PRINT April 2023


Manuel Borja-Villel, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, 2021.

I DO NOT THINK I CAN CONCEAL my immense admiration for Manuel Borja-Villel (or Manolo, as his friends and collaborators call him), and, in truth, I do not think that I should. So there: I have long considered Borja-Villel the best curator-director of any museum of modern and contemporary art that I know of, by a long shot. The man is indefatigable: During his fifteen years directing Madrid’s Museo Reina Sofía (from January 2008 to January 2023), he personally curated, shepherded, or hosted (and edited) 207 exhibitions. And of course it is not the quantity of shows that matters but their stunning inventiveness—the novelty of their topics, their conceptual crispness, the intelligence of their installation: All those I saw were eye-openers and remain vibrant in my memory. (This is true as well of the shows Borja-Villel mounted during his tenure at the Fundació Antoni Tàpies, which he led from 1990 to 1998, and at the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona [MACBA], which he helmed for the following ten years.)

Borja-Villel was determined to fight at all costs the spectacularization brought about by the global economic crisis of 2007–2008, which he saw as the swan song not of neoliberalism but of the hypocrisy on which it was built.

Lavish praise is not my forte (my Huguenot background forestalls it), but at present, emphasis is imperative in response to the campaign of unprecedented violence launched by the Spanish conservative press and its ultra-right allies against Borja-Villel and all he has accomplished at the Reina Sofía. It was not the first time, of course, that nostalgics for Franco assailed him: In November 2014, for example, the Spanish Association of Christian Lawyers, offended by a work included in the exhibition “Un saber realmente útil” (Really Useful Knowledge), brought a case against him. Though the government was very conservative at the time, these charges fizzled, thanks to the autonomous status of the museum, which Borja-Villel had fought for and obtained in 2011. Today, however, the attack is plain vicious. It gathered momentum on January 15, 2023 (only days before the termination of his contract), when the front page of ABC, one of the three most important Spanish dailies (with El País and El Mundo), sported this boldfaced headline: THE DIRECTOR HAS BEEN UNDER A FRAUDULENT CONTRACT FOR TEN YEARS. The paper repeated this claim every day for a week, often on the front page (it was also parroted by less prominent journals), even though the Reina Sofía immediately sent a note to ABC debunking the allegation and requesting a retraction, which never came.

View of “Un saber realmente útil” (Really Useful Knowledge), 2014–15, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid. From left: Wilfredo Lam, Nativité (Nativity), 1947; Anonymous, Auca de Queipo de Llano (Queipo de Llano’s Hallelujahs), 1937; Diego Rivera, Vendedora de flores (Flower Vendor), 1949. Photo: Joaquín Cortés/Román Lores.

The issue is not that complex: Borja-Villel’s initial five-year contract, dated January 18, 2008, stipulates that his appointment can be renewed two more times, every five years—that is, until January 18, 2023—by common accord of him and the tutelary authorities, which is exactly what happened both times (oh, the irony!) under the conservative government of Mariano Rajoy. Now, ABC’s rant did not come out of the blue: It is based on a law passed on October 4, 2011, concerning, among other things, the nomination process for the director of the Reina Sofía (involving an international selection committee and so forth—nothing very different from what had led to Borja-Villel’s appointment three years before). Discounting the fact that this new law was not retroactive, as determined by lawyers for the ministry of culture and sports when Borja-Villel’s contract was renewed in 2013 and again in 2018, ABC cooked up the idea that because no selection committee had presided over his two reappointments, his contract was void. In other times, this would have been a tempest in a teapot. Not in the present climate of a far-right culture war amplified by social media.

Why all this fuss now, ten years after the first renewal? The fact is, Borja-Villel’s bosses—the Reina Sofía’s president, its board of trustees, and the minister of culture—had not been shy in letting him know that they would gladly welcome his (perfectly legal) reapplication for his old job (with the understanding that he would have to go through the same process as any other candidate). And why this interest from the powers that be in finding a way to retain Borja-Villel? Quite simply because, under his leadership, the Reina Sofía has been wildly successful in attracting visitors (per the highly respected online journal CTXT, the museum officially reported “4,425,699 visitors in 2019, compared to 1,818,202 in 2008; 3,063,092 in 2022, still healing from the pandemic”—that is, greater attendance than the Prado!), as well as in soliciting private funding. Borja-Villel, in turn, admitted that he was tempted by the prospect of remaining at the museum, where he could attend to unfinished business and consolidate his and his colleagues’ considerable legacy. He mulled the decision for several weeks and, having agreed to cocurate the forthcoming Bienal de São Paulo, finally decided not to reapply. Would he have averted the right-wing campaign against him had he made his decision public sooner, rather than waiting until the last moment in order—or so he thought—to protect his team? Nothing is less certain, but one thing is clear: The mere thought of his reconduction excited the bullies in the conservative press like a red flag.

But why this rage? The answer lies in Borja-Villel’s legacy, which they—with the support of traditionalist segments of the art world—had hoped to erase in one fell swoop.

View of “Dalí: Todas las sugestiones poéticas y todas las posibilidades plásticas” (Dalí: All of the Poetic Suggestions and All of the Plastic Possibilities), 2013, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid. Photo: Joaquín Cortés/Román Lores.

LET ME START WITH AN ANECDOTE. In the summer of 2013, I visited the museum to see an extraordinary exhibition curated by my friends Julia Robinson and Christian Xatrec, “± 1961: La expansión de las artes,” (± I96I Founding the Expanded Arts). whose starting point had been La Monte Young’s famous 1963 book An Anthology of Chance Operations. (This was a particularly difficult show to install, given the need to balance a heavy reliance upon documentation and the enactment of its very topic, intermediality.) There was lots to munch on—films and videos, live dance performances, photographs, objects, musical scores, and loads of vintage print material and private correspondence. Fairly exhausted after several hours, I had planned to venture to the permanent collection as a quieter, less demanding reward, noticing in passing that a Dalí retrospective was also on the menu. I was actually relieved: Amid the bountiful cornucopia that, as usual, the Reina Sofía was offering to its visitors, here was one thing I could skip without remorse, given that this show was coming from the Centre Pompidou, where I had forced myself to attend it a few months prior. That’s when I stumbled upon Borja-Villel, who nudged me to take a peek: Even though most of the works that had been exhibited in Paris were again on view, he hinted, here I’d hardly notice. Dalí is among my least favorite artists, but I had been particularly repulsed by the Pompidou exhibition and its blatant advocacy of spectacularization as an installation strategy, the low point being the Mae West room, a 1975 environment based on a painting from 1936, on the couch of which onlookers, after a long wait in line, could go sit and take a selfie. Borja-Villel, of course, was right: In its Reina Sofía iteration, the show was unrecognizable. It had doubled in size, but, once again, quantity is not what mattered. Every work was given context, displayed alongside others in various media (by Dalí or other artists, many of them Spanish and hitherto perfectly unknown to me) with which it had shared a historical moment; additionally, every work received support from the archive, supplied via abundant documents in vitrines that carefully retraced a given piece’s inception and reception. Mini-narratives crisscrossed and enriched one another. One learned an enormous amount about the milieu to which Dalí belonged in his youth, for example, but also about his “exile” and the way it fundamentally differed from that of many of his peers. This was no longer a monographic show, or, rather, the monograph had become rhizomatic, an endless sequence of doors opening onto other doors.

View of “Colección 1. La irrupción del siglo XX: utopías y conflictos (1900–1945)” (Collection 1. The Irruption of the 20th Century: Utopias and Conflicts [1900–1945]), 2010–20, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid.

Context and archive: Such are the tools that Borja-Villel wielded against spectacle—an enemy he had identified long before heading to the Reina Sofía but that at the time of his arrival was considered the only path to survival for museums competing with touristic attractions. Back then, the Reina Sofía was a sleepy institution, the installation of its permanent collection consisting mainly of monographic rooms devoted to grand modern masters (Picasso, Miró, et al.) and to the generation of Spanish painters who had come up for air after being occulted under Franco, Picasso’s Guernica, 1937, functioning as an isolated talisman. Though he desired to make the museum popular, Borja-Villel was determined to fight at all costs the spectacularization brought about by the global economic crisis of 2007–2008, which he saw as the swan song not of neoliberalism but of the hypocrisy on which it was built and by which it had managed to seduce a growing middle-class population of depoliticized consumers: The quick-fix mode of the spectacle was a handmaiden to the economy of planned obsolescence. At the same time, he realized that returning to the old model of the museum as a refuge of the Muses, a space of sheer contemplation, was no longer possible; spurred by a wish to activate new demographics, museums everywhere had turned this page. Instead, he invoked another model, one more ancient—that of the museum as a repository of knowledge—and tweaked it to become a producer of knowledge.

His first act, within months of his arrival, was to end Guernica’s solitary confinement—not to take it down from its justified pedestal but to return it to historical life. Josep-Lluís Sert’s maquette and plans for the pavilion of the Spanish Republic at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris, Guernica’s first destination, were brought into the fray and presented alongside artworks that had been displayed with it in the pavilion by figures both famous (Miró, Calder, Julio González) and lesser-known. As would become the signature of Borja-Villel’s Reina Sofía, the display offered plentiful documentation, and the mass of contextual material has continued to grow: At present, Guernica is a nucleus around which four satellite galleries revolve (two specifically devoted to the 1937 fair and its repercussions), those satellite galleries themselves serving as the nuclei of other configurations or as pathways sending visitors to other segments of the collection.

I could write at great length about any of the many exhibitions I saw at the Reina Sofía—as I could about those I saw at the Fundació Antoni Tàpies and at MACBA. All of them, without exception, met the criterion that is for me the essential condition of success—that is, they functioned at two distinct but parallel levels, endorsing two possible temporalities: They could be rushed through in only half an hour, allowing one to gain even from that brief visit, and they could be explored in detail, sustaining one’s interest until one’s legs give out. Rather than musing on those revelatory shows, I shall briefly invoke Borja-Villel’s grand finale, the reinstallation of the museum’s permanent collection, for two reasons. First, it’s what most stuck in the right wing’s craw; second, it reproduces and expands the model (context plus archive) Borja-Villel had honed for years, as if one of those temporary exhibitions had metastasized.

Titled “Vasos comunicantes” (Communicating Vessels), the reinstallation fills 143 galleries—which means 143 multimedia mini-exhibitions related by the same rhizomatic organization I mentioned above. But there is no risk of getting lost: Those mini-exhibitions are grouped into eight thematic-historical “episodes,” each stocked with its own detailed map (one can easily skip a section or come back for more). Wall texts are not overbearing, because the mere juxtaposition of works in all media and the plethora of printed documentation in vitrines conveys a perfectly clear message. Admittedly, it is impossible to take in “Communicating Vessels” all at once; the installation is obviously designed for multiple viewings. Furthermore, one can study it in even more detail at home by visiting the museum’s website (, which provides a phenomenal amount of data. For each “episode,” except for the second half of the fifth and the entirety of the sixth, which is treated more lightly (from sheer lack of time?), the digital visitor is offered (1) interviews with curators who worked on it, often Borja-Villel himself; (2) a “best of” selection of works on display; (3) installation views of each room; and (4) an illustrated inventory of every object in each room, room after room, with links to more information on each work and its author. The possibilities for exploration are potentially infinite, exponential. I know of no better introduction to the birth and development of modern art, from the 1880s to the late 1930s, than the first episode, “Territorias de vandguardia: ciudad, arquitectura y revistas” (Avant-garde Territories. City, Architecture and Magazines) I highly recommend a visit for any scholar of modernity. It should be mandatory for every curator dealing with the period.

View of “Vasos comunicantes” (Communicating Vessels), episode 3, “Campo cerrado” (Enclosed Field), 2021–, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofiá, Madrid.

The last thing I would underline is the installation’s emphasis on Spanish art, of which it reveals many forgotten aspects. (The rooms devoted to historical exhibitions, such as the Spanish pavilion at the 1951 Triennale di Milano, are particularly riveting; how long did it take Borja-Villel’s team to find all those decorative art objects as they cruised flea markets, photographic evidence in hand?) At first, one wonders why Borja-Villel is so often charged in the conservative press with being an “internationalist,” too attentive to artistic developments and avant-garde practices outside of Spain, for no one has done more to bring Spanish art literally out of the closet. But for Borja-Villel, any account of Spanish art must extend beyond its development in the nation-state; to do otherwise would be a distortion—a blotting-out, for example, of all the Spanish artists who were forced into exile under Franco and, by extension, the impact of this diaspora on artistic practices in Latin America during and after the war (this is the subject of episode two, “El pensamiento perdido” [The Lost Thought]). Latin American art as a whole is in fact extremely well represented in “Communicating Vessels” (episode five, “Los enemigos de la poesía: resistencias en América Latina” [Enemies of Poetry: Resistance in Latin America], is entirely devoted to its radical turn from the end of the ’60s through the mid-’80s, again featuring a vast amount of hitherto utterly neglected information, notably on the activities of many artist collectives in the region). So even though Borja-Villel installed relatively little American art in “Communicating Vessels” and refrained from including any work by some of the artists dearest to him, such as Marcel Broodthaers, James Coleman, or Hans Haacke (all three well known to the Spanish art world, thanks to the two exhibitions he has devoted to each in the past), the country’s ultranationalists nevertheless accuse him of digging the grave for Spanish culture. But ABC and its satellites are the real gravediggers, unable to understand that the best antidote for the type of globalization forced on us by neoliberalism is not protectionism.

Still from the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofiá’s video for “Vasos comunicantes” (Communication Vessels), episode 3, “Campo cerrado” (Enclosed Field), 2021–, Diego López Bueno, 4 minutes 30 seconds.

There is much more to say about Borja-Villel’s achievements at the Reina Sofía. Most important, perhaps, is to acknowledge the team that he formed and the truly democratic institutional culture that he nurtured—the reason for the museum’s resounding success. Let us hope that whoever succeeds Borja-Villel will not radically change course but will stay true to the innovative script this heterogeneous but united group so brilliantly wrote and enacted.

Yve-Alain Bois is a contributing editor of Artforum.