By decree, Colombian President General José María Campo Serrano (1832-1915) and Minister of Education José Domingo Ospina Camacho (1843-1908) established the first Exposición Nacional de Bellas Artes, held from December 4, 1886 to February 20, 1887. That event was indisputably the most important art exhibition to take place in Colombia in the 19th century. It served to recognize the different disciplines and/or fields that constituted the fine arts at the time. Pursuant to this exhibition, which he organized, the draftsman, painter, and journalist Alberto Urdaneta (1845−1887) became one of the founders of modern curating in Colombia; he advocated the regenerationist ideals of civilization, progress, and charity.
The orientation of the exhibition was clearly modernist, privileging works of art in and of themselves rather than for their cultural and/or ritual value. With the show, Urdaneta temporarily turned the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes into a museum, bringing together works representative of the taste of the time, removing them, temporarily, from their usual settings. This document describes, for instance, how Joaquín Pardo Vergara (1843-1904), the Archbishop of Bogotá, granted permission to exhibit religious works outside the confines of the churches and convents where they were usually kept. Art associated with luxury was displayed alongside the collections of the long-established elites of Bogotá, including Urdaneta’s.
The exhibition also served to legitimize essential art institutions like the Academy, the museum, and the Papel Periódico Ilustrado, a publication that introduced novel techniques like metal engraving, photography, lithography, and sculpture. Significantly, women artists participated in the show, albeit in a separate space; their works were shown as examples of the virtuosity and talent of the “fair sex,” as women were called at the time. The work of colonial-era painter Gregorio Vásquez de Arce y Ceballos (1638−1711) was presented as a great rediscovery. He was declared “artist of the nation” for work deemed to represent the national values conveyed from one generation to the next at the Escuela de Bellas Artes.