Why museums in Spain are better than those in US

Why museums in Spain are better than those in US

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Local museums seek to take the modern art world's focus away from the MoMA and towards neglected artists.

Manuel Borja-Villel, the director of Madrid's Reina Sofía Museum (MNCARS) likes to tell the story of how he used to visit Latin America in the 1980s and found that few galleries in the United States were prepared to exhibit artists from the region.

At that time,  (MoMA) wasn't much interested in what was going on outside the United States. In fact it was not particularly interested in Europe either, not since New York supplanted Paris as the Mecca of the art scene after World War II.

But in the globalised culture of the 21st century, the idea of a world centre of art is no longer sustainable. The MoMA model, said Borja-Villel, "is over. The history of art we have been taught is not neutral: it's a history based on the Anglo-Saxon world."

The director of the Reina Sofía is not alone in this view.

Bartomeu Marí, who heads Barcelona's Museum of Contemporary Art (MACBA), thinks MoMA's approach is too rigid. Photo by skinnydiver. Bartomeu Marí, who heads Barcelona's Museum of Contemporary Art (MACBA), thinks MoMA's approach is too rigid. João Fernandes of Porto's Museo Serralves in Portugal argues that "history needs to be rewritten from the periphery", while Marta Gili, director of Paris' Jeu de Paume also questions the MoMA's supremacy.

If the MoMA is the Grand Encyclopedia, then, Borja-Villel said, the Reina Sofía sees modernity from another perspective.

"There are key moments in history, such as in the 1930s or during the transition to democracy here in Spain, for example, and of course Latin America. We still have to write the history of the South."

He wants to create a network of museums with Latin America, "in the same way that the MoMA created a network in the 1950s and 1960s with France and Germany and the United Kingdom."

Oporto's Museo Serralves was set up in 1999 by Spain's Vicente Todolí, the current head of the Tate Modern in London, with a mission to explore trends in art from the 1960s onwards.

"This was the period during which contemporary art was redefined. In the context of a society in crisis - the end of empire, the Vietnam war, the economic boom of the 1950s - that also impacted on the art world," said Fernandes, who took over from Todolí at the Serralves in 2002.

He said the Porto museum isn't necessarily interested in the star names of modern art or those from Europe and the United States. In February 2008, it organised the first retrospective in Portugal of Manuel Alves, a barely known Portuguese artist who has lived in Paris since the 1960s.

"A museum is not about consensus, but about confrontation and dialogue," argued Fernandes.

Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid. Photo by lonesome:cycler.

Reflections of Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid 

That said, the big European and US institutions are doing their best to keep up with changing times.

In 2006, the MoMA appointed Luis Pérez Oramas as its first curator of Latin American art. The Tate Modern hired Todolí, who, before setting up the Serralves, was head curator at the Valencian Institute of Modern Art (IVAM), while Marta Gili headed up the photography department at the La Caixa Foundation before making the move to Paris.

But Todolí insists that the big museums and galleries do not feel threatened by the rise of new institutions with a different agenda.

"On the contrary, we feel supported. It's a good thing that these museums exist, because they feed us. The more places with their own identity, the better, and the more interpretations there will be of what art is about," he said.

Art progresses like the tide. "There is a lot of flow and then counter-flow, confrontation with previous generations: you have to kill the father before you can save the grandfather. For example, in the 1990s the generation of the 1960s was rescued, now we are doing the same with artists from the 1980s," said Todolí.

But when all is said and done, the MoMA remains a formidable force. Not even the Pompidou, which opened in 1977, has seriously challenged its dominance. New York's private galleries have also played a key role in shaping tastes.

Marian Goodman, one of the city's leading art figures, said she opened her gallery in 1977 because she couldn't find anybody prepared to organise an exhibition of Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers.

"I discovered Joseph Beuys and Broodthaers in 1966, and realised that there were so many great artists in Europe that we knew nothing about in America. It was very difficult to interest the New York art world in anything from outside.

“To some extent, they weren't even interested in artists from California. There was this mentality that New York was simply the capital of the art world, and nobody bothered travelling anywhere else," she said.

That mentality still exists to a large extent, but it is one that now threatens to leave New York behind the rest of the world.


text: El Pais / Isabel Lafont / Expatica
photos credit: kotchka, skinnydiver, lonesome:cycler and Tomás Fano

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