A Curator Comes East for an Art History Ph.D. and a New Perspective

August 23, 2023

Nicolas Orozco-Valdivia wants to make a difference in the art world and for Latinx artists.

Nicolas Orozco-Valdivia headshot
Nicolas Orozco-Valdivia (Photo courtesy of Orozco-Valdivia)

This is an eventful summer for Nicolas Orozco-Valdivia. He will begin his Art History Ph.D. at the Graduate Center the same week as an exhibition that he co-curated will open at the Benton Museum of Art at Pomona College, where he has been a curatorial and research assistant. And a talked-about show he curated at Avenue 50 Studio in Los Angeles of paintings by contemporary artist Linda Arreola wrapped up in late July, with eight of the nine artworks sold.

Learn More About the Ph.D. Program in Art History

Just six years out of college, Orozco-Valdivia has curated or co-curated over a dozen contemporary art shows in Los Angeles. They span from his first show, Labor and Photography, which opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) in 2017 and grew out of his experience as an Andrew W. Mellon Undergraduate Curatorial Fellow at the museum, to several shows at The Mistake Room, a nonprofit art space in Los Angeles, where he was an assistant curator and is now a curator at large.

Painting by Linda Arreola, U LostI Won, diptych, acrylic on canvas, 40” x 30”ea., (total size 40” x 60”), 2021
Nicolas Orozco Valdivia recently curated a show of paintings by artist Linda Arreola. Shown here: Linda Arreola, “U Lost I Won,” diptych, acrylic on canvas, 40” x 30” ea. (total size 40” x 60”), 2021. Image courtesy of the artist.

He has known since high school that he wanted to work in museums and with artists, and his experience has confirmed he is on the right path.

“Artists put themselves out there in a way that I admire, and being able to help them feels important,” said Orozco-Valdivia, who majored in art at Pomona.

Recently, though, he realized that he wanted to do more than care for artists and help them realize their projects, he said. He saw art shows that were grounded in history, that made statements about art and artists, and he recognized he needed to learn more to do the same. He decided to pursue a graduate degree in art history.

Orozco-Valdivia is coming to New York to be a student again, but with a clear objective to make an impact as a curator.

Orozco-Valdivia, who is Mexican American and grew up surrounded by Mexican American art and artists, has observed, with wariness, the fervor for Latinx art in the Los Angeles contemporary art market in the last five years.

“It’s kind of a double-edged sword,” he said. “It's scary because it feels like it could just as easily be a fashion thing for the art world.”

One way to keep the bubble from bursting, he said, “is to learn history, to assert that this is not the first time that Latino artists have made art. There are histories. There are lineages. Because this was here before, it will be here again.”

He wants to be in New York, he said, “not just for the amazing museums, the amazing galleries, the fact that New York is a great art city,” but also because he has never lived outside of Los Angeles. “For a Chicano boy, born and raised in Southern California, it’s important to live somewhere where the culture is different.”

Los Angeles, Orozco-Valdivia observed, is a very Mexican city. The influence of the Chicano movement is strong. “New York looks very different,” he said, adding there are Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, and people from other parts of the Caribbean and all over the world, in addition to Mexicans. “It’s important for me to get outside of LA and gain some more perspective.”

He intends to study with Graduate Center faculty in and outside of the Art History program, including scholars affiliated with the Center for Latin American, Caribbean, and Latino Studies (CLACLS).

Learn More About the Center for Latin American, Caribbean, and Latino Studies

Orozco Valdivia’s parents are professors, and in addition to exposing him to Mexican American art by taking him to shows and to meet artists, they have passed on their penchant for learning. “Teachers and education,” he said, have been “a really important throughline in my life.”

“One of the things I felt at CUNY,” Orozco-Valdivia said, “is that people were sincerely trying to teach and sincerely trying to learn.”

He has already been in touch with faculty members with whom he’d like to study, including Professor Anna Indych-López (GC/City College, Art History), who, he said, has been supportive and responsive.

“Besides her amazing scholarship,” he said, “she is already showing me that there’s a commitment to teaching, to working with graduate students, and I already feel that I made the right decision. So I’m super happy.”

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