Mónica Ramirez-Montagut is having an even stranger COVID-19 lockdown than most humans. In July, she takes over as the new director of MSU’s Eli and Edythe Broad Museum, most likely in a virtual capacity, at first. Meanwhile, she’s wrapping up her duties as director of Tulane University’s Newcomb Art Museum in New Orleans — also remotely.
She’s fielding a flood of congratulatory emails from her current colleagues and her future ones at MSU, but, poised between one COVID-19 hot spot and another, she doesn’t know when she’ll be able pack up and move to Michigan.
“I have to just wait and be patient, which is not my forte,” she said.
Ramirez-Montagut a museum director and curator, event organizer, advocate for marginalized communities, a trained architect and lots of other things, but above all, she is a true believer in the transformative power of contemporary art. She loves nothing more than to see a light bulb go off over a skeptical visitor’s head.
“Imagine that you’ve felt hostility toward something your whole life, and suddenly you’re like, ‘Oh, my God, I get it. That is so interesting and so creative,’” she said. “That’s the best experience we can provide for our audience.”
The kind of art that thrills her goes beyond aesthetic beauty or even spiritual uplift, into a zone of new and necessary communication.
“When a visitor says, ‘I didn’t know how much I needed to see this show,’ that’s the best compliment you can get,” she said. “Art is such an interesting and powerful vehicle for engaging people.”
Her passion for museums comes from growing up in Mexico City, the “City of Palaces,” where hundreds of museums and cultural sites whisked her off to any century she cared to visit.
“My whole life, we went to museums as our entertainment and informal education,” she said. “You can see the Teotihuacan Pyramids, the size of the Egyptian Pyramids, or you can drive another hour and see the Olmeca, or you can stay in Mexico City and see temples and cathedrals.” The city is a treasure box of art and architecture ranging from pre-Hispanic and indigenous to colonial culture to “super-contemporary cutting edge.”
“That’s how I grew up. It stuck with me,” she said. “Wherever I travel, I have to go to the museums and the market.”
The MSU search committee credited her with turning the Newcomb Museum into a vibrant gathering spot for students and the community — a goal they hope she will pursue at the Broad — and a hub of New Orleans culture.
But her own transformative experiences in museums leave her uninterested in running a passive coffee-shop-style hangout.
“I’ve been very thankful because I’ve learned a lot,” she said. “I’ve become a more sensitive and sensible human being because I grew up going to museums and understanding the world through the power of the visual arts.”
Although she is trained as an architect, with a special interest in the work of Frank Lloyd Wright and Zaha Hadid, Ramirez-Montagut found that art “can be a lot more experimental and a lot more flexible in responding with more immediacy than architecture.” As she pointed out, patience is not her forte.
“Architects always have to negotiate longer, with more stakeholders, for their product to be materialized,” she said. “Frank Lloyd Wright had to work around 16 years to get the Guggenheim built. I don’t imagine myself sticking to a project for 16 years.”
Running a museum, especially one designed by a visionary architect, is a way for her to blend both passions.
She loves the immediacy of art, its quick response time and unpredictable twists and turns as new voices break onto the scene.
“I’ve dedicated my career to contemporary art, to giving artists their first museum show,” she said.
However, she is keenly aware of widespread public bafflement, and even hostility, to a lot of contemporary art.
“We come upon these weird things on the wall, on the floor, that we’re not even sure if that’s art,” she said. “What are we supposed to do with it? Can we touch it? It’s the job of the museum to be welcoming, to put people at ease.”
She can relate to anyone who has struggled to read high-concept jargon next to a piece of art and walked away unedified.
“Sometimes I walk into a museum, read the wall text, and I have a Ph.D. and I’m still grappling with exactly what they mean,” she said. “It upsets me, quite honestly, because if I’m having trouble — it defeats the purpose of serving your audience.”
She likes to give visitors “several points of access” to an exhibit. Rather than hermetically placing art in “sacred” isolation, she likes to include infographics, timelines, videos of the artist at work, graphic novel-style text boxes — anything that might help switch the light bulb on.
“We turn them into high-end design components and post them equally to the artwork,” she said.
She views the Broad’s visionary design, by Zaha Hadid, is an asset and not a distraction.
She also works as a curator at Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York, a gigantic spiral that is often accused of upstaging the work displayed inside.
“Both the Guggenheim and a Zaha Hadid building — I love to look at the artwork from above, from a skewed perspective,” she said. “So it’s not just a head-on experience, like it is in many other museums. You’re going to be able to look at everything from different angles that are generally not the experience in other museums, and that’s an asset.”
She also looks forward to tapping into the wide-ranging colleges of a large university, from the veterinary school to the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, and look for ways to bring Native American, Latino, LGBT and other marginalized groups into the artistic conversation.
“I’m excited to experience the Midwestern work ethic and life ethic,” she said “There’s a particular one for the South as well and it has been a tremendous joy to discover that in the South, and I’m looking for the same experience in the Midwest.”
She also knows that there are several Frank Lloyd Wright houses within cantilevering distance of MSU, including two of Wright’s experimental Usonian houses, in Okemos.
“It’s all super-exciting and extraordinary. I can’t wait. It’s such a dynamic region with so much history. It’s like a myth and I’m going to be in the middle of it all.”