“We’re the only museum collecting aggressively – and it has to be aggressive- right now in Rio. If a museum doesn’t collect, it dies”. It’s a damning statement; a gauntlet thrown down to his colleagues at the city’s Modern and Contemporary Art museums just a few kilometres away. But Paulo Herkenhoff isn’t here to settle ideological scores. After a career that’s taken him from São Paulo’s Biennale to Rio’s Museum of Fine Arts via the MOMA, he’s philosophical about the pitfalls when trying to build a serious collection in Brazil’s curious climate for public-private collaborations.
His latest project, the MAR, is just that. Opened in 2013, it’s a privately-funded, publicly-administered institution in a city that has been artistically overshadowed by its cosmopolitan neighbour, São Paulo, in recent years. Having amassed some 5,000 pieces for the MAR in just three years, Herkenhoff can certainly be deemed a prolific force, if not an entirely aggressive one. From Dutch colonial tapestries to political badges from the Brazilian military dictatorship, « visual culture » is the umbrella term for a collection that takes in artefacts, photography, illustration and plenty of painting and sculpture.
The museum’s curator stresses that municipal heritage is the MAR’s USP: «The cultural fabric of the population makes Rio a special city; adversity makes for a creative force here » and he’s particularly proud of an installation that, for him, sums up the ingenuity of those working without formal training, nor access to diverse materials. « Morrinho » is a sprawling, colourful cityscape: a favela in miniature that occupies the entrance hall of the the museum. Started in 1998, it’s a project that has mushroomed beyond its dolls house origins, involving various artists and reproduced in different incarnations; a version of the sculpture was exhibited at Venice’s 2007 Biennale.
As the world looks towards Rio de Janeiro for 2016’s Olympic games, the urbanistic overhaul of the port area is a fitting metaphor for the city’s regeneration and the MAR is among the cultural ambassadors of this transition. These docks – once home to a slave port – are rich with symbolic significance. For some it’s the gateway to the old Latin America of violence and poverty, for others, the entrance to a dynamic BRIC country, humming with artistic and economic potential. For Herkenhoff, the MAR’s location makes its mission all the more evident; wedged between Brazil’s elite who reside in the city’s southern beaches and the underprivileged communities of the northern suburbs, “it’s about providing cultural services”. This elder statesmen of arts sketches out his battle plan with a typically laid-back air but he is resolute: curating is a serious business and accountability comes first, beyond party politics or private interests.
Admirable commitment to the cause, but what about the work, what pieces would he add to a fantasy shopping list? “ I love what I have ” he says, with a mischievous smile but “ who wouldn’t want an Alfredo Volpi, a Cildo (Meireles)? ” National namechecks that are in keeping with a career spent at the forefront of Brazilian modern and contemporary art, yet he’s also seduced by the wit and audacity of American artist Kara Walker and “ I wouldn’t say no to some early Dada! ”. Owners of Duchamp, Picabia et al. take heed – there’s a white wall waiting for your donation right now in Rio de Janeiro.