Promoting dialogue between art and the environment by posing questions, twenty-one years after it was created the Serralves Foundation is a platform of excellence for creativity in Portugal, with an additional responsibility to everything contemporary.
To the sound of the machines used to set up the exhibition Às Artes, cidadãos! (To the arts, citizens!), the conversation with engineer Luís Braga da Cruz, President of the Fundação de Serralves, proceeds calmly: but what does it mean to be contemporary? Things are looking black currently and to clarify the question, you have to “understand present necessities”, says Cruz: only then will you be prepared for what the future may bring. “Strategic foresight”, he goes on, alluding to economist Michel Godet, “is not exactly guessing what is to come, it is knowing how to listen to the zeitgeist, to be able to mobilize innovation and thus transform knowledge into value.” Serralves, a platform of excellence for creativity, has therefore an additional responsibility in Portugal today, a country that in the past did not always know how to be contemporary.
In the 18 hectares of grounds with its hundred-year-old trees, French-style gardens, lakes and art-deco house – the Casa de Serralves – a foundation was set up in 1989 to create a museum of contemporary art. Ten years later, that museum opened its doors having been redesigned by internationally-recognized architect Álvaro Siza Vieira. His work – 13,000 m2 of asymmetrical lines creating multiple pure spaces – in immaculate white, contrasts with the green around but invites you to enter through the windows and skylights. As with light itself, it sets up a dialectic between art and environment, which is also the mission of the Fundação de Serralves.
The mission is to use the museum – a multidisciplinary centre – to raise the public’s awareness of contemporary art and the environment, and the park for education and cultural activities. These aims, stresses Braga da Cruz, also include promoting reflection and debate on contemporary society. The Serralves, pulling at the reins of history as it were, is the perfect place for an encounter with the past, with what it is and what it wants to be.
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Platform for questions
What could be more apt for a museum known as a platform for questions than its inaugural exhibition Circa 68, evoking moments of rupture and change in the world’s social and political set-up from the Vietnam War, the student revolts in France, the feminist movement and the Prague Spring. In 2010, eleven years later, within the context of the hundredth anniversary celebrations of the Founding of the Portuguese Republic, the Serralves is using the watchword of the French Revolution and presenting Às Artes, cidadãos! revealing different perspectives on the intersections between art and politics – a theme which conjures up a variety of concepts such as democracy, revolution, ideology, activism, community and globalization; and which creates situations of dialogue and tension.
Between these two exhibitions questioning, reflection and criticism are elements which have always arisen. Whether recently, through the works of Marlene Dumas, Dara Birnbaum or Grazia Toderi, or going back slightly in time to recall Francis Bacon, Robert Rauschenberg or Paula Rego (the exhibition – amongst almost 400 – the most popular ever).
Present at the Foundation since the early years and latterly occupying the post of President, Braga da Cruz defends the right to use guides – formerly Fernando Pernes and now João Fernandes (Museum Director) – on his journey to decode the message of contemporary art. Hardly in unfamiliar territory, he likes to arm himself with literature to sharpen his sensibility, helping him to understand reality and appease his curiosity.
It is precisely this curiosity that Braga da Cruz attempts to convey to his students. He was Economics Minister in the 15th constitutional government, a member of parliament, 14 years President of the Commission for Regional Coordination and Development of North Portugal and a researcher. His name is connected with bridges, dams, renewable energies and a series of other matters. It is engineering, however, that assuages his ego. This is why he also continues to lecture on this subject in the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Porto. On the civil engineering course, the professor teaches “how to look, to ask questions about a construction project, to find out how much is the engineer’s input and how much is due to the metal or concrete; to be able to find the mechanics behind things”.
Ultimately, the use of questioning as an aid to development is a matter of engineering, art and society as a whole.
On the verge of reaching 450,000 visitors a year, 70,000 of them tourists, and 132,000 young people– a growth of 25 per cent in relation to the previous year – the moment has come to ask the question: “How far can we go? Where is the limit?” Whatever the Fundação de Serralves does, the result is usually a runaway success. Witness the recent Autumn Festival; the engineer presents the number of expected visitors – 5,000 – and compares them with the actual figures: 18,000 people; “the demand was so great that we almost couldn’t handle it”, he observes. He offers more numbers; 102,000 visitors – a growth of 18 per cent in relation to 2008 – to the Serralves em Festa 2009 event, the biggest festival of contemporary artistic expression in Portugal, with 80 activities for all ages, 200 presentations, 400 artists, 40 hours non-stop; a festival which served as an example to big museums like the Tate Modern in London and the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
Faced with this growing demand – complicated, to say the least, considering the limits to the physical space – the Fundação de Serralves President stresses “caution, rigour and gradualism”. First of all, he expresses his desire for greater dialogue with Porto City Council, in order, for example, to integrate the Serralves em Festa in the city’s summer festival programme, as happens in other countries, encouraging decentralization of venues and cities. If the Serralves attracts children from the Minho in the north to the Algarve in the south, why not set up agreements with local councils, and so spread contemporary art throughout the country?
But how to manage all this growth with less money?
With a budget of €9m – 42% from the government and 58% from earned income such as ticket sales and sponsoring – they foresee a 15% cut for 2011 in state subsidy, as well as a total cut in state subsidy for the acquisition of new works, worth in the region of €750,000 a year. Arguing about costs at the Serralves is nothing new, Braga da Cruz points out. A way must be found to minimise their impact on the public, which means, for example, the scrapping of two exhibitions and a bigger investment in pre-existing works from the Foundation’s collection.
The management strategy at the Serralves consists in attracting more sponsorship. With 51 founding members and 172 current patrons they need to keep increasing numbers, even though Portugal is not a country with a great tradition of patronage. The development strategy is based on building bridges between art and the economy, one example of which is the Incubadora de Indústrias Criativas initiative, started in 2008: “Some projects have been abandoned, others continue, the balance has been positive”, he recalls, pointing to other initiatives within the same area such as POPs – Projects of Portuguese Origin – a challenge laid down to young creators looking for recognition in the marketplace.
Even without the budget of a Tate Modern or a Museo Rainha Sofia, the Museu de Serralves has been out there growing in visibility, whether with Portuguese artists who have helped it to project or the foreign artists it attracts whether through private collections or exhibitions.
by Ana Serpa
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