Bankable Assets

Miguel Amado at the opening of the Ellipse Foundation's new art space


Left: Ellipse Foundation chairman João Oliveira-Rendeiro with Ellipse Foundation curator Alexandre Melo. Right: New Museum chief curator Richard Flood with Ellipse Foundation curator Manuel E. González and dealer Barbara Gladstone. (All photos: Miguel Amado)

After promotional events held earlier this year in New York, Basel, São Paulo, and Madrid, Lisbon’s rentrée was marked last weekend by the long-awaited opening of the new art center devoted to the recently developed collection of the Ellipse Foundation. Chaired by collector and banker João Oliveira-Rendeiro, the foundation was endowed with around twenty-five million dollars in order to create, as he put it, “one of the most important collections begun this century.” Leading Portuguese curators Alexandre Melo and Pedro Lapa, along with curator Manuel E. González, formerly head of the JPMorgan Chase Art Collection in New York, have spent the last two years combing fairs and biennials, bringing together a substantial body of work that was unveiled Sunday to five hundred invited guests. As suggested by the exhibition title, “Open House,” there were numerous acquisitions to review—“perhaps too many,” as Melo later confessed—since the show’s organizing principle seemed to be “here’s what we bought.”

Portugal hasn’t attracted this level of attention from the international art world since the opening of Porto’s Museu de Serralves in 1999, and after a ride to Cascais in a chartered bus that allowed for coastal sightseeing, the recently converted twenty-thousand-square-foot warehouse on the outskirts of Lisbon was soon packed. Revealing where the money is being spent, several high-profile New York dealers were in attendance, among them Marian Goodman, Barbara Gladstone, Angela Choon of David Zwirner, David Leiber of Sperone Westwater, and Steve Henry of Paula Cooper. Other public figures included members of the Portuguese political and economic intelligentsia, President Sampaio among them; Madrid gallerists Pepe Cobo and Elba Benítez; and curators and artists Richard Flood, Ulrich Loock, João Fernandes, Louise Lawler, Julião Sarmento, and Glenn Ligon. It seems that few Portuguese artists and curators were invited; as Melo stated, “The collection isn’t about local production.” True enough, as only 9 out of 126 artists in the collection are Portuguese. But neither does it seem to concern key national institutions and players, as collaborations seem only in the works with international private foundations and museums.

Left: Artist Glenn Ligon. Right: Dealer Marian Goodman and Serralves Museum director João Fernandes.

Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but notice everyone’s enthusiasm as they wandered the vast space. Flood repeated, “Very impressive,” then asked me where he could find “that wonderful Mike Kelley sculpture,” as he wanted to show it to Gladstone. I led them to the upper floor, where we encountered González, who graciously accepted their congratulations. Gladstone was effusive: “The collection is incredibly sophisticated. The selection of works is very good—installations, photography, and video that reflect the spirit of our time.” María de Corral, cocurator of the last Venice Biennale, agreed. “Everything looks great, and there are so many major works that are so difficult to purchase today,” she said, referring to a group of photographs from several Pictures-generation artists. There seemed to be something for everyone, from Thomas Hirschhorn’s large-scale installation to Mona Hatoum’s delicate floor sculpture. However, mingling with a wider range of guests, it quickly became apparent that established male artists from Europe and America dominated, raising a few awkward questions. While Oliveira-Rendeiro and company guided the president around the galleries, I had the chance to talk with Choon, who had ample reason to appreciate the foundation’s efforts, explaining that Stan Douglas’s new project, based on a famous Kurosawa movie, is being funded with Ellipse money.

The festivities continued in an old fort overlooking the Cascais Bay, one of Portugal’s most stunning natural wonders. A storm had just blown through, and, with torches leading us through the “Citadel,” the venue proved a perfect environment for dinner. New Yorkers enjoyed Portuguese dishes like mussels in three-sweet-pepper vinaigrette, and I enjoyed my conversation with my tablemate David Leiber, who mentioned that his gallery is negotiating the sale of a Bruce Nauman to the foundation and that he vacations at nearby Algarve regularly. After a welcome speech by Oliveira-Rendeiro and a charming fado concert, a party area was unveiled; Lawler, artist Vasco Araújo, and gallerist Cristina Guerra lit up the dance floor. The revelry didn’t last long; perhaps the late meal and early-morning flights conspired to end the night for many just as it was beginning. Visibly satisfied, Oliveira-Rendeiro elucidated how the initial investment fund, along with the aborted negotiations with the Museu de Serralves to host the collection, had created the Ellipse Foundation, as well the difference between this private initiative and the Berardo Museum, due to open next year and partially funded by the public sector. I asked about the future. “We still have more or less half of the acquisitions budget, so the collection will grow and new shows will present works usually inaccessible in Portugal,” he said. After greeting Melo, he concluded: “Today is just the beginning of this project.” Knowing I would never find my way back to Lisbon, I accepted a friend’s offer of a ride back into town. At the door, the cherry on top of the cake: Wrapped up in a cloth bag, a catalogue beautifully designed by the ubiquitous M/M (Paris) was being offered to each guest. Perfect bedside reading.

Left: I-20 Gallery's Paul Judelson and artist João Onofre. Right: Collector Alexandra Pinho and artist Louise Lawler.

Left: M/M's Michael Amzalag. Right: Writer Paulo Cunha e Silva and Sperone Westwater Gallery director David Leiber.

Left: Curator Filipa Oliveira and dealer Elba Benítez. Right: I-20 Gallery's Paul Judelson with artist Olaf Breuning.

Left: Dealer Pepe Cobo and collector Marta Andrada. Right: Ellipse Foundation curators Pedro Lapa and Alexandre Melo.

Left: David Zwirner gallery director Angela Choon and Sean Kelly gallery director Cecile Panzieri. Right: Dealer Cristina Guerra and artist Julião Sarmento.

Left: Portuguese Institute of the Arts deputy director Adelaide Ginga and journalist Emídio Rangel. Right: Fitz & Co.'s Dan Tazilli.