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Art in Lisbon

Go straight east from Williamsburg, cross the Atlantic Ocean, and the first landfall will be at Lisbon, Portugal. What follows is a visitor’s analysis of the art scene in Lisbon—how it functions and whom it favors. In every city, in every scene, the basic elements of the artworld are combined differently, and in different amounts to create a specific network, a specific nexus of interest and power. The dominating principle in Lisbon, in that despite having excellent artists working within an educated and informed milieu, there is little transnational support for events there; instead, all energy, and interest must be generated internally. Having a rich cultural legacy, but small population and poor financial standing relative to its northern European neighbors, makes for a small, but highly transparent and socially connected art scene.


A simplification of the situation (but one which appears to be largely true) is this: everyone is aware what everyone else is doing, where they are showing, how much they are working, and what good or ill fortune has befallen them. The people in charge funding and competitions are known to you on a first name basis, and could have easily been your teachers. The structures of power are laid bare, and though this does not necessarily obviate the role of art world politics, it does to a large degree eliminate the mystery surrounding back room machinations. Whereas it may seem that in New York, artists, by the inflationary economics of their sheer numbers, have relatively little power compared to the mandarin operations of the middleman curators and the gallery system, in Lisbon, the situation is different. With little market support and without the interventions of criticism, it is artists and the institutions that fund them that assumes center stage.


The central pillar of the entire Portuguese cultural scene (including science, visual arts, dance and music) is the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. Founded and funded by an American oil baron who sought refuse in Lisbon in 1942, the now might foundation not only maintains the best ensemble of public art collections in the country (in both old masters and modern art,) but is instrumental in funding the entire array of art events, from small grants to artists to stage their first shows to organization and funding of concert series and museum retrospectives. There is hardly an event in the country on which the small moniker of the foundation does not discreetly appear. Until recently, there was also the Institute for Contemporary Arts (EAC); a state funded organization that dispensed small grants and organized shows to support less established artists since 1994. Unfortunately, with the recent change in government from Socialist to Social Democrat, there has been a round of fiscal belt tightening, and the EAC has been folded into a larger pre-existing arts organization which is widely viewed as short prelude to the governments total retreat from the funding of contemporary art.


So, although committed artists enjoy an intimacy and access to modes of institutional support, there are dangers to the centralization of monies within the Portuguese model: one is the inherent risk of the individual tastes of the funding directors becoming proscriptive to the scene at large, and the second is the instability and demoralization caused when a centralized support mechanism for the entire scene is suddenly removed by events exterior to the art world itself.


One of the most promising recent developments in the Portuguese art scene is the new contemporary art complex (designed by Álvaro Siza) at the Serralves Museum in the north of the country at Oporto. In the three years since opening, the museum has already set the highest attendance record of any museum in the country, with an ambitious exhibition program of shows and international interest. Furthermore, Vicente Todoli, the director of the Serralves has recently taken a job as a director of the new Tate Modern in London, which, given the networking nature of the global art system, will help rectify he underexposure of Portuguese artists due to, among other things, the basic geographical isolation of the country within Europe.


The internal transparency of the Lisbon artworld is mirrored in the art education system, where the directors of the foundations often have teaching or directorial experience within the art schools. This is especially true of AR.CO (Center of Art and Visual Communication) located high on the hilly Alfama district in the old section of the city. AR.CO is a private school, grants no degrees and gives no grades. The school is small and by American standards, highly flexible in its organization. Students if chosen by the directors for the advanced course, complete a six-year program of study. In certain respects, the school is similar to the New York Studio School, although without the same cultish atmosphere.


The other major Lisbon art school is the state sponsored and degree granting University of Fine Arts of Lisbon, which is the arts branch of the City University, and is located in the heart of the city near the waterfront. The foundation of academy practices which were instituted during the conservative period of the fascist Salazar regime remain, but after Portugal’s “Carnation Revolution” in 1975, an expanded methodology in postmodern discourse has been added, making for a weighty curricula more deeply invested in art theory and history than in studio practice. Despite this substantial pedagogy, one of the persistent complaints of the Lisbon scene is lack of sufficiently aware non-artist professionals who can sit on the various boards of review or maintain the commercial activity to write criticism. Tales of promiscuous conflicts of interest abound. Responding to this need, the founding director of the Gulbenkian Foundation, Delfim Sardo, is now helping to institute the first program to train curators. This is perhaps due to the financial scale of the art world, which, in a Darwinian sense, can only sustain a small number of full time critics and curators, so that each individual is required to wear many hats to sustain themselves.


An important consequence of this then is the relative unimportance ascribed to criticism. To the degree that magazines are visible, they are more likely to be Parkett, with its long, in depth articles, than one of the trade review magazines. While the major newspapers, Expresso and Publico, do print weekly reviews, and there is a glossy magazine specifically centered on the Portuguese scene (Arte Ibérica), as well as a youthful art/culture mag called Flirt, writing is more informative than critical in nature, and artists are the first to admit that they don’t keep up with such publications. On the other hand, this is also probably due to the fact that Lisbon artists do not need the surrogate opinion of a reviewer to tell them what they see—they can see the shows themselves. A critical viewpoint than could be seen as a collection of opinions on direct individual expeirnece rather than the top down allegiance to the viewers of a professional class of reviewers.


The mechanism of market support for art remains one of the difficult aspects of life for artists working in Lisbon. The galleries are widely dispersed over the entire city, with no locale having yet developed the critical mass to draw itself all the others. Art in Lisbon, then, is inseparable fabric of the city itself. While philosophically, this might seem like a more healthy integration of art into urban life (in contrast to the overly specialized art monoculture of West Chelsea), in practice, it has the opposite effect: that of making the galleries more invisible and hermetic, and of discouraging the casual visitor. The dedicated gallery goer instead must become a pilgrim who proves their faith by threading through the labyrinthine streets, and climbing up and down the city’s seven hills in order to seek out distant galleries. In physical terms, the galleries have a much different feel than NY galleries—the floors are smoothed limestone, the interiors cool, free standing ashtrays stand guard in every room. Ironically, the physical layout of the galleries within the city is the antithesis of the interconnected and proximal nature of the artists themselves. Until there is some consensus among gallery owners as to the collective self interest in building an “art district” (I am not speaking of a mall), it is hard to see the Lisbon galleries significantly raising their profiles, both in terms of the Portuguese population and the global art world.


Despite this, there are several galleries operating in the international art circuit: Galeria Christina Guerra sold out a recent Lawrence Weiner show, Módulo maintains a presence at the art fair in Basel, and newcomer Filomena Soares has aroused much interest. Nevertheless, there is a distinct sentiment among Portuguese buyers, perhaps by temperament, prefers the validated name to the strange art. The center of all things experimental is the art/music/performance space,ZDB, (the name being an arcane homonym/acronym for Joseph Beuys) which runs on young energy alone, having taken the brave step of eschewing state funding in favor of artistic freedom. Some of the smaller Lisbon galleries may be said to exhibit at times a lack of professionalism (irregular hours etc.), as well as the fatuous “high seriousness” that accompanies a jangling cash register.


The situation is in transition, however, as new galleries and new money continues to slowly enter onto the scene. One gallery that has taken innovative approach is Lisboa Vinte (Lison 20). The gallery anywhere the artists decide they need to stage ther show, and the gallery director then works out the arrangements and technicalities necessary for securing a desired space. The project seems to build on one of Lisbon’s greatest untapped assets—and that is the city itself. For there are few cities in the world that offer a richer diversity of possible art spaces: from the snarled topology of medieval alleys in Alfama to the elegant grid system of the waterfront’s post-1755 earthquake reconstruction, from degenerate limestone palaces to brilliant open squares. With an increasingly integrated European economy intent on diminishing geography, it will be interesting to see how the scene in Lisbon develops.


John Hawke

JOHN HAWKE is a contributor to the Rail.


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