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PRINT November 2000

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the São Paulo Bienal

SINCE EARLY MAY, the São Paulo Bienal has been embroiled in perhaps the greatest crisis since its inception in 1951. Originally scheduled to open last April, the 25th Bienal was postponed twice, the curator walked out, and six council members resigned, leaving the event in limbo. Whereas previous disagreements have been resolved behind closed doors, in this case council and board members aired their views in the media, which broke the scandal wide open and badly damaged the international credibility of the Bienal Foundation. “It was a dark period in our history. People refused to return our phone calls and even the Ministry of Culture avoided speaking to us,” a member of the board of directors reported.

The crisis pitted two powerful personalities in the nation’s cultural and economic life against each other: on one side, Milú Villela, president of the Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo, a member of the international advisory board of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and heiress to one of the largest banking fortunes in Brazil; on the other, Edemar Cid Ferreira, who presided over the ’94 and ’96 biennials (both curated by Nelson Aguilar) and is now an influential member of the Bienal Foundation council. Cid Ferreira, himself a banker, is also president of Associação Brasil + 500, the institution that organized “Mostra do Redescobrimento” (Rediscovery exhibition), a historical survey of Brazilian art that attracted a record 1.9 million viewers during its five-month run in São Paulo’s Ibirapuera Park (by comparison, a mere 1.2 million attended “Treasures of Tutankhamen,” the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s late-’70s blockbuster).

The crisis was precipitated on May 9, when the Bienal Foundation board of directors voted to postpone the biennial a second time, from next spring until April 2002. The biennial’s long-standing and well-respected curator, Ivo Mesquita, who was traveling in Spain at the time, was informed of the decision shortly after the vote, by telephone. On returning to Brazil a week later, he told the Folha de São Paulo, one of Brazil’s largest dailies, that he would resign if the board’s decision stood. Indignant, the Bienal Foundation president, architect Carlos Bratke, fired Mesquita. The dismissal was widely condemned in artistic circles both at home and abroad. Chief among Mesquita’s supporters was Villela, then vice president of the Bienal Foundation.

Villela and her group disputed Bratke’s claim that postponement was necessary because the Bienal Pavilion in Ibirapuera Park was urgently in need of repair and presented a safety hazard, arguing that if the pavilion were truly at risk, the thousands of works it houses would have been removed and the doors closed. Villela accused the Bienal Foundation of catering to the interests of Cid Ferreira, who, in her view, wanted to avoid competition as he raised money for the planned global tour of “Mostra do Redescobrimento,” which includes stops at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Guggenheim Bilbao, the Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume in Paris, and London’s British Museum. Bratke denied these charges, but he could not have been unaware of the advantage in having a Cid Ferreira on his side. And, in fact, Cid Ferreira’s power was escalating: The Associação, created in 1998 by Bienal Foundation council members (including Cid Ferreira) as an institution whose sole objective was to organize and promote “Mostra do Redescobrimento,” voted to alter its own bylaws and became autonomous this summer. Although it was to have been dissolved and its holdings absorbed by the Bienal Foundation in 2002, when “Mostra do Redescobrimento” closed, the Associação won an indefinitely extended charter, free use of the Lucas Nogueira Garcez Pavilion (near the Bienal Pavilion in Ibirapuera Park), and, presumably, all the proceeds from its record-breaking show.

Under considerable pressure from the media and from Brazilian and international protesters, Bratke reinstated Mesquita, but this neither eased the tension nor addressed the issues that remained: that the biennial, if held in 2002, would no longer coincide with its fiftieth anniversary; that a number of institutions had already scheduled loans to Mesquita for April 2001; and that the Bienal Foundation had postponed the event without consulting the curator. Furthermore, allegations arose that the Bienal Foundation council had tampered with its own minutes to make the discussions appear more one-sided, and a frustrated Bratke threatened to resign; Villela announced her candidacy for the position, but then left the foundation when it became clear that Bratke had no intention of quitting. Five other council members also walked out; Mesquita quickly followed suit, without having informed Bratke of the loans he had lined up for the biennial since May. In 2001, Mesquita will go back to teaching at Bard College’s Center for Curatorial Studies in upstate New York.

The Bienal Foundation is now trying to pick up the pieces and plan its twenty-fifth exhibition for 2002. Bratke, who has rebuilt the council, is seeking a replacement for Mesquita. The Folha de São Paulo reported recently that one possible candidate is Alfons Hug, a German curator who helped organize Dakar’s third biennial in 1998. Bratke has also announced his intention to forge a partnership with the Associação for projects like organizing the nation’s participation in the 2001 Venice Biennale, a move that has outraged Mesquita’s supporters. Bratke is now attempting to create a climate of reconciliation in Ibirapuera Park, where Villela’s Museu de Arte Moderna is also located. “It’s time for all cultural institutions to agree upon a modus vivendi acceptable to everyone here in the park,” Bratke has said. But such an agreement is unlikely, at least for now. The Associação seems to have emerged the victor: It has avoided financial competition with the biennial; its show is certain to gain a huge international audience; it won autonomy but will nonetheless have a hand in planning Brazil’s role in the Venice Biennale. What’s more, the Folha de São Paulo reported last month that the Associação is now working with the Guggenheim Foundation to look into building a Guggenheim branch in Rio de Janeiro. The biennial, on the other hand, has suffered from the resignation of several council members, including Villela; furthermore, it lost its curator and has received such negative press that many candidates for that position may stay away. How will the biennial hold up? We’ll have to wait and see.

Celso Fioravante is a journalist based in São Paulo.

Translated from Portuguese by Clifford Landers.