Issue 3/2005 - Hoffnung Südamerika?

Brazil in the MoMA Collection

An analysis of the insertion of Brazilian art in an international art institution

Ana Letícia Fialho

Art world agents progressively began introducing artists from non-central regions into their discourses and practices in the seventies. 1 Little by little, a certain consensus began to take shape regarding the configuration of a new visual arts map: not only had the presence of artists from peripheral regions become frequent on the international arts scene, but these artists began to gain heightened visibility outside the central European/North-American axis.
Today, crossing borders and challenging frontiers and modern categories isn’t just a choice, but an obligation for all those who work with contemporary art. 2 But how open, how democratic is the international arena of contemporary art? What interests and ideologies determine how the contemporary art scene functions internationally? What position does Brazilian art occupy in this scenario?

I took an interest in studying the international circuit of Brazilian contemporary art from an empirical perspective: that of the sociology of art. 3 Within today’s scene of burgeoning events and intense circulation, what is the true place of Brazilian art on the international circuit? This was my point of departure for my doctorate thesis. 4 I have already addressed this theme from other angles: the insertion of artists in the international market, an analysis of international exhibitions, the presence and depiction of Brazilian art in the specialized international press, research and journals on the theme, the joint participation of Brazilian art critics and curators in international projects.
Generally, I noticed that there was a significant change in the global art scene, perhaps even a change of paradigms. But this process is still taking place, which means that it can bring opportunity as well as challenges to those who produce beyond political and economic hubs; often, opening to these regions essentially reinforces the symbolic and economic power of central agents by reproducing a simplified and out-of-context, or even stereotyped, image of peripheral production.

The invisible academy 6 – which establishes market and artistic value – remains watertight. What has in fact happened is a controlled diversification that is nourished by induced trends. The central stage continues to be set aside for the production, agents and institutions of the central axis. 7
In order to understand this process, one must consider the need to renew and diversify the contemporary art scene as a direct response to the demands [8|of three distinct but related »markets«: the art market (galleries), the institutional market (museums and others) and the intellectual market (critical production and curatorial practice).

With the global scene as the backdrop to my analysis, I will try to assess how Brazilian art has occupied the international art scene over the last few years and where it stands.
Due to considerations of space, I will basically focus on the presence of contemporary Brazilian art in one of the world’s most important museums: the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

[b]Brazil in the MoMA Collection[/b]
Readers who are familiar with the history of the museum know that an »international art« collection was intended from the very beginning. Latin-American countries were included in this category. Generally speaking, Latin-American production – which includes Brazil – was encompassed, although it always occupied a reduced, modest space in the collection.

On analyzing the entire ensemble of Brazilian works of art in MoMA’s collection, there seem to have been specific periods where a »special« interest was taken in our country, with quantitative acquisitions of import and a number of exhibitions. This interest, after World War II and later during the sixties, was dictated by political and economic factors that were extensively discussed and recognized by the institution itself, which served as a mediator in the North American project of cooptation. 9 From the end of the sixties on, the institution rarely acquired and displayed Brazilian artists. Most of the museum’s curators didn’t seem to find the superior aesthetic value that they sought in art produced in Brazil.
This began to change at the end of the eighties 11, although a significant amount of contemporary Brazilian art only reached the collection in the nineties. This coincided with a wider movement of expansion of the international art scene and the opening of the doors of this internationally acclaimed institution to peripheral regions.
Clearly MoMA was not and is not fuelled by the simple desire of promoting art for art’s sake. If there were moments when MoMA took an interest in Latin-American (or Brazilian) work, this happened because of converging factors (political, economic and social interests) and a specific dynamics (the trajectories and interests of certain agents: curators, collectors, patrons, artists).

Currently, the Latin-American population has become one of the US’s largest »minorities« and several public policies focus on Latinos. This has given institutions like MoMA the opportunity to secure decisive funds for projects with an »identitarian« edge. It has also paved the way for agents like Patrícia de Cisneros 12, who has greatly influenced the institution’s course of action.
The intervention of Brazilian collectors, galleries and curators has also been crucial. In an unprecedented manner, they have collaborated in presenting and promoting Brazilian work beyond the bounds of the museum.

But this wouldn’t have been possible if MoMA hadn’t decided to invest in and generally sanction Latin–American art. 13
The steps that the museum has taken towards realizing this objective are the consequence of a clear-cut strategy: the museum has positioned itself as a ground-breaking promoter and forerunner in the presentation of Latin-American art in the US. MoMA also drew international umpires into this arena in order to increase its international social capital.

These initiatives indicate a certain institutional receptivity and willingness that might bring the new acknowledgment of Brazilian (and Latin-American) art that some of its advocates (within the museum itself) have long campaigned for. But the museum still hasn’t reinterpreted the history of art in a way that embodies the unique contributions of Latin-American work; indeed, the museum hasn’t really opened much space for Latinos within its walls. This was clear to see last year in »Latin American & Caribbean Art – MoMA at El Museo« 14. The show was held in the Museo del Barrio, an interesting museum that operates on the fringes of the New York art circuit.

Besides this, the fact that the museum has established a set of actions that formally address the »Latin-American Collection« indicates that the latter is still gaining ground within the museum. Other factors also point towards this: a large part of the acquisition consists of works on paper, which means that the investment, from an economic point of view, is quite irrelevant.
On the other hand, the distinction between the international collection and the »Latin-American« collection disappears with the museum’s new museographic approach, inaugurated in November of 2004. Never had so many Brazilian artists been on display: Hélio Oiticica, Lygia Clark, Fernando Campana, Mira Schnedel and Rivane Neuenschwander 15. Six of the 16 works were donated or financed by Patrícia de Cisneros. A large part of the acquisitions belongs to the concrete and neo-concrete movements, one of the dominant trends in the Cisneros Collection. 16
Lately, the art circuit has celebrated certain cultural singularities; perhaps MoMA is simply revealing traces of some opportunism.

Time will tell. This sudden interest in Latin America isn’t gratuitous – as nothing in the arts ever is. Brazilian work still hasn’t received the international acclaim that it deserves, although it has progressively captured the attention of the international eye.


Translated by Nancy Dantas


1 »Information«, held at MoMA in 1970, already indicated a door to the international art circuit. Kynaston McShine’s opening words in the catalogue were: »It is no longer imperative for an artist to be in Paris or New York. Those far from the >art centers< contribute more easily, without the often artificial protocol that at one time seemed essential for recognition« Cildo Meireles, Arthur Barrio and Hélio Oiticica participated in this legendary exhibition, one of the first on conceptual art. The show also marked Joseph Beuys’ first participation in an exhibition in the US.
2 For more on the conceptual and formal transgressions in art and contemporary art institutions, see: Vera Zoblerg, Outsider Art. Contesting Boundaries in Contemporary Culture (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge/New York, 1997); Nathalie Heinlich, Le triple jeu de l’art contemporain (Les Editions de Minuit, Paris 1998) and Ana Letícia Fialho, Transgressions géographiques et esthétiques de l’art contemporain: discours et pratiques (paper presented during the XVII Congrès Internationale des Sociologues de Langue Française, Tours, July 2004).
3 Some publications present more complex analyses of globalization and the art world. Wee: Néstor García Cancilini, Culturas Híbridas (São Paulo, Edusp, 2000); Gerardo Mosquera at alii, Zones de Silence (Amsterdam, Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten, 2001); Virginie Garreta (org.), Pour une nouvelle géographie artistique des années 90, (Capc Musée de l’Art Contemporain de Bordeaux, 2000).
4 »The insertion of Brazilian art in the international circuit« is the short-term title of the thesis that I am developing at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, which I began in 2001. I plan to read and defend my thesis in 2005.
5 Amongst the articles and papers presented during international conferences, Les expositions internationals d’art brésilien: discours, enjeux, pratiques, presented during the »Primeiro Encontro Cultura no Brasil« at the Brazilian Embassy in France, in February of 2004, Mercado de Arte: Internacional e Desigual, published in the online magazine Trópico and Hélio Oiticica volta à cena internacional americanizado, published online by ArteWebBrasil in 2002, are the most germane.
6 Raymonde Moulin, L’artiste, l’institution et le marché. Flammarion, Paris, 1999.
7 Alain Quemin demonstrated this in his superb report for the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It was published against their will under the title L’art contemporain international: entre les institutions et le marché (La rapport disparu). (Jacqueline Chambon/Artprice, Nîmes, 2002).
8 These demands have certain historic, social, political and economic conditions. I do not have enough space to develop these aspects here and now. In my thesis, however, I distinguish »specific conditions« which are inherent in the arts field from »macro-social conditions« and demonstrate how the art system can only be understood if it is addressed from a broad analytic viewpoint. Concerning this issue, I also developed a paper entitled »Identity and territorial representation in contemporary institutions: the gap between discourse and practices<, which I presented during the seminar »Belonging: Community, Commonality, and the Politics of Singular« at New York University in April of 2004.
9 According to Miriam Basilio in »Reflecting in a History of Collecting and Exhibiting Works by Artists from Latin America«, published in the catalogue »Latin American & Carribean Art – MoMA at El Museo<, New York, 2004.
10 »Latin-American Art 1931-1966«, curated by Alfred H. Barr, MoMA’s founding director, was presented in 1967. The museum organized another large retrospective dedicated to Latin American art 26 years later, in 1993: »Latin American Artists of the Twentieth Century«. The exhibition was shown in Spain, France and Germany and ended in New York (MoMA, June 2 through September 7 of 1993).
11 At this time, certain projects focused on Latin-American production. Brazil Projects, for instance, contemplated solo exhibitions by Cildo Meireles and Burle Marx.
12 Besides direct donations to the museum, the Venezuelan collector also provided funds for other projects. She lobbied for the Adjunct Curator position that is reserved for Latin-American curators. The post was taken by Paulo Herkenhoff (2000-2003) and is currently occupied by the Venezuelan Luis Perez-Oramas, who also works as an advisor to the Cisneros Foundation.
13 The museum built a library dedicated to Latin-American art and recently admitted
specialists to its staff. Such is the case of assistant curator Miriam Basilio, who has thoroughly researched the history of MoMA and its relations with Latin America, its acquisition and exhibition policies, as well as the specific history of Latin-American art exhibitions in the US, which she presented in the catalogue for the show »Latin American & Caribbean Art – MoMA at El Museo«.
The museum has an account that funds visits by its curators to Latin America as well as several other programs in the field of art education and curatorial training. It also funds traveling exhibitions. Three publications are currently being organized with texts by Latin-American art critics (one of them will be dedicated to Mario Pedrosa).
14 For more about the exhibition, see Ana Letícia Fialho, »MoMA (re)descobre a América Latina«, Trópico online.
15 This information, as well as images of the works, was sent to me via e-mail in March of 2005. I still haven’t had the chance to visit the museum after its headquarters reopened.
16 For more information about the Cisneros Collection, see Luis Pérez Oramas’ text »La Colección Cisneros: una colección ilustrada?«, published by Mari Carmen Ramírez (org.) in Collecting Latin American Art for the 21st Century (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 2002).