Curator and artist Julio César Morales explores cultural differences as senior curator for ASU Art Museum in Arizona.
Born in Tijuana, Mexico in 1966, Julio César Morales grew up in the borderlands, often traveling between Mexico and the United States. His early experiences with different foods, languages, and music currently inform his work as both an artist and curator working in the American Southwest.
Morales moved to Arizona in 2012 after becoming the curator at ASU Art Museum. The museum is located just east of Phoenix on the Tempe campus of Arizona State University on the traditional homelands of the O’odham and Piipaash people.
“My projects often place special emphasis on examination of the meaning and value of cultural differences,” Morales explained shortly after his curatorial appointment. “With a deep interest in social change, my projects often address social justice issues relevant to both local and global communities.”
At present, Morales estimates that he’s completed about forty-five curatorial projects at the museum, with a focus on bringing in artists to create new pieces. “About ninety percent of those projects were based on newly-commissioned works,” Morales tells Southwest Contemporary.
Looking back over his time at ASU Art Museum, where he currently serves as senior curator, Morales cites several highlights, including Pablo Helguera’s itinerant Spanish-language bookstore titled Librería Donceles, which was installed in a downtown Phoenix project space in 2014.
Although the installation was temporary, it’s had a long-term impact on the greater Phoenix community. After seeing Helguera’s library, community member Chawa Magaña decided to launch Palabras Bilingual Bookstore, which was eventually gifted numerous titles from the installation. Today, her bookstore at 906 West Roosevelt Street anchors a thriving hub for literary and visual arts.
Most recently, Morales was one of four organizers for ASU Art Museum’s Undoing Time: Art and Histories of Incarceration, which included new work by a dozen contemporary artists including Carolina Aranibar-Fernández, Raven Chacon (Diné), and Cannupa Hanska Luger (Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Lakota, European).
“Because I’m an artist, I approach curating almost as a collaboration,” explains Morales. “I try to push the artists to explore; I need artists to take the trip with me.”
After Mexico-based artist Tania Candiani wondered with Morales about whether a Phoenix geological formation called Hole in the Rock could be transformed into a speaker, Candiani undertook collaborations to make experimental music conceived as lullabies for Sonoran desert animals which became part of her 2020 exhibition For the Animals curated by Morales.
Often, his collaborations expand beyond the museum walls, as with an exhibition by Margarita Cabrera, who worked with community members to make soft sculptural cacti using uniforms of border patrol agents that were shown at the museum and Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix.
Morales also co-curates Crossfade LAB, a series of cross-disciplinary events featuring conversation, performance, and onstage collaboration between Latinx and Latin American visual, media, and literary artists.
He even dreams of creating a video collection and archive of Latinx and Latin American art at the museum someday, giving curators and scholars a place to research and write about the works.
Although he’s curated more than 100 exhibitions, Morales never set out to be a curator.
“I became a curator by accident,” he says. “I was living in San Francisco in the late ’90s when there were a lot of artist-run spaces and opportunities for emerging artists,” Morales recalls. Then came the dot-com boom, and the resulting displacement of artists.
In the early 2000s, Morales rented a small space in the Mission District where he launched a creative space called Queens Nails Annex. Morales invited artists from California to China to show work at the space, which had two 200-square-foot galleries and an area where Morales showed video works. “It was a way to bring back some of that energy,” he explains.
The project ended after nine years—and in a dramatic fashion.
“The gallery caught fire because of an artwork we did,” remembers Morales. “It was an installation by Claire Fontaine, a Paris-based artist who used 50,000 matches to make the shape of the United States.”
Nowadays, Morales has several new projects in the works, including looking at the mythology of the Southwest with all the museum’s curators for an upcoming exhibition drawn from the collection. For another exhibition, he’s collaborating with the Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City to consider masks and other elements of superhero culture while exploring themes including feminism and resistance.
But he’s also thinking about the next generation of curators, in part because of ASU’s recent partnership with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Pérez Art Museum Miami for the Master’s Fellowship in Art History, which is designed to culturally diversify art museum leadership across the U.S.
“The art world has shifted since I started curating. It’s paying more attention to BIPOC artists, but I represent just three percent of all curators,” says Morales about a 2019 Mellon Foundation study that showed that Latinx/Latino curators account for just three percent of all curators working in the country’s museum field.