Report from Portugalby Lígia Afonso
There is significance in the number of events in Portugal that are focused on the area of artistic creation, which is one of the preferential fields of production in contemporary art. One could imagine an artwork empty, considering its temporal synchronicity, but that rarely happens. There is an audience and competition; despite the enduring and dismal economic crisis, the inexistence of an art market, the absence of a cultural policy able to stimulate, support, or even communicate with the sector, and the lack of art criticism.
Following a vertiginous decline, the financial and productive capacity of art institutions is now stagnant. The dismantling of the Portuguese Bank of Business (BPN) and Ellipse Foundation collections were approved by the state judiciary, and others, like the Berardo Museum Collection, face varied problems and have suspended all new acquisitions. The Museu Nacional de Arte Contemporanea do Chiado in Lisbon and Fundação De Serralves in Porto are now undergoing transition, as they both have new directors: David Santos, and Suzanne Cotter, respectively. The Serralves Foundation also recently appointed João Ribas as deputy director and head curator. On Cotter and Ribas, in particular, rest great national and international expectations.
The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation remains one of the most important Portuguese cultural institutions. One of its latest, most significant initiatives has been the interdisciplinary and intercultural program Next Future, directed by António Pinto Ribeiro. Under the direction of Isabel Carlos, Gulbenkian’s Centro de Arte Moderna (CAM) has acquired the greatest cultural capital and is the only place currently enjoying relative stability. The CAM has created space for a new generation of curators to start their careers, and offers a permanent grant program dedicated to internationalization, awarded on a project-by-project basis or through residency programs aimed at both artists and curators. These residency programs rely on partnerships with the Fundação Armando Alvares Penteado in São Paulo, the Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin, and Residency Unlimited in New York .
It is also important to note Miguel Wandschneider’s role in Culturgest in Lisbon, given the solidity of his curatorial program and the quality of his exhibitions, as well as his programming (now suspended) at the space Chiado 8, also in Lisbon, where he presented up to 30 solo shows with an experimental vocation, first curated by Ricardo Nicolau and later, by Bruno Marchand. Other projects, public and private, define and expand the Portuguese institutional landscape: Fundação EDP (Lisbon and Porto); Fundação Carmona e Costa (Lisbon); Atelier Museu Júlio Pomar (Lisbon); Fundação Leal Rios (Lisbon); outside the two major cities, Porta 33 (Funchal); Centro de Artes Visuais (Coimbra); Museu da Imagem (Braga), Centro Cultural Vila Flor and Centro Internacional das Artes (Guimarães); and Galeria Solar (Vila do Conde).
Learning from the experience of Galeria ZDB—energized by a key group of independent artists and defying the supremacy of the institutional format since the ’90s—the proliferation of independent spaces is now a reality in Lisbon, but especially in Porto—a city that has had a strong tradition in this field for over a decade now. The attempt to overcome the inadequacy of the existing structures to promote contemporary production has placed artists and curators, artist-curators or critic-curators at the front line of low cost programming. They are today’s protagonists, deeply engaged in promoting their work in order to dispel the problems they face given the lack of a government policy, working in Europe’s geographic and economic periphery and aiming for internationalization.
Concerning the production of events in the intersection of curatorial and artistic practices, it is important to emphasize Avenida 211 (Lisbon), a space where over 40 artists have their individual studios. Its public facet is represented by three spaces working autonomously in different rooms of the same building: The Barber Shop, a space curated by Margarida Mendes that hosts periodic artistic and discursive actions; the Kunsthalle Lissabon, a para-institution managed and curated by João Mourão and Luís Silva with yearly exhibition cycles, sustained by government funding and occasional partnerships; and, finally, Parkour, a space managed by an artist collective, dedicated to the production of exhibitions within the range of their aesthetic affinities. Concerning artist studio spaces, we should also note Atelier Concorde and Palácio dos Coruchéus, a complex that integrates the Quadrum, a Municipal Art Gallery. The latter comprises over 50 studios, built and contracted to visual artists in the ’70s, and now undergoing a reformulation of their lease policies. Oporto, a space run by the artist Alexandre Estrela, offers a consolidated, dynamic program that includes occasional events in the artist’s studio space. Situated in the Merchant Navy Union’s old headquarters, it is a unique and indescribable space, showcasing screenings of experimental films and videos by independent international authors. Still in Lisbon, it is important to note projects such as Empty Cube or Old School. There are no open residency programs in Portugal that are both regular and consistent, but the independent studies program offered by Maumaus under the direction of Jürgen Bock, with its residency programs run in conjunction with their exhibition space Lumiar Cité, has contributed to a vigorous network of names and helped to establish foreign artists in Portugal.
In Porto, and during the last decade, two generations of artists systematically gathered in small groups to set up informal and ephemeral spaces, occupying coffee shops, attics, shops in semi-abandoned malls, vacant and derelict spaces, or even offering spaces in their own houses. All these initiatives revealed an incredible capacity to dynamize and collaborate, allowing them to overcome the shortcomings of the city’s institutions and the inexistence of alternative spaces that could host the shows and projects developed in the city. From these projects we emphasize A Certain Lack of Coherence, curated by the artists André Sousa and Mauro Cerqueira; Espaço Mira, programmed by José Maia and a group of curators; Sismógrafo, a recent collective project directed by the critic and curator óscar Faria; Maus Hábitos, a cultural space dedicated to music and contemporary art; Oficina Arara, a collective dedicated to the graphic arts; and, finally, Inc. livros e edições de autor, an art bookstore run by a group of curators and artists. Visiting the spaces mentioned above in Lisbon and Porto is required of all curators wishing to deepen their knowledge of the Portuguese artistic panorama.
Artists—some of whom recently completed or are in the process of completing their Ph.D.s (Lisbon University: Alexandre Estrela, Susana Gaudêncio; Coimbra University: Susana Mendes Silva, Alice Geirinhas)—pursue research as an alternative strategy to establish themselves. Others become part of a growing number of individuals forced into emigration, away from a culturally unstructured and voiceless country, where both art criticism and investment are scant. Artists like João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva, Francisco Tropa, Miguel Palma or Filipa César successfully thread their individual and international paths, and others, like Ana Jotta, wait for their time to come. Except for some novel but still incipient editorial projects (Revista4, MArte Magazine, Jornal Falado da Crítica), there is not a single publication dedicated to the analysis of the abundant and multiform Portuguese artistic panorama, no document that could accompany its development in engaging and inspiring ways.
LÍGIA AFONSO lives and works in Lisbon and sporadically in São Paulo as a researcher, critic, curator, and editor, developing individual and collaborative projects.