ESCALA was founded in 1993 by the University of Essex and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to build, maintain and promote a permanent collection of art from Latin America, of the highest quality, to represent the rich diversity of visual arts in the region from 1900 to the present.
Originally called the University of Essex Collection of Latin American Art (UECLAA), the Collection was formally established with the donation by Charles Cosac of ‘Memória’, a painting by Siron Franco. Charles Cosac was a student of the Collection’s Founding Director, Professor Dawn Ades, in the Department of Art History and Theory (now School of Philosophy and Art History). Professor Ades pioneered the teaching and research of art from Latin America in the UK with colleague and ESCALA Chair, Professor Valerie Fraser.
The University has been committed to the study of Latin America since the foundation of the University’s Latin American Centre (now Centre for Latin American and Caribbean Studies) in January 1968, with a grant received from the Nuffield Foundation in 1967. The Centre responded to the international vision of the first Vice-Chancellor, Sir Albert Sloman who, in focusing on Latin America, aimed to ‘dispel prevailing ignorance and prejudice’ of the region (BBC Reith Lectures, 1963).
Professor Ades’ research led her in 1989 to curate the ground-breaking exhibition Art in Latin America: The Modern Era, 1820-1980, at the Hayward Gallery in London (which toured to Madrid and Stockholm). This was the first survey exhibition in the UK of art from Latin America and revealed the absence of artworks from the region in public collections across Europe. This absence hampered efforts at the University of Essex to teach alongside original artworks, as was possible with other areas of art history.
ESCALA was not founded purely as a teaching collection, however, but always aimed to play a national and international role by providing access to art from Latin America to a broad range of audiences. ESCALA was registered as a museum by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council in 2001 and has been an accredited museum since 2007. In the same year, the Collection was also short-listed to receive a £1 million acquisitions grant from the Art Fund’s scheme, Art Fund International.
In the meantime, ESCALA continues to work arts organisations locally, nationally and internationally, including firstsite and Tate, in order to make the Collection available to the public and to stimulate research, awareness and appreciation of art from Latin America.