PRINT May 2014

Sérgio B. Martins

Bernardes & Jacobsen Arquitetura, Museu de Arte do Rio, 2013, Rio de Janeiro. Photo: Leonardo Finotti.

AT THE START OF 2013, no one could have imagined the wave of demonstrations that would rock the streets of Brazilian cities just a few months later—the most widespread protests in the country since the Diretas Já! (Direct [Elections] Now!)movement in 1984. The recent unrest began largely as a response to poor public services, police brutality, the perceived bankruptcy of political representation, and the government’s massive spending on urban and social “reforms” in preparation for hosting both the World Cup this June and the Summer Olympic Games in 2016. Yet, at the inaugural opening of the Museu de Arte do Rio (MAR) in Rio de Janeiro in March 2013, well before the large-scale protests broke out, a small but loud group was able to make itself heard by authorities and VIP guests in attendance—some of whom reportedly jeered at the demonstration from behind the safety of police lines.

The protesters chanted against the prolonged closure of municipal theaters—prompted by fire-safety concerns but largely blamed on lack of investment and misguided cultural policies—and, more generally, against Porto Maravilha (Marvelous Port), the major urban-renewal project in Rio’s downtown port area, of which MAR is an integral part. Signs exclaiming “Não à venda do Rio de Janeiro!” (No to the Sale of Rio de Janeiro!) and “Revitalização para quem?”(Renewal for Whom?) were clear shots at the public-private consortium effectively granted control of the neighborhood in a move that generated outcry among urban critics but was largely endorsed by conservative media columnists.

MAR itself is one of three museums—along with the Museu da Imagem e do Som (Museum of Image and Sound) and the controversial Santiago Calatrava–designed Museu do Amanhã (Museum of Tomorrow)—conceived by Fundação Roberto Marinho (FRM), the philanthropic arm of the Globo media conglomerate, in partnership with the city and state governments. MAR’s cultural director, Paulo Herkenhoff, pledged that the museum would invest in the formation of a public collection rather than becoming just another stop for traveling exhibitions—music to the ears of members of the local art scene, long accustomed to institutional shortcomings. But the most publicized initiative of MAR remains the so-called Escola do Olhar (School of Vision), a program meant to activate the museum as a training platform in art education for public-school teachers and professionals and to involve universities and the neighboring community in a number of pedagogical activities and debates.

The whole package is, of course, very media friendly, especially considering that MAR is the first landmark of the port-area renewal project, thus heralding a series of transformations that seek to turn the site into a predominantly corporate and tourist district. Rio’s mayor, Eduardo Paes, has gone so far as to call MAR the “cultural anchor” of Porto Maravilha—but one could easily replace the term cultural with ideological. On the museum’s scenic rooftop, interactive screens allow visitors to point to the surrounding landscape and simulate what the view will look like after the renewal is well under way.

Designed by the local architecture firm Bernardes & Jacobsen Arquitetura, the museum fits well into this image-driven scenario: It comprises an eclectic twentieth-century building joined to a revamped modernist one (previously a run-down police hospital) by a sinuous concrete rooftop and ramp, resulting in a hybrid facade that looks good as a photo-ready frontal shot, but not so good when one approaches from the sides. The obvious subtext of the design is the contemporary reconciliation of different historical epochs, driven by the promise of Rio’s booming future as a global city. Yet the architectural recovery is patently farcical: Cleared of obstructions built over the years, the pilotis of the modernist building were restored only to be encircled by glass walls reminiscent of Rio’s upper-class gated communities. The modernist ethos of integrating the building with the streets is thus reduced to a visual pastiche, while street dwellers are safely kept at bay.

In fact, the museum’s central claims can also be called into question. While Brazilian institutions have not historically invested much in building collections, MAR’s touted acquisition criteria remain unclear at best.And while the museum takes pride in involving the neighboring community, this hardly compensates for its role as an emblem of a broader urban policy that has been consistently accused of promoting gentrification and evictions in the city’s historically poor peripheral favelas. Even the Escola do Olhar comes with strings attached. After all, FRM’s multimillion-dollar deals in the public education sector have been forcefully criticized by teachers for providing pedagogically conservative classroom materials that relegate educators to the mere duty of passing along set content. These were some of the concerns of a major strike that recently closed Rio’s schools for seventy-seven days and faced negative media coverage, especially from the city’s main newspaper, O Globo. MAR remained silent on the matter despite its avowed commitment to education and urban politics, as if both were ultimately unrelated.

View of “The Collector: Brazilian and International Art in the Boghici Collection,” 2013, Museu de Arte do Rio, Rio de Janeiro.

Gentrification can do just fine without museums; one might argue that the latter can at least lend visibility to the former’s contradictions. But to what extent do MAR’s curatorial and spatial practices do justice to the sociopolitical sensitivity that seemingly informs the museum’s discourse? “Against a globalization that homogenizes, ‘Meeting of Worlds’ proclaims the differences,” Herkenhoff states in the wall text of one of the current exhibitions. The meaning of differences here is twofold: On the one hand, it merely signifies (and celebrates) the fact that works in the museum’s collection come from different donors with different sensibilities; on the other, it is meant to translate into an affirmation of political and cultural diversity. But to accept this conflation is to overlook the reality that globalization homogenizes more by making diversity qualitatively indistinct than by enforcing strict sameness. Indeed, MAR’s design shop and upscale restaurant glaringly resemble those of any other global art museum; the same applies to Rio’s plans for its port area vis-à-vis urban-renewal precedents worldwide (the most telling project in this respect is Trump Towers Rio, a complex of five skyscrapers, each almost five hundred feet tall).

One of the museum’s initial exhibitions, “Shelter and Land: Art and Society in Brazil,” anticipated such criticism by including artist collectives that explicitly engage with urban politics. However, when one of those groups was barred from performing at the show’s opening due to security concerns surrounding the presence of President Dilma Rousseff, the museum issued a statement denying charges of censorship and claiming that evictions “are not a taboo for the Museu de Arte do Rio or for the government of Rio de Janeiro.” While there was no explicit censorship involved, the museum’s statement was curiously self-defeating: How can an institution claim political autonomy while speaking on behalf of a government from which it is supposedly autonomous?

One should give credit where credit is due: MAR offers a robust program of talks and symposia, and few Brazilian institutions have the means to assemble a show such as “Experimental Pernambuco,” which included an outstanding display of artistic experimentation in Recife since the 1920s. The museum’s emphasis on the city’s urban history is also welcome, as in the exhibition “Rio in Images.” Yet even on this topic, political contradictions are all too evident: As real estate speculation both discloses and threatens the archaeological potential and historical preservation of the port area, a true critical analysis of projects such as Porto Maravilha becomes more urgent than ever. But this would mean questioning the euphoria generated both by Rio’s preparations for hosting the World Cup and the Olympics and by Brazilian art’s international boom. The latter is made only more problematic by star curators jetting to and from the country without caring to understand the political context surrounding the appearance of institutions such as MAR. At this point, however, resistance seems far more likely to come from the streets than from the skies.

Sérgio B. Martins is a professor of history at the Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio de Janeiro (PUC–RIO) and the author of Constructing an Avant-Garde: Art in Brazil, 1949–1979 (2013).