Joe's Show


Left: Venice Biennale Portuguese-pavilion curator Jürgen Bock and Venice Biennale Portuguese-pavilion artist Ângela Ferreira. Right: Collector José Berardo. (All photos: Miguel Amado)

Belém, a neighborhood in the western area of Lisbon, has long been a tourist hot spot, thanks in large part to its famous pastries and the sixteenth-century Jerónimos Monastery, which memorializes Portugal’s seafaring history. But last Monday saw the inauguration of a new attraction for the district—indeed for Lisbon itself: the Museum Collection Berardo, sited in the premises of the Belém Cultural Center. With a founding collection of 862 works gathered, since the beginning of the '90s, by Portuguese multimillionaire José Berardo (a South African immigrant, also known simply as Joe, who made it big extracting gold from old mines), the museum is the first of its kind in the country and aspires to become one of the most important in Europe. As José Sócrates, the Portuguese prime minister, hyperbolized in his opening remarks, “from now on, the European route of modern and contemporary art begins in Lisbon.”

Sócrates, along with Minister of Culture Isabel Pires de Lima and Berardo, celebrated the occasion with abundant speeches, hugs, and kisses put on for a select audience of venerable and enthusiastic politicians and other notables. As Berardo said, looking at his wife, “This is a happy day, only comparable to my wedding.” Most everyone appeared agreeable, and after ten years of negotiations with successive government administrations to present his collection in a publicly funded space, the event felt like the dawn of a new era for the city: Until 2016, Berardo’s collection will be on permanent view, offering to Portugal what up till now neither individual nor state has been able to provide.

But not all was kosher. Some were unnerved by last year’s controversial deal that allowed the collector to take over the Exhibitions Center (which henceforth terminated its own program), and which also stipulated that Berardo could sell his €316 million collection (as evaluated by Christie’s) to the Portuguese state in 2016. Indeed, the morning after the opening, António Mega Ferreira, the Belém Cultural Center’s director, resigned as president of the founding board of the museum, and consequent television and radio coverage revealed the tempestuous relationship between him and Berardo.

Left: Serralves Museum director João Fernandes and artist Pedro Cabrita Reis. Right: Artist Joana Vasconcelos.

Museums of modern and contemporary art are somewhat foreign to the Portuguese art scene, and as such, Jean-François Chougnet, the French administrator whom Berardo has appointed director, proclaimed in a recent interview that “the next step is to normalize the museum’s relation with its core audience.” No small task, given the animosity of many of the dealers, curators, writers, and few artists present. As one critic remarked, “We are here smiling when we have all been cursing Berardo behind his back.” Still, some seemed satisfied: Artist Joana Vasconcelos (whose infamous tampon chandelier graced the entrance to the Arsenale in 2005) pronounced it “the most significant project ever taking place in the country.” “Of course,” someone later noted, “that’s easy to say when you have a commissioned sculpture at both entrances to the museum!”

The tour of the museum’s many Tate Modern–style thematic rooms was swift, as dinner was scheduled for 8:30 PM. Nevertheless, there was time to observe Berardo eagerly meeting artist William Furlong, whose sound installation was purchased for the galleries’ lobby, as well as greeting Vasconcelos with a loud “Hey, babe, I want your shoe!”—referring to her large-scale sculpture of a high heel made from cooking pans presented in a parallel program of the current Venice Biennale.

A long red carpet guided guests from the Belém Cultural Center to the dinner, hosted in the cloisters of the nearby Jerónimos Monastery. The sacred setting was in sharp contrast to the mundane local crowd, mostly clad in dour black despite the summer occasion. Perhaps this was in deference to Berardo’s characteristic personal dress, once explained as a sign of his “permanent mourning of Portuguese culture.”

Left: Prime Minister José Sócrates. Right: Dealers Cristina Guerra and Pedro Oliveira.

If the food didn’t deliver, the wine certainly did. Film director Gonçalo Galvão Teles noted that the alcohol was all produced in Berardo’s own vineyards. Leaving behind the politics of the museum, Teles and I discussed Berardo’s current attempts to purchase the country’s favorite soccer team, a gesture that was amplifying his already strong media profile. As if to emphasize his local fame, by 2 AM, Berardo was seated in the museum lobby autographing free educational leaflets at the request of a euphoric gaggle of unknown visitors.

At the after-party, everyone gathered in the museum’s plaza to watch Groupe F’s fire show, which would last until dawn. I wondered how different would be the popular reaction to the museum. For many, this represents their first opportunity to see a Picasso or a Warhol. Benefiting from free access, the first twenty-four hours brought in over twenty-three thousand visitors, though it seems unlikely that one individual’s collection can maintain such crowds. An upcoming “blockbuster” temporary exhibition is in the works to address the issue. Still, as Chiado Museum director Pedro Lapa made clear in Wednesday’s Público newspaper, without a more experimental perspective, the country may be “postponing the creation of an international museum for another ten years.” But for this night, at least, the crowd seemed sated.

Left: The Jerónimos Monastery. Right: Museum Berardo Collection director Jean-Francois Chougnet.

Left: Dealer Vera Cortes, curator Leonor Nazaré, artist Sara Maia, curator Lúcia Marques, and Carmona e Costa Foundation exhibition space director Gisela Rosenthal. Right: Artist Jorge Santos and cultural administrator Luísa Ramos.

Left: Curator Isabel Carlos. Right: Curator Filipa Oliveira and L + Arte magazine chief editor Paula Brito Medori.