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By Christy Steadman
Colorado Community Media (via AP Storyshare)
DENVER — Walking through the Denver Art Museum with Clara Ricciardi is like traveling back in time to Mesoamerica and experiencing it firsthand.
She’ll tell the story behind a ttippin that the Incas used to pin clothes, or point out an intricate detail – and why it’s there – in a painting from the Spanish colonial era.
The museum’s collections of Ancient Americas and Latin American art are there to “allow (people) to learn more,” Ricciardi said.
Ricciardi is DAM’s Senior Spanish Language and Community Engagement Liaison. She is a key person behind the gallery’s bilingual labels and museum orientation, bringing greater appreciation for diversity to Colorado.
She has worked towards this goal with the museum for three decades. On November 18, the museum will honor Ricciardi’s efforts at its 40th annual Collectors’ Choice fundraising gala. Collectors Craig Ponzio and John and Sandy Fox will also receive accolades for their visionary contributions to the museum.
Ricciardi, who has a background in law school, is originally from Mexico City and at age 21 came to California to work for the Mexican Consulate General. There, she met Geno Ricciardi, whose family has a centuries-old connection to Colorado. On their first date, Geno brought Clara to Colorado and, more specifically, DAM.
She not only fell in love with Geno, she fell in love with the museum, where she was happy to see her heritage represented.
“It was a treat to see the objects (that are) part of my culture,” she said.
The Ricciardis moved to Denver in 1988. Clara began to feel homesick for her Mexico City, a place she describes as an open-air museum where “you’re surrounded by art.”
So in 1992, when a friend told her about a volunteer opportunity with an upcoming traveling exhibit at DAM called “Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation,” she jumped on it.
And so, Ricciardi found his place to connect with community and art.
“It was really exciting to have visitors who didn’t know the museum, but who knew the objects (exhibited),” Ricciardi said.
One such item is a metate, which roughly translates to a grinder. It dates back thousands of years to Mesoamerica, but is still found in some homes today. Seeing a metate in the museum, people sometimes said they remembered it from their grandmother, Ricciardi said.
“They see themselves here, like me,” Ricciardi said. “They see their culture reflected in a place that represents art.”
Ricciardi eventually became DAM’s first Spanish language program coordinator.
When Ricciardi started, the museum did not offer bilingual tours. She therefore led efforts to move them forward. She has also forged relationships with school districts in the metropolitan area to engage children of all grades and their families.
“Clara knows the power of language to connect,” said Heather Nielsen, learning and engagement manager at DAM. “She brings an infectious energy and a caring hand to every interaction she has. Clara never tires of making DAM feel like home to so many visitors, welcoming them warmly through the doors in Spanish and always with the most beautiful of smiles.
Another highlight of Ricciardi’s tenure is the annual Día del Niño. He celebrated his 20th birthday this year. Día del Niño, which translates to Children’s Day, is a Mexican tradition that was brought to the United States.
Ricciardi “planned every detail of the incredible Día del Niño event as carefully as she oversaw the implementation of the Spanish language in our Old and Latin American art galleries, and in all of our special exhibitions and galleries” , said Christoph Heinrich, director of the Frederick and Jan Mayer galleries at DAM. “Without his gentle but tenacious push, the DAM would not be what it is today.”
All of these efforts are shining examples of Ricciardi’s pride in DAM.
“The museum is a little treasure in the city,” Ricciardi said. “It’s a way to connect with the rest of the world and the art inside isn’t just three-dimensional. It’s alive.”