Susana Torruella Leval ‘66

Susana Torruella Leval ‘66

Written by Nataly Cifuentes ’16

Susana Leval '66

Susana Leval ’66

A native of Puerto Rico with an immense passion for art, Susana Leval has been a major contributor to the introduction and development of Latin American art in the United States.

Susana’s interest in art started from an early age. When she was four years old, she began taking ballet classes in Puerto Rico with Lottie Fischer, who broke barriers facing female performers imposed by traditional society. Susana took classes with her until she came to Manhattanville in 1962. Here, she continued studying dance for one year with Janet Collins, an extraordinary teacher and pioneer of black ballet dancing.

Another important cultural influence in her life was Ricardo Alegría, an archaeologist responsible for the restoration of Old San Juan, whose fortifications date back to the 16th century. In 1955, Dr. Alegría founded the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture. Thanks to its programs, Susana became interested in Puerto Rican art and cultural history during her high school years.  Her mother, Luisa García de Quevedo de Torruella, took her to cultural events in their city and encouraged her career in the arts.

Manhattanville College offered Susana a high level of academic excellence, and she was determined to work hard and use its resources wisely. Her older friends at Manhattanville advised her on which professors matched the criteria she looked for, and this enabled her to build an academic background that prepared her for graduate school and her career in the arts. While at Manhattanville, Susana participated in a joint undergraduate program with Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville. When she wrote her senior thesis on Paul Cézanne, Susana felt supported by the College when a fine scholar from the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, Professor Luis Lopez Rey, was invited to campus to help administer her oral exams in art history.

When she first came to Manhattanville, Susana had intended to study French. “I was a major Francophile,” she shared. However, Professor Daniel Woods, an archaeologist who had led excavations in Alcudia, Majorca, inspired her to go in a different direction. “After my very first class with him,” Susana said, “I switched my major to Art History. I did not know you could spend your entire life thinking about art, looking at beautiful things, and thinking about the role of art and culture in human history. It was a wonderful switch. Art history gives you a timeline of human achievement in the arts, and a tremendous discipline to know how to do research, and to try to understand art’s meaning. That was fascinating to me.”

Professors William Coe and Jerrold Lanes also made their mark on Susana’s art history background. William Coe was a Medievalist, while Lanes taught 20th Century and contemporary art. Both professors gave her an understanding and appreciation of different historical periods, always encouraging her to explore further by going to museums to encounter art directly.

After her graduation from Manhattanville, Susana lived in Washington, D.C. for several years before returning to New York, where she decided to restart her career by attending graduate school.  Here Leval faced a number of challenges, specifically, sexist attitudes from male academics. While she was interviewing at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, the academic committee questioned why she wanted to attend graduate school at age 28. “Well,” she said to them, “I am 28, and now I really know what I want.” She earned her Master of Arts from NYU in 1973, and completed her coursework for a Ph.D.

During graduate school, Susana interned on a grant for the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, and was eventually offered a position as a researcher in the Drawings Department. While working at MoMA, Susana noticed a lack of Latin American art in the exhibition program. However, her boss, William S. Liebermann, encouraged her interest in Latin American art, and effectively helped MOMA’s collections to become more inclusive by acquiring Latin American drawings and paintings.

While she worked for MoMA, Susana married Pierre Leval, a Federal Judge, had a daughter, India, and began working from home. She realized that MoMA’s increasingly competitive atmosphere did not suit her temperament. “Luckily, around that time I met a lot of contemporary Latin-American artists and started working with them. As I wrote their first essays about their work, or introduced their artwork to small galleries, my interest in contemporary Latin-American artists, and working with contemporary artists, grew exponentially. I also began to feel a great deal of satisfaction by returning to work related to my Latin American cultural roots,” Leval said. Susana considered returning to graduate school to finish earning her Ph.D.  But, as Latin American art was not an academic field then, she realized that working on the ground in the actual field was more relevant to her than an academic degree. So Susana and a friend, Nilda Peraza, co-founded the Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art (MoCHA) in SoHo in 1985. “My generation was by no means the first to work in Latin American art. Yet, during the “alternative” arts movement of the ‘80s, we made real progress in founding institutions, assembling exhibition programs, publishing catalogues, and providing primary scholarship in a way that the New York art world began to take notice,” she said. Susana thus became a leading participant of the spirited movement, with origins in the ‘60s, of fighting for the inclusion of artists previously marginalized from the mainstream arts canon.

In 1990, Susana started working as Chief Curator at El Museo del Barrio. Four years later, she became the Director, and in May 2002, as she retired, the Board of Trustees named her Director Emerita. These were exciting years for Leval, who was actively involved in giving previously unknown Latin American artists a voice. She believes that her arts education at Manhattanville and at the Institute of Fine Arts, and her training at MoMA, gave her the necessary knowledge and skills to manage and take proper care of a museum collection.  By the end of her tenure in 2001, El Museo del Barrio was recognized as an important museum, in dialogue with the City’s other museums, and Latin American artists had made notable progress in finding acceptance within New York City’s art world.

Of the many great exhibitions she oversaw at El Museo, Leval has a special fondness for the 25th anniversary shows. “We presented an extraordinary show of Taíno art, called Taíno: Pre-Colombian Art and Culture from the Caribbean, from September 1997 to March 1998. I am proud that the exhibition made a major contribution to the field, and was a huge achievement for a small museum with a tiny staff.  Another exhibition that stands out for me is Los Artistas Responden (“The Artists Respond”). To create the exhibit, artists were invited to visit the museum’s collection, chose one piece of art, and respond with a work of their own. It initiated an active artist-collection dialogue that has now become a popular a type of postmodern model.”

During her time as El Museo’s Director, Susana activated its participation in the Cultural Institutions Group, a circle of 33 museums in New York City operating in City-owned buildings and which receive special city government funding. As her relationships with City arts colleagues developed, she was asked to join the New York State Council of the Arts as well as the Association of Art Museum Directors. These memberships increasingly gave her a state-wide, and then, national perspective on art. In 2012, Susana was appointed by President Barack Obama to the Institute of Museum and Library Services Board, the largest funder of museums and libraries in the United States. “I have been fortunate that through the institutions and organizations I have worked in, I have increasingly gained local, state, and national perspective. I have thus been able to understand so much about the cultural structures that make this country a leader among the art centers of the world,” Susana shared.

Susana Leval '66

Susana Leval ’66

Susana has been the recipient of numerous awards, including: the Hunter College President’s Medal for the Arts (May 1995); an Honorary Doctorate from Pace University (May 2000); and an “Outstanding Service to the Community” Award from the National Conference of Puerto Rican Women, NYC Chapter (1995), among others.

Being a Manhattanville alumna is meaningful to Susana. “It means a great deal to me that Manhattanville had a strong, clear mission as a liberal arts college. Sadly, that is getting to be a rarer and rarer phenomenon. So I’m proud that I went to a college where the humanistic tradition was kept alive. That’s what my degree means to me. It signifies a time when you did not have to be an expert, but you had to be immersed in the world in a meaningful way. The faculty worked hard to keep us thinking about important aspects of human history and achievement. That was all-important and has marked my life and career in the best way possible.”

To all those younger students who aspire to work in the arts, Susana advises to “work hard and keep focused on your values and objectives. There are always hard times, but if you are passionate about your work, it becomes easier, and is always worth it in the end.”

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