If you’re a frequent visitor to the McNay Art Museum, a follower of San Antonio arts and culture, or simply a person about town, you may know by now that the McNay has a new director.
That director, Richard Aste — who is actually not so new anymore, having replaced 25-year director William J. Chiego back in September of 2016 — came to us with 15 years of innovative curating experience at the Museo de Arte de Ponce in Puerto Rico and, most recently, the Brooklyn Museum.
A third-generation Latin American whose family emigrated from Peru to Miami when he was very young, Aste, early and often, experienced art around the world — a pivotal perk of his parents’ jobs in the airline industry.
It was a transformative experience at age 10 — in Florence with a Botticelli — that helped Aste realize he was called to work in the realm of art, driven to chase and share the ineffable, transcendent magic that great works of art possess.
After undergraduate work at the University of Michigan, Aste earned his PhD in art history at the City University of New York. He has since garnered a reputation, which is part of why he’s here, as an inclusivity-minded, socially conscious curator, a gifted art historian, and a charismatic cultural leader.
In August of 2016, I interviewed Aste for Out In SA’s sister publication the San Antonio Current, and he laid out his plans to build upon the successes of his predecessor and re-envision the McNay as a truly welcoming community center — while continuing to pursue and exhibit the very best in modern and contemporary art.
For Aste, owing in part to his stint at the progressive and community-driven Brooklyn Museum and at least in part to his status as an immigrant and member of a few minority groups, a museum should be responsible and responsive to all segments of the population it serves. A museum, after all, should be a safe place where everyone feels challenged to explore, think, and be inspired; it should be a place where everyone feels a sense of representation and belonging — not just members, tourists, and patrons of the arts.
Aste reports that he fell in love with San Antonio back when he first visited. Now, owing to his charismatic, generous personality and servant-leader tendencies, San Antonio is smitten too.
A few weeks ago, just over eight months into his time as director of the McNay, I sat down with Aste again. As we talked — he’s easily one of the most engaging and pleasant interviews in town — I sought to find out about his experience with the museum and San Antonio thus far. But, I was also looking to understand more about the man himself.
Mi McNay Es Su McNay
In Aste’s estimation, the McNay is now in the midst of becoming its third self. The “transition from a private house in a very tony part of town, to the first modern art museum in Texas beginning in 1954, to a vibrant, diverse community center in 2017,” Aste remarked, “can be very bumpy.”
Reiterating his philosophy for the museum he envisions, the McNay of the present-turning-future, Aste explained that he wants the McNay, its staff and stakeholders, “to be very outward-facing,” communicating a “message of inclusiveness, of diversity, of complete openness and transparency.”
“We think of our community in all of our decisions,” Aste said. “In particular, we think of those who haven’t been here before, members of our community who don’t feel welcome, who maybe don’t feel safe in a place like this.”
To this end, Aste has spearheaded a more robust and relevant social media presence, has seen that all new exhibits have information in English and Spanish (in addition to a new Spanish micro-website), has the education department reporting directly to him, and has revamped the look of the Tobin Exhibition Galleries. He has launched the “McNay Cares” video series, to lend public support to important causes from Spirit Day to Breast Cancer Awareness Month, participated in Texas Public Radio’s “Dare to Listen” campaign, to help establish “an atmosphere where civil, civic debate is valued, where differences are respected and common ground is celebrated,” and will oversee the launch of the “Mi McNay Es Su McNay” anti-bullying initiative this summer.
This is all on top of organizing the magnificent “Monet to Matisse: A Century of French Moderns” exhibition, among many others forthcoming.
Aste and company are also, admirably and shrewdly, focusing a great deal of energy on millennials and centennials (the generation after millennials, born from the mid-to-late-1990s and onward). While teens and children already get into the museum for free, and the strong education department has long been a hallmark of the McNay’s engagement with the community, Aste knows they can do more.
Noting that these younger generations “define culture in broad ways” and that they are as apt to experience culture through a food truck festival, or a park, or a concert as through a museum, Aste said that the museum must “expand [its] normal role as a repository of the arts, to include these other activities, because millennials and centennials are looking for an experience.”
Another thing they are looking for, according to Aste, is to get behind a social cause and “to make a difference.” As such, the McNay seeks to highlight “the social consciousness in [its] work” and “address questions head on through the arts.”
“When we do an exhibit like ‘Monet to Matisse,’ it is on us to show that those artists also have a political voice, a social voice, a historical perspective,” Aste explained. “We have to show our visitors that these voices and perspectives, even if they are from the past, are actually present and relevant today.”
This heightened awareness of the perspective of younger generations, perhaps along with the fleshed-out social media presence, has already paid dividends. This year’s “Teen Night” boasted an attendance of more than 900 area teens, almost double the attendance from last year.
For Aste, “all of these things should serve as reminders that [the McNay] is one of those safe places in your life,” a place where you can “feel safe to be inspired, to grow, and also to question, regardless of your background, regardless of your socio-economic status, your sexual orientation, or your heritage.”
Aste continued: “Through our collections, you can realize how diverse the world is and how beautiful that diversity can be. We want people to experience what we have here and for it to help them realize that there is a place, that there is room for them in society. That kind of empowering is what we have become all about.”
After Aste shared his excitement about this summer’s third annual Pop-Up Exhibition dedicated to Texas artists, this fall’s Chuck Ramirez retrospective “All This and Heaven Too,” and a gender and identity exhibition the museum is working on (with input from the community) for 2019, we continued talking about the point of it all.
“In times of uncertainty, in times of transition, in times of doubt about the future, museums can reinforce the fact that there’s still beauty in the world and there’s still inspiration,” Aste remarked. “Art and artists can allow us to step out of ourselves and see things from a different point of view.”
“I have stared at a work of art in the past and gone back to my regular life and seen it differently, because of five minutes with an artwork that engaged me emotionally and intellectually. Most importantly, works of art can cause us to slow down in hyper-kinetic moments.”
Aste believes that it is the museum’s job “to slow you down and get you to really think and meditate and take a deep breath and, for a few minutes, be inspired by something bigger than yourself.”
As far as how his museum philosophy and community-driven vision has gone over with McNay stakeholders and the community at large, Aste reports being “pleased with how open this city has been to a fresh approach to the McNay.”
He noted that he has “not once encountered resistance to expanding [the McNay’s] reach, to opening up the campus, and to building on [his] predecessor’s commitment to breaking down social barriers.”
The Man Behind the Plan
As is the case for all of us, Aste is not defined in total by his professional proclivities and intellectual passions. Even a person with the drive and zest for his work that Aste possesses, is also a rich tapestry with singular desires, formative relationships, and the need to (at least occasionally) unwind from the grind of the daily mind.
Aside from the rigors of a demanding and high-profile new position, Aste has been facing the task of adapting to a new home, after having (almost continuously) resided in New York City for 20 years.
Aste said that he and his partner, Max Goodman, who is the Director of Original Programming and Development at Sprout (a network owned by NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment Group), have quickly and completely come to adore San Antonio.
“What we love most is how diverse the city is” and how it “continues to open up to us,” Aste said. “I’ve never lived — and Max said the same thing — in a more welcoming city.”
“We are approached often with comments like “we’re so happy you’re here,” Aste said. “And, we’ve come to believe that. As jaded New Yorkers, living there for 20 years, no one would have approached us in New York City with those words. It’s disarming, for sure. When I hear that, from a member of the community, who is authentically saying that, then I want to be the very best that I can be for San Antonio.”
Goodman, for his part, hasn’t moved to San Antonio with Aste, as he’s obliged to stay in New York for his work, but has visited at every opportunity, including for a whirlwind first dance with Fiesta.
Aste and Goodman have been together for five years, ever since meeting when the former moved into the latter’s building in Manhattan and they spied each other in the lobby. Then, in a story almost too cinematically New York to be believed, they deepened their connection the next time they met, in the laundry room, and have been together ever since.
The take home, Aste joked, is that “New Yorkers are lazy, so we date within our buildings.”
As for the seeming strain of a long distance relationship, Aste seems unfazed. “If you’d ever met Max, you would know that he makes it very easy,” Aste beamed. “He is love personified.”
Neither man could see giving up on the career opportunity in front of him, respectively, so they are making it work. Aste explained: “We are very proud of each other for what we are doing. We are not asking each other to compromise. We see each other often and treasure the time that we have together.”
“Like me, he has described his job as the biggest platform he’s ever had to do the right thing. We are both very committed to advancing society forward. He does it through children’s programming … very thoughtful, sensitive children’s TV. And, I’m doing it through the very best in the visual arts and communicating the power of those arts to the community at large.”Straight up: #goals.
A bemused Aste half-joked that one of the biggest challenges he’s experienced thus far in San Antonio has to do with food. “I have been eating my way around the city, one spot at a time, and gaining about two pounds a month,” he said. “But, I’ve been very happy along the way.”
Apparently, his friendship with local chef extraordinaire Andrew Weissman hasn’t helped much. Even Aste’s mother lovingly observed the effects of his San Antonio diet on the fit of his stylish New Yorker clothes.
Apart from his totally relatable and joyous struggles with San Antonio cuisine, we can trust Aste is assimilating nicely. He cited Blue Star, the Lone Star Arts District, Ruiz-Healy Art, French & Michigan, Cinnabar, and AnArte among his favorite art destinations so far; he and Goodman have taken up hiking in the Hill Country (in place of their old haunts in the Hudson River Valley); he’s conducted “many a breakfast meeting” at Taco Garage; and he and Goodman went to some 25 Fiesta events this year.
Of his and Goodman’s experience with Fiesta 2017, Aste remarked that “What [he] loves the most about Fiesta is that [he] thought [he] had a grasp of the city and its people before Fiesta. But, Fiesta [proved to be] a kind of fast-tracking social experience.”
“You know, I was the social chairman of my fraternity in college, so I thought I could keep up with any party,” Aste chuckled. “But, I will never, ever again underestimate the power of Fiesta. I am humbled by this amazing thing that San Antonio has been doing for so long.”
As I shook my head with a knowing grin, he quickly added: “I promise to be more ready next year.”
What are three random/interesting things that you’d like our readers to know about you?
1. I am a very proud Hispanic, who wasn’t always proud to be Hispanic. When I was 14, I became a U.S. citizen from my native country of Peru. And, out of peer pressure growing up in an Anglo community in Miami, I changed my name legally from Ricardo Rudolfo Aste to Richard Rudolph Aste. Now, I often contemplate going back to Ricardo. As a fully realized 47-year-old, I am very proud of my Hispanic heritage.
2. My favorite subject growing up was math and I never get to explore it. The biggest source of contention with my partner Max is who is better at math.
*SAT scores would seem to indicate it’s probably Max, but Aste loves him anyhow.
3. I am a big fan of Saturday Night Live. In particular, I have especially always been a champion of the women on that show, who somehow find direct access to my funny bone every time. In general, I am a big fan of women comedians, whose gift just seems somehow more special than that of the other gender.