A Guggenheim for Brazil

(Co-author Victoria Verlichak) The Art Newspaper 13.135 (Apr 2003), p. 6.

A Guggenheim for Brazil

The Guggenheim set to open Rio branch

By Jason Edward Kaufman with Victoria Verlichak

NEW YORK. Rio de Janeiro will be the site of a new branch of the Guggenheim Museum. After months of negotiations, the agreement will be signed in New York by mayor Cesar Maia and Solomon R Guggenheim Foundation president Thomas Krens. The date of the signing has not been announced, but Rio de Janeiro’s Secretary of Culture Ricardo Macieira, in a telephone interview earlier this week, said the ceremony will take place “around March 20.”

The so-called Guggenheim Rio will be the NY-based foundation’s first outpost in South America, augmenting a global network that presently includes the Frank Lloyd Wright flagship in Manhattan, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, the Guggenheim Bilbao, the Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin, and the Guggenheim Hermitage Museum in Las Vegas. The city-run museum will be housed in a striking new building designed by French architect Jean Nouvel and set like a ship within the waters of beautiful Guanabara Bay, affording sweeping views of the picturesque harbour whose entrance is marked by the famous “Sugar Loaf.” Construction is to begin this summer with completion slated for late 2006.

The notion of a Guggenheim in the Southern Hemisphere has been in the air for several years. “It is time to have a cultural trade that runs north and south, not just east and west,” Krens told the Brasilian press in late 2000. The following year, “Brazil: Body & Soul” — said to be the greatest exhibition ever exported from that country — filled the Guggenheim in NY with Baroque and modern art. Visited by Brasil’s president, it was seen as paving the way to an agreement. Three Brasilian cities – Recife, Salvador, and Curitiba — were lobbying for a Guggenheim branch, along with the Argentine capital Buenos Aires, but after feasibility studies involving architects Frank Gehry and Rem Koolhaas, Rio emerged as the front-runner. A tourist destination in South America’s largest economy, the seaside city promised the most favorable financial deal. And by late last year, the mayor was announcing that an agreement in principal had been reached. The final contract has been repeatedly delayed as the parties ironed out legal details.

In the six years since the Gehry-designed Guggenheim Bilbao put that post-industrial Basque port on the map and in the black, the Guggenheim Foundation has received requests from dozens of cities around the world to replicate the phenomenon. But in the current economy, it is difficult to understand how expansion is possible, let alone advisable. Museums across the US are cancelling exhibitions, reducing programs, and scaling back or postponing plans for construction. The Guggenheim has been hit especially hard by plummeting tourism following 11 September. In the past 16 months, it has shuttered its SoHo branch, closed one of its two fledgling Las Vegas satellites, withdrawn an exciting proposal to erect a Bilbao-style Gehry building in lower Manhattan, and abandoned a scheme to run a contemporary art space on Punta della Dogana in Venice. Since 1998 the Guggenheim has halved its budget, laid off more than half its full-time employees, reduced opening hours, and postponed a number of exhibitions. Yet, astonishingly, the Brasil deal comes just weeks after Guggenheim chairman Peter B Lewis warned Krens that either he rein in the bloated budget or look for another job.

But if this satellite is anything like the others, it won’t cost the Guggenheim a dime. Quite the contrary, it will enrich the museum considerably. Culture Secretary Macieira told The Art Newspaper that Rio de Janeiro will pay $25 million for the right to fly the Guggenheim flag for the next 50 years and “to have use of the Guggenheim’s patrimony.” That means access to “the whole of the Guggenheim’s collections, including Bilbao, Berlin, and Venice, and the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum,” with which the Guggenheim has collection-sharing agreements, and access as well to travelling shows circulated among the Guggenheim network. It is not clear what specifically the Guggenheim is obliged to lend, but it will have to be a considerable amount of material, for at this point the Guggenheim Rio has no permanent collection. Mayor Maia has spoken of allocating funds for acquisitions to fill galleries dedicated to native art, and Secretary Macieira says, “There are many huge Brasilian private collections in Rio that will lend their pieces in exchange for showcasing and caring for the works.”

The new Guggenheim Brasil will rise — or rather, be partially submerged — in the old city port at Píer da Praça Mauáwhere it is intended to anchor revitalization of the declining dock district. The 42,000 square-metre complex is to include a convention center, hotel, shopping mall, and restaurants in addition to the museum. The mayor has put the cost at $150 million, but it has been variously estimated at $200 to $300 million, to be financed with public money, but the City hopes the private sector will invest in businesses in the area. The mayor’s office has not addressed the money needed for operations, maintenance, shipping, and insurance, nor has he projected the number of employees or the annual budget. A director and curators are yet to be named. But as far as Mayor Maia is concerned, the project has already begun to move forward. Months ago, even before he had issued the request for bids on construction, he stated that work would start in July and be finished by December 2006.

His awarding of the project to Nouvel – known for the Tokyo Opera and for the Cartier Foundation and Arab World Institute, both in Paris — elicited a barrage of letters to the editors from Brasilian architects unhappy with the commission going to a foreigner. They were offended also by Nouvel’s $11-million fee, far more than any native talents command. But his design promises to add another distinctive piece of architecture to the Guggenheim’s collection. The proposed museum is largely underwater, with glass structures admitting natural light into exhibition pavilions below the water line. A 50-metre cylindrical turret rises above the waves, topped by an observatory gallery and restaurant offering sweeping vistas of the bay. Parts of the building will house a tropical forest and a water cascade, features that baffled architect Cláudio M. de A. Cavalcanti, who reminded Nouvel that Rio already has the largest tropical forest of any city in the world. In his spicy comments in the press, Cavalcanti wondered if submersion of the building was a gesture of dramatic symbolism or a premonition of the shipwreck that awaits it.

A chorus of critics oppose the project. In a letter to the City Council, members of the business, political, and cultural community point to the Guggenheim Foundation’s ongoing financial problems and predict annual deficits for years to come. According to their calculations, the enormous outlay to build the museum could pave 3,500 kilometers of roads or construct 6,000 schools, 7,500 day-care centers, or 4,000 health clinics. They also note that Guanabara Bay is in urgent need of a clean up. “Compared with Rio’s other social and infrastructure needs, tourism notwithstanding, the museum does not deserve to be a priority,” they state.

Besides, Rio already has a Museu do Arte Moderno (MAM) on the shore of Guanabara Bay. Designed in 1954 by Affonso Eduardo Reidy with gardens by Roberto Burle Marx, it is a landmark of Brasilian modernism with one of the country’s best collections of international twentieth-century art. It is not clear what relationship it will have with the Guggenheim Rio, but MAM’s chairman, the collector Gilbert Chateaubriand, and director Maria Regina have expressed dismay that while the government inadequately supports even emergency building repairs at their museum, it extravagantly bankrolls a foreign museum. They and others in the cultural community say the money allocated for the Guggenheim franchise alone – not including construction costs — would be enough to refurbish all of Rio’s museums. Why not spend the money on existing institutions?

Mayor Maia and Culture Secretary Macieira argue that construction will stimulate the economy by generating new businesses and jobs while converting the dilapidated port into a newly thriving neighbourhood. They proudly anticipate that the Carioca Guggenheim will attract international tourists and confirm Rio not only as the centre of diffusion of Brazilian culture, but perhaps the international cultural hub of Latin America. The implications for the Guggenheim are equally great. Director Krens has long come under fire for his expansionist vision, and when the museum’s fortunes suffered after September 11, his critics piled on demanding his resignation. By engineering a deal to enrich his institution at a time when other US museums are contracting, he not only proves once again his skills as a tenacious dealmaker, capable of leveraging the Guggenheim brand worldwide. He also vindicates his vision of a multinational network of collection-sharing museums. Whether or not his ambitions succeed will depend on the stability of the Guggenheim Rio and the qualities of its programs as a cultural institution.

Jason Edward Kaufman with Victoria Verlichak

This article appeared in The Art Newspaper 13.135 (Apr 2003), p. 6.




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Jason Edward Kaufman is an art historian and critic with expertise in museums and the international art world.

A complete list of past articles is available here.


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