It's hard to imagine that anything could ruffle the calm of curator Carlos Basualdo, a man who weathered the junta and dirty war in his native Argentina, rode show-jumping horses, and cast off careers as engineer and rancher and poet, only to find his true love in art.
Yet a short time after he joined the Philadelphia Museum of Art as curator of contemporary art in 2005, director Anne d'Harnoncourt told him she thought the museum should acquire a now-famous 1967 work in neon by Bruce Nauman, The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths (Window or Wall Sign).
That flapped the unflappable.
"I was terrified," Basualdo said recently. "There I was in an American institution and confronted with the need to acquire a very expensive work by a very well-recognized American artist who I didn't really know that well."
And then Basualdo buckled in and led the successful effort to land the seminal work.
A decade later, contemporary art is its own department in a museum very much focused on building its contemporary collection and rep. Basualdo, 53, heads that contemporary department and has forged a deep relationship with Nauman, acquiring several of the artist's works for the PMA collection.
He has also pushed the museum in directions unheard of before he came on the scene — most recently with the mammoth "Philadelphia Assembled" exhibition that sprawled across many of the city's neighborhoods in 2017, collectively involving hundreds of citizen artists, builders, and activists.
This year, Basualdo is working on a huge Jasper Johns exhibition that will stretch simultaneously in 2020 from the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York to the PMA, and he's publishing two books based on PMA holdings: Bruce Nauman: Contrapposto Studies, and Cy Twombly: Fifty Days at Ilium.
"For me, it's really all about trying to be in a place where I can love," Basualdo said. "I love being in a place where I feel I can do something useful for all the people, really."
The museum may have been planning to dive into the world of contemporary art before Basualdo's arrival. But he has defined the particular directions.
Timothy Rub, museum director and chief executive, said Basualdo opened the door for the museum's association with Twombly and subsequent acquisitions of the artist's work. He's worked closely with Jasper Johns and Nauman.
Michael Taylor, former head of the museum's modern and contemporary department, pointed to Basualdo's interest in video and film, and even more significant, his "global thinking," which has led to a renewed interest at the museum in Latin American art.
"The contemporary art department should lead the conversation within the institution about contemporary production, not simply in Europe and the United States but really globally," said Rub. "Carlos and his staff have really stepped up and become leaders in the conversation about contemporary art more broadly considered than the museum has ever done before."
A casually stylish man given to sharp hats and scarves, Basualdo is also a passionate, exacting intellectual. When he is interested in something, he crafts his enthusiasm like a fine but reticent tailor.
No question, Basualdo is a long way from the political turmoil of 1970s Argentina. His father was an attorney who was jailed by the regime for daring to represent leftist militants accused of murder. In the chaos of the run-up to the military junta (installed in a U.S.-backed 1976 coup), even Basualdo, a school boy, was pulled from the street by mysterious right-wing thugs. They released him.
His experience running the family ranch, his love of poetry and horses, and his trial by political fire have now been distilled into an unusual curatorial perspective.
"He's an out-of-the box thinker," said Taylor, who is now chief curator and deputy director for art and education at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Taylor worked closely with Basualdo when Taylor was PMA curator of modern art and head of the then-combined department of modern and contemporary art.
"Carlos really understood the links between [Marcel] Duchamp and Jasper Johns and people like Bruce Nauman," he continued. "Carlos works at two speeds. There's the speed of the Jasper Johns…. That's sort of like a love letter to Jasper, but not risky. The other speed Carlos works at takes the risk."
Taylor and Basualdo came up with the idea of showcasing Nauman at the Venice Biennale in 2009. Basualdo handled the bulk of the curatorial work for the exhibition in the American Pavilion, which won the Golden Lion Award as the biennale's best.
>>READ MORE: Philadelphia Art Museum takes top prize in Venice
"He's an immensely talented curator who knows the field well and has the kind of relationships not simply in this country with curators at other institutions, but with galleries, artists, and curators internationally," said Rub. "An institution of our caliber really needs that in order to prosper in the field of contemporary art."
Whether it's overseeing something as vast as "Philadelphia Assembled" or something as simple as commissioning a work of video — or as museum people like to call it, "time-based media" — in partnership with an Italian foundation, Basualdo remains charismatic and warm.
Rachel Rose, 32, a video artist, won the first PMA-Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo sponsored Future Fields Commission, but she almost quit as a working artist before her career even began.
Then she encountered Basualdo's curatorial finesse.
"One of the most beautiful things was Rachel Rose; at the opening she said, 'I want to say this museum is important for me because I was … in the midst of a big crisis: I didn't know if I wanted to [continue to] make art," she told Basualdo at the opening of her video piece, Wil-o-Wisp, in May. "'And I came to the museum to see "Dancing Around the Bride" and I came four times and I decided, yes, I want to go on making art.'"
"Dancing Around the Bride: Cage, Cunningham, Johns, Rauschenberg, and Duchamp," was a spectacular 2012-13 Basualdo concoction, almost a scholarly mashup which brought together video, painting, performance, musical text — all leavened with the history of the museum itself as perhaps the world's greatest repository of Duchamp material.
"You cannot imagine how proud that made me," Basualdo said, recalling Rose's comment. Wil-o-Wisp is on exhibition at the PMA through Sept. 16.
If "Dancing Around the Bride" exhibited a strong curatorial concept brought to fruition — "Philadelphia Assembled" represented another Basualdo characteristic: The ability to step back and let the creativity flow through others. In this case, Basualdo invited Dutch artist and curator Jeanne van Heeswijk to "mount a project." And then he receded and let her work.
Over three years, van Heeswijk hung out in Philadelphia, talked with people in neighborhoods all over town, gathered ideas, recruited participants, inspired dozens of local mini-projects, and drew out the city's collective creativity and political soul.
It was a vast new kind of art making, loosely called "social practice." Hundreds of people and dozens of organizations were involved, with the effort culminating in a building-wide Perelman exhibition last fall.
"It's almost looking at it as if life itself is an art form," said storyteller Denise Valentine, a major participant, describing the artmaking showcased in "Philadelphia Assembled." One thing's for sure: There has been nothing like it in Philadelphia or probably anywhere else.
"In a world where curatorial practice is always being assessed and redefined, in a world where curators are working in many new and unfamiliar domains — and social practice is certainly one and so is the integration of the arts in an exhibition setting — we at the museum have to give curators like Carlos license to experiment," said museum director Rub.
"That show broke barriers," said the Virginia museum's Taylor: "It brought in visitors and got the museum away from the image of the Greek temple on the hill. Carlos is part of a larger task at the museum: How do we become relevant?"
For Basualdo, the question is always where is the art?
"That's a question we should ask ourselves all the time," he said. "Art should always be an interrogation we cannot answer ourselves as specialists. It's an interrogation we have to answer with people. That's what I believe is our role."