Normally, she travels for work; however, getting on a plane means a rare moment of peace where the phone never rings. On terra firma, we travelled with the director of the Serralves Museum to Paris, London and New York, lapping up both the arty and trendy.
She speaks the language of museums. This is the connection that Suzanne Cotter has with the world. “What I like most about what I do is being able to be in any part of the planet. What is essential is that the museum is in the right place, if that happens, it will speak all languages and reach all audiences.”
Yesterday, she lived in New York and was the curator of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, today she’s the director of the Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Serralves and goes to the office by bike. On the day of our interview, she arrived at the Foundation by car, because she is going to show South Korean artist Haegue Yang the Casa de Chá da Boa Nova and the pools of Leça da Palmeira, both designed by the architect Siza Vieira, who was also responsible for Museu de Serralves.
In charge of the museum since January 2013, Suzanne Cotter has come a long way to get here. Born in Melbourne, Australia, she recalls wanting to see the world ever since she was a girl. “My inspirations were Audrey Hepburn in the film Roman Holiday and Gene Kelly in An American in Paris. It was through films like these that I realised that there were other extraordinary cities in the world and I would explore them when I grew up.”
She made her first big trip when she was six, when she traversed Australia with her parents and siblings. “I remember it was a few weeks before the start of term. We crossed the Nullabor plain, an arid, almost treeless. I have fascinating memories of that journey. I remember my father heating up beans on the car radiator and the desert sands. It was my first experience of the desert. It was probably the first time I saw aborigines and kangaroos.” Since then, car journeys have given her an incredible sense of freedom.
Perhaps that’s why she has lived away from her country for over two decades. Paris, London and New York are second homes and any one of them has much to give when it comes to art, design and gastronomy.
An applied sciences graduate from Queensland Institute of Technology, Suzanne Cotter then studied history of art at the University of Melbourne. In 1991 she went to École du Louvre in Paris to study museology and fell in love with the French capital. “Paris has a unique light, which is connected to the stone and the Seine.” She thinks it has a peculiar aroma: “A mix of washing and French tobacco”.
Her favourite things include the Louvre, for reasons of the heart. Then there’s the Pompidou Centre, with its remarkable variety of contemporary art exhibitions. “I love wandering around the Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighbourhood. It has galleries, wonderful shops and little bistrôs.” On Rue du Dragon she highlights the galleries of Cahiers d’Art – an iconic art magazine – where Hiroshi Sugimoto and Thomas Schütte recently had exhibitions. The incredible itineraries of Paris have to be done on feet. From Rive Gauche to the Petit and Grand Palais, crossing the Pont des Arts and the Tulherias Park. The small museums like Carnavalet, Rodin or La Croix are all fantastic.
She continued to study history of art in London. First at the Courtauld Institute, and then a post-grad qualification in cultural management at the City University of London organised by the European Union for women with leadership roles in the area of culture. She was a curator in some of the capital’s most important artistic institutions, like the Serpentine Gallery, between June 1996 and April 1998, and Whitechapel Art Gallery, between February and September of the same year. She also worked at the Modern Art gallery in Oxford, as senior curator between 2002 and 2009, so it’s no surprise that she feels a little nostalgic whenever she hears English accents in films. She still misses the green spaces, like Kensington Gardens or Regent’s Park, which she thinks are the most beautiful, as well as Hampstead Heath and Saint James Park. “I used to walk from Kensington Gardens to Knightsbridge”.
“The Tate Modern is a real must see.” For obvious reasons, she also recommends the Serpentine Gallery, as she does Mayfair and Saint James and visiting the nearby art galleries. She loves Marylebone High Street for shopping or dinner.
That just leaves New York to complete this trio of home-from-homes. Before working at Serralves, she was involved in the art direction of the curatorship programme at the New York Guggenheim and the international network of Guggenheim Museums. She was also co-curator for the 10th Sharjah Biennial at the United Arab Emirates. She has good things to say about Sharjah, Abu Dhabi and Dubai: “They’re incredible places. It’s a region that relatively easy to get around by car. In Dubai, you feel the buzz of futuristic cities, while Sharjah was designed as a cultural centre”.
We return to New York with Suzanne to discover the Frick Collection, which boasts works by El Greco, Turner, Rembrandt and many others. “It’s located in a mansion, which offers an intimate experience”.
New York is also the city of art galleries and markets. “Chelsea is a fascinating neighbourhood. In the eastern part there’s High Line, a suspended garden on an old railway line eight metres from the ground. Nowadays it is populated by art galleries, design studios, shops and museums.” Another curiosity worth a mention are the pontoons. She remembers swimming at the Chelsea Piers Sports Club with a sublime view of the Statue of Liberty. Her itinerary also includes the Meatpacking District, an industrial area that was swamped in the 1990s by boutiques, luxury hotels and restaurants that need reservations months in advanced. Another places on the list is Greenwich Village, an elegant neighbourhood full of Victorian houses and fine restaurants.
Moving to Serralves was a big step, despite Paris, London and New York still being close to her heart: “I see them as just a flight away”.
Porto’s pace is completely different: “I feel more relaxed and have more time to think. I think better here”. With over two decades of experience in the area of curatorship and the management of cultural institutions, this is her first position as director. “Serralves has a fantastic reputation among its peers and is just the right size for me to run.” In addition to this, it’s in Europe, where she feels at home. “I like the sophisticated side of Europe. And Porto is a gorgeous city that everyone wants to visit.” The museum director already knows her way around. She likes to catch the boat to Afurada and go to Matosinhos on Sunday for grilled fish. “All the restaurants have super fresh fish but I usually go to Gaveto and Marisqueira de Matosinhos”. Another thing to do at the weekend is wandering around the city centre. “There are lovely streets there, like Rua dos Caldeireiros, das Flores, and I like to walk down to the river.” Domestic chores include doing some shopping at the local market in Foz.
After having lived so many years abroad, Suzanne Cotter confesses to feeling a little melancholy sometimes. “I miss the Pacific Ocean and swimming in its waters. I also miss some of Australia’s landscapes, particularly the desert.”
Oddly enough, sometimes, when she’s on Portuguese roads, there are times when she thinks: “Oh! This could be Australia! Eucalyptus trees and a certain light is enough.” Her Australian husband is the antidote to her nostalgia: “We joke around saying he’s my hometown”.
She knows that if she goes to Australian, she’ll miss Portugal. “When you’re a professional ex-pat, you miss all different places”.
by Maria João Veloso photo Frederico Martins
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