marcheta Fornoff

For just over seven years Marcheta Fornoff performed the high wire act of producing a live morning news program on Minnesota Public Radio. She led a small, but nimble team to cover everything from politics...