THE TENTH ANNIVERSARY PARTY of the Serralves Museum in Porto was so highly anticipated that on the eve of the event even the art crowds in Lisbon were abuzz. In the Portuguese art world, there are few major occasions for celebration, and after the memorable openings of the Ellipse Foundation in 2006 and the Museum Berardo Collection in 2007, last year’s gap left the protagonists of this increasingly vibrant scene anxious. I arrived at the Serralves with the stylish artist Joana Vasconcelos and Spanish curator Agustin Pérez Rubio on the Friday before the Venice Biennale, just in time to catch the official announcements by the head of the Serralves Foundation, António Gomes de Pinho, and Aníbal Cavaco Silva, the president of Portugal.
Gathered around Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s large sculpture of a red shovel, the crowd listened attentively, remarking on Pinho’s demand for more state and private support. The speeches and the events were directed more toward the future than the past. Fittingly, Tate Modern director Vicente Todolí (former director of the Serralves) and artist Miroslaw Balka strolled the galleries alone, instead of with the official group, itself composed of João Fernandes (who replaced Todolí in 2003), Cavaco Silva, and the minister of culture, José António Pinto Ribeiro. Others trailed behind, including the centenarian filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira and Jorge Nuno Pinto da Costa, the well-known president of Porto’s soccer team.
Walking around the galleries, I couldn’t help but notice artist José Pedro Croft discussing his work with a friend, while the prime minister’s cultural adviser, Alexandre Melo, observed some works that he had once selected for the collection of a now-collapsing bank and that were bought by the Serralves over the past few years. Given its small acquisitions budget, the Serralves has always relied on corporate and individual donors to build a collection, a fact made manifest by the current display, which focuses largely on small-scale, individual works mostly dated from the 1960s to the ’80s.
The presentation of the collection, the first survey since the opening of the Serralves, prompted comments of both enthusiasm and disappointment. Someone remarked nastily on the Tony Cragg sculpture in the main room, while dealer José Mário Brandão, who represents the estate of Lygia Pape, was more than happy with the display of her Ttéia. Nevertheless, visitors stressed the museum’s increasingly old-fashioned character, frequently mentioning the lack of emerging artists.
At the open-air reception, I didn’t spot any of the young hedge-fund collector types who populated Lisbon’s gallery openings before the recent market crash. More surprising, though, was the conspicuous absence of several established Lisbon-based and international artists, curators, and dealers, perhaps evidence of the museum’s tenuous bonds beyond the city. London-based dealer Anthony Reynolds was one of the few foreign guests that I recognized, and he spent the evening accompanied by his daughter.
By 10 PM, I began to wonder when the feast would be served. To my dismay, I found that the finger food we’d been snacking on all evening was the dinner. “It’s not that the starters are not good,” said a Porto dealer, “but in Portugal a meal is never made only of snacks.” Someone noted that artist Pedro Cabrita Reis had even skipped the reception once he’d heard of the menu; it simply wasn’t good enough for his gourmet tastes. For those—such as Jorge Barreto Xavier, the jovial head of the Portuguese Arts Council—who stayed to dance to the inspiring yet traditional sounds of Real Combo Lisbonense, the night continued until 4 AM, while some artists (including Manuel Santos Maia) who prefer to hang out in Porto’s clubs managed to entertain themselves well beyond dawn. There are ways, one found, to salvage even the most unglamorous festivities.