Meet Pérez Art Museum Miami's Chief Curator René Morales
Get to know René Morales, the art scholar and award-winning curator who's helping to shape the future of Miami's vibrant, multicultural art scene, and learn about the exciting installations and projects PAMM will soon be displaying.
René Morales is one of the most noteworthy names in Miami's vibrant art scene. As the award-winning chief curator at Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM), Morales has organized more than 50 exhibitions showcasing modern and contemporary art of the 20th and 21st centuries, highlighting his hometown's diverse community and pivotal geographic location at the crossroads of the Americas.
Recently, Morales has been working behind the scenes at PAMM curating new exhibitions for art enthusiasts that align with part of the museum's mission to "encourage everyone to see art as an incentive for genuine human interaction, communication, and exchange." We sat down with Morales to find out what it's like to be the chief curator at PAMM, how he's adjusted during lockdown, and what he's working on for future museum visitors, including the highly relevant work of Gary Simmons. Check out the full interview below.
What is Priceless to you, and why?
The feeling that I've done right by others, that I've served a greater good—that's Priceless to me.
What's one moment (recent or otherwise) that has impacted your life?
As a child, I was lucky enough to have experienced Surrounded Islands, a large-scale outdoor project by Christo and Jeanne-Claude in which they surrounded a series of islands in Miami's Biscayne Bay in bright pink fabric for approximately two weeks in 1983. Although I was young, this experience opened my eyes and my mind to the possibility that normal, everyday life could be wondrously disrupted, if only momentarily, by a communally shared encounter with art. I've never stopped chasing that sensation, and that pursuit has served as a guiding light in many of my decisions.
How has it impacted your life? What have you learned from it?
For me, the greatest lesson I've learned from Surrounded Islands is that it's possible for ordinary individuals to make great things happen. With enough vision, effort, and determination, anyone can bring about positive change.
How did you first get involved in the world of visual art?
In college, I studied cognitive science—specifically, visual perception. I'd always been fascinated with how the mind and the eye work together to create the psychological worlds we inhabit. As part of those studies, I chanced upon the work and writings of artists like Marcel Duchamp, Robert Morris, and Helio Oiticica. This early exposure to experimental art and art theory opened the door to new worlds of knowledge and experience, and I was instantly hooked. And along the way, I had mentors who each left a deep impression on me—not just in terms of how I see art, but in terms of how I relate to the world.
Who are some of your heroes, and why?
These days, I am constantly thinking about how the pandemic has completely upended our concept of "essential workers." It's impossible to overstate society's obligation to these people. This includes the healthcare professionals on the front lines of this crisis, but also everyone out there keeping our communities going, despite great risk and stress.
What are some things that inspire you and your work?
Artists themselves have always provided the main inspiration for me and my work.
What are some related or unrelated activities that actually help you prepare for your work?
In my work, I've always relied heavily on cross-disciplinary research, delving into diverse fields and topics such as philosophy, material culture studies, climate change, economics, and geopolitics. Over the years, my amateur-level engagement with these subjects has influenced my work just as much as basic art history and art theory.
What are your responsibilities as the chief curator at PAMM?
Along with PAMM Director Franklin Sirmans, fellow curators, educators, and many other individuals at the museum, I help craft the museum's exhibitions program while working to build its collection. Though much of my work is outward facing—interfacing with the public and various cohorts within the community—some of it is more inward facing, from coaching and supervising staff to managing all sorts of museum protocols and procedures.
What is one thing you love about working at PAMM?
The greatest privilege of working at PAMM is to serve such a unique, diverse, and culturally complex community—a community that happens to be my hometown. Growing up here, I was always hungry for encounters with art and culture. The idea that I am, in my own limited way, helping to provide those experiences for others today is incredibly humbling and gratifying.
What is the most challenging part of your job?
The most challenging aspect is having to juggle the wildly different tasks that curators are called upon to do, from public speaking and serving as an ambassador for the museum to writing essays in isolation, or crunching the numbers on an exhibition budget. Curators have to be both pragmatic and idealistic. They have to be aesthetically sensitive yet intellectually rigorous, and they have to be able to pivot from introversion to extroversion quickly.
How do you choose which art/artists to feature at PAMM?
I've never had a rigid formula, and I don't think any curator should. There are certain intellectual interests that I have always nurtured, and if an artist's work aligns with those interests and provides new insight, that's often a sign that it will be a productive relationship. But there have been countless times when the motivation has been based on much more of an intuitive or subjective reaction—an intuition that rests upon many years of studying and thinking about art. When making decisions about which artists to work with, it's important that you factor in how their work relates to PAMM's mission, identity, and collection, and if and how the work resonates with our audiences.
What are you working on now?
Among other projects, I'm organizing a large survey of the work of Gary Simmons. His work is multilayered and subtle yet super hard-hitting, and his primary subject—the visual, cultural history of racism in U.S. pop culture—couldn't be more relevant and urgent.
What makes the art scene in Miami unique?
What makes Miami's art scene unique is what makes the city unique: the great diversity of cultures and worldviews that this community brings together. Just like Miami, the local art scene is highly dynamic, ever-changing, and always growing. And it's just the right size—large enough that you never feel like you've seen the end of it, with new artists emerging constantly, yet small enough that there is always a certain intimacy and familiarity.
How do you stay up to date artistically?
It's really important to have a good network of people you trust and who trust you, preferably spread out enough to give you a good sense of interesting artistic production throughout the world. I also read about recent art obsessively. Before COVID-19, I travelled often, and I always did my best to visit the best art spaces in any given destination while doing as many studio visits as possible. Social media has become really key too, helping me stay up-to-date on an artist's work almost in real time.
What are some big changes or trends going on in your industry? How are these changes and trends impacting your work?
The biggest change over the last few years has been this fantastic push to make the art world more diverse and equitable, to celebrate the work of people of color while working toward social justice and a more level playing field. There is still a tremendous amount of work to be done, but it feels like a time of great hope.