Built on a storied past, Cuenca’s Museum of Modern Art looks ahead to a vibrant, interactive future
By Stephen Vargha
The Municipal Museum of Modern Art has a long and colorful past. Of course, the Catholic church had a big part in it.
It started with Cuenca’s Archbishop Bishop Miguel León y Garrido, who saw a lot of people were drinking and lying on the streets, trash from the taverns, and generally drunkenness in the atriums of the churches and in the city’s squares. The Catholic church believed alcohol was acceptable in moderation but regarded drunkenness as a sin.
Records indicate that German priest Juan Bautista Stiehle designed the original building and that it took two years to build. Father Stiehle was also commissioned to draw up the plans for the New Cathedral as well as Iglesia de San Alfonso, on Simón Bolívar.
In 1878, Casa de la Temperancia (House of Temperance) opened.
Like almost all charities, Casa de la Temperancia had many financial problems. On January 31, 1905, the house the church created was closed. Six months later, the city government took over operating it.
The statutes stated that “those who must enter are the dipsomaniacs (an uncontrollable craving for alcohol), those who have the vice of drunkenness, the customary drunkards.”
To be admitted, the police had to bring the alcoholics to the house. It was mentioned in the statues that the number of people that the house could receive depended on available funds, assigned annually by the ministry.
Those municipal funds ran out in 1924. At the request of the Political Chief and the President of the Municipality, it was converted to a men’s jail. That lasted 11 years.
In 1935, authorities decided the house should provide social services and be used for charitable works. For four years, it was a rest home.
Four years later, necessary repairs to the house were made. “They created the health program, Gota de Leche, to feed the poor with milk,” said Bernardo Vega, the Coordinator of the Municipal Museum of Modern Art. “They made some rooms for families to live here and some healthcare was provided.”
Just 11 years later, it was transformed into a school for poor people and orphans. The students and their families lived at the school. It was very harsh and sometimes an evil environment.
“If the children urinated on the mattresses, they had to carry it around the school 20 times,” said Vega. “Children laughed at them as part of their humiliating punishment.”
In the 1970s, Hernán Crespo, Director General of Museums of the Central Bank of Ecuador, suggested saving the historic building and converting the casa into a museum. Under Mayor Pedro Córdova Álvarez, the city acquired the building for a museum with a specialized library, which local leaders said at the time is what “Cuenca needed so much.”
“At that time, Cuenca was not a patrimonial site, so Crespo’s idea was a new one for the city,” said Vega. “The city leaders agreed and got the best architect to help restore everything.”
Restoration was a new concept a half-century ago. “They based the restoration on what had been done in Prague and Venice,” said Vega.
The first pieces of art were donated by prominent Cuencano painter Luis Crespo Ordóñez. “It was the beginning of the museum as some of his works were modern art,” said Vega. “We now have 608 pieces of art. There are paintings, sculptures, drawings, and modern art installations.”
That includes a dozen more works donated in 2005 by Ordóñez, in compliance with his last wishes.
The granddaughter of a famous Cuencano watercolors artist, Eudoxia Estrella de Larrazábal, is credited with getting the museum to where it is today. “She was very tough, but well trained,” said Vega. “As Director of the Municipal Museum of Modern Art for 30 years, she wanted the museum to be the best.”
Her experiences as a watercolor artist as well as being married to a Spaniard who made the stained glass for the New Cathedral, Estrella made the museum a leader in Latin America.
She hosted exhibitions of artists from around the world, including Francisco Goya’s engravings, works by Ecuadorian painter and sculptor of Kichwa and Mestizo heritage, Oswaldo Guayasamín, Argentine artists Pérez Celis and Luis Felipe Noé, Venezuelan Jesús Soto, and Filipino modernist Noel Villafuerte.
In 1987, Estrella founded the International Cuenca Biennial, which promotes contemporary art in the region. “It brings in artists that are recognized all over the world,” said Vega. “Their pieces are of high quality.”
Because of that, the biennial has grown into one of the largest such exhibitions in Latin America. In 2021, three dozen artists from Brazil, China, France, India, México, Perú, and the United States had their works exhibited at the biennial.
“In the art world, the best shows are the biennials. Most are in the U.S., Europe, and Hong Kong,” said Vega. “Because we started early, Cuenca’s biennial has a great reputation in Latin America.”
The museum has numerous small rooms holding individual displays. That includes an interactive display by Catholic University of Cuenca. “It is the result of a big investigation of Cajas National Park where they worked with biologists,” said Vega. “They found an unknown species of bees. Their exhibit shows those and flowers.”
Walking through the museum is an interesting journey. Unlike many museums in the world, there is no set way to view and experience the Municipal Museum of Modern Art.
One area has a moat with succulents planted along its sides. “The casa used to have a water channel in back to calm down the patients at the temperance house,” said Vega.
Connecting two parts of the museum is a narrow keyhole passage. It is cleverly painted to make one feel like they are going through a giant keyhole such as the one in “Alice In Wonderland.”
The museum has three gardens. On the wall of the largest garden is an interesting permanent display of stone faces. They are very intriguing, and one will spend time observing all of the interesting faces.
Vega has big plans. “I have a lot to do with the collections. It needs to be organized and cataloged. We need to restore art pieces,” said Vega. “One of the gardens needs a lot of help. It has no plants… just one tree.”
But like many museums worldwide, finances are tight. Being funded by the government has its limitations. That includes the museum having its own website. An American recently offered his expertise to create one, but the government says the museum has to be part of its website and not have a unique web address.
Having fundraisers is another thing. “We have a good piano for concerts, but everything we offer has to be free,” said Vega. “We can only accept donations, such as a much-needed projector, and volunteers.”
The American artist, illustrator, writer, and designer Maira Kalman said, “A visit to a museum is a search for beauty, truth, and meaning in our lives. Go to museums as often as you can.”
Municipal Museum of Modern Art is open seven days a week.
And it is free.
Municipal Museum of Modern Art, Mariscal Sucre 15-27 y Coronel Talbot, Cuenca, 07-413-4900, firstname.lastname@example.org, Hours: Monday-Friday, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., Admission is free.
Photos by Stephen Vargha
Stephen Vargha’s new book about Cuenca, “Una Nueva Vida – A New Life” is available at Amazon in digital and paperback formats. His blog, “Becoming Cuenca,” supplements his book with the latest information.