Carolina Alvarez-Mathies Brings a Latinx Voice to Dallas Contemporary

The art museum’s executive director broadens its perspective and audience.

Carolina Alvarez-Mathies '10 at Dallas Contemporary

Carolina Alvarez-Mathies '10 is executive director at the Dallas Contemporary, an art museum. Photo by Vishal Malhotra

Carolina Alvarez-Mathies Brings a Latinx Voice to Dallas Contemporary

The art museum’s executive director broadens its perspective and audience.

Your education background is in fashion merchandising and entrepreneurship. Now you’re Dallas Contemporary’s executive director. How did you get here in your career?

After graduation I moved to New York City, where I began my career with Venezuelan fashion designer Ángel Sánchez, who hired me as his director of press. This opportunity set the course of my career.

Through Ángel, I got to know El Museo del Barrio, New York’s leading Latin American art museum. After forming part of the founding junior council, I eventually joined as head of communications. From there, I joined Creative Time, the public art nonprofit, as director of external affairs. At both El Museo and Creative Time, I learned about the importance of seeking out innovative platforms and initiatives to engage wider audiences with contemporary art.

The sum of these experiences brought me back full circle to Dallas-Fort Worth. In 2019, I visited for the TCU vs. UT game (that we won!) and was connected to the team at Dallas Contemporary. A few weeks later, I moved to Dallas as deputy director, charged with reimagining the vision of the institution. In May 2022, I took over as executive director.

How did your time at TCU influence your career?

TCU has been a huge part of my life since growing up in El Salvador: Both my parents attended TCU, as did my uncles, aunts and most of my cousins and siblings.

I graduated from TCU with a Bachelor of Science in fashion merchandising and minors in strategic communication and Italian language. It was through my work in fashion that I developed an eye for contemporary art and design, and my educational background in strategic communications helped pave the way for my work with institutions like El Museo del Barrio, Creative Time and, of course, Dallas Contemporary.

Carolina Alvarez-Mathies, executive director of Dallas Contemporary

Carolina Alvarez-Mathies, a second-generation Horned Frog, arrived at Dallas Contemporary in 2019, three months before the pandemic temporarily closed its doors. During that time, she said, “My team and I, small but mighty, looked inward to develop a robust digital program. The focus on digital allowed us to reach new audiences.” Photo by Vishal Malhotra

Who have been some influential people in your career and why?

So many individuals and organizations as a whole have contributed to my success, and they still continue to inspire and challenge me to this day.

I continue to be inspired by my longtime mentor and friend, Cristina Grajales of Cristina Grajales Gallery. As one of the most distinguished and trailblazing voices in the design world, Cristina has helped me to chart my own path in the art world, constantly pushing me to take risks and grow in my career path. I admire her fierce interest in challenging the status quo and her passion for bringing forth unique, emerging voices representative of our mutual Latin American heritage.

Robert Wennett and Mario Cader-Frech have also been strong influences on me. They founded Y.ES Contemporary, a nonprofit organization that creates opportunities for contemporary artists working in El Salvador and beyond. I have served on the advisory board of Y.ES since its inception in 2015. Their tireless work that has made Y.ES a world-renowned program is incredibly inspiring.

How do you think your Salvadoran and Latinx identity has influenced your career decisions?

I have an immense pride for my Salvadoran heritage, and I have actively worked to carve out much space for the work of fellow Salvadoran and Latinx artists — whether officially through my roles in public arts institutions, to personal pursuits and endeavors, such as my involvement with Y.ES Contemporary or my time as El Salvador’s ambassador on special mission for cultural affairs.

How did you become El Salvador’s ambassador on special mission for cultural affairs? What did it mean to you to hold that title?

I found my time as ambassador a definitive career highlight. Promoting the strength of the country’s culture worldwide has become a personal passion of mine, and doing so in an official capacity was a profoundly rewarding experience. During this time and since, I was able to leverage my global network to promote the strength of the country’s culture worldwide and raise awareness of the many talented artists living and working in El Salvador and beyond. Being a woman of Salvadoran descent, I strive to approach programming much more thoughtfully and more inclusively, creating opportunities for wider, more diverse artistic voices.

Where did your spark for contemporary art start?

I grew up in a family with a huge appreciation for travel. I have had the opportunity to do that quite extensively from a very young age. It made me curious, in the broadest sense. I wanted to know how different cultures did it all, and experience it — from fashion, to design, gastronomy and so on. Art as the greatest tool of expression was a huge part of that. Museums and the opera were staples of any trip.

You were brand new at Dallas Contemporary when the world shut down because of Covid. How did your team pivot? What positive lasting impact do you think the pandemic has had on the art museum world?

I joined Dallas Contemporary in late 2019, only three months before we had to close the museum due to the global outbreak of Covid. I am extremely proud of the resilience the Dallas Contemporary showed during this time. My team and I, small but mighty, looked inward to develop a robust digital program. The focus on digital allowed us to reach new audiences. Reaching wider and more diverse groups will be a core mission for the museum under my leadership — digital initiatives that go hand in hand with in-person programming are a necessary and ongoing part of that.

The pandemic also underscored the importance of innovation and agility, being nimble and thinking on one’s feet, to provide timely opportunities for artists to tackle some of today’s most pressing issues.

In your career you have worked with many well-known artists. What have those experiences been like for you personally and professionally?

Working with artists and creatives is a unique and incredibly rewarding experience. It makes one think differently, more creatively, more openly, which of course has had and will continue to have a huge impact on my professional career and the direction I take as a leader.

Carolina Alvarez-Mathies

Alvarez-Mathies counts Guadalupe Maravilla among her favorite artists, she said. “His practice has evolved into sculpture as sound and healing while talking about immigration and migration.” Photo by Vishal Malhotra

Who is your favorite artist? Or someone you would really love to exhibit/work with?

I could never pick just one! But I have to say, Guadalupe Maravilla’s career is beautiful to witness. His practice has evolved into sculpture as sound and healing while talking about immigration and migration. I am excited to travel to New York and see his solo show at Brooklyn Museum.

You’re on the cover of D CEO’s 2022 Dallas 500. What was it like to be recognized as one of the region’s most influential business leaders?

It is truly an honor to be recognized as a leader within the wider community and to be taking on a leadership position at an organization I am extremely passionate about. Dallas has given me so much during my formative, educational years, and I am very excited about this opportunity to give back.

What’s next?

I have been responsible for helping to launch concurrent shows by leading artists Joseph Havel, Lonnie Holley, Borna Sammak and Natalie Wadlington. Renata Morales, known for her costume designs and outfits for celebrities like Grimes and Arcade Fire, continues her “evolving” exhibition of 700-plus drawings and ceramic works until September 2022, and we’re just getting ready to announce an exciting lineup for the rest of the year. My focus is furthering Dallas Contemporary as a museum and a place for everyone in the community — a point of convergence and convening, where interesting art and interesting people can come together. Stay tuned!

Editor’s Note: Questions and answers have been edited for clarity and length.