Celebrating 25 years of contemporary art at Barcelona’s MACBA

The foundation behind the collection is weathering the crisis well

Bartomeu Marí, director of the MACBA, with a work by Raymond Hains belonging to the permanent collection.
Bartomeu Marí, director of the MACBA, with a work by Raymond Hains belonging to the permanent collection.©Consuelo Bautista (EL PAÍS)

Over the course of this year Barcelona’s MACBA Museum of Contemporary Art has been staging a series of events to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the foundation that was set up in 1987 to fund the construction of the museum itself, as well as what has grown to become one of the most outstanding permanent collections in Europe.

The story dates back to 1982, when the newly elected mayor, Pasqual Maragall, discussed creating a world-class contemporary art museum in Barcelona with Catalan business leader Leopoldo Rodés. Four years later, in 1986, the city was awarded the 1992 Olympic Games, and in early 1987, Maragall and Rodés set up the foundation, made up of 33 individuals and the same number of companies. In 1988, the foundation set up a consortium that included Barcelona City Hall and the regional government of Catalonia.

“The MACBA Foundation began with the mission of starting a collection of contemporary art for the city and the country, as well as contributing to greater dissemination and comprehension of contemporary artistic creation,” says Rodés, adding: “We have done this by creating a collection of art and documents through the purchase of works and management of deposits and donations received by the Foundation, and by encouraging an interest in contemporary art with the organisation of exhibitions, conferences, courses, seminars and all kinds of activities related to current artistic production. The foundation was set up on the basis of two clear ideas that have guaranteed its success. Firstly, that there was no point in trying to create a collection based on the great works of the 20th century and that we should focus instead on new talent. Secondly, that we would follow the guidelines of a committee of experts, and only be involved in discussing prices. We have stuck to this, and I have to say that the taste of the patrons has always been more conservative than that of the experts, but there have never been any negative comments in this regard.”

Rodés says that a major milestone came in 2010 when it signed a deal with La Caixa savings bank to share both institutions’ collections. “The two collections amount to some 5,000 works from the same period, but there is no duplication.”

There was no point in trying to create a collection based on the great works of the 20th century"

The MACBA was inaugurated in 1995, three years after the Olympics, but the stark white structure — designed by Richard Meier in the run-down central Raval neighborhood — was void of works. Lengthy discussion followed about how to complement the collection at the Catalan National Museum of Art (MNAC), which was undergoing renovations and would see the addition of new collections over the next decade.

“Today, the relationship between the two centers is based on their collections complementing each other,” says Bartomeu Marí, the MACBA’s director since 2008, adding: “The MACBA has never tried to be some kind of encyclopedia. It is about what is going on now, and future trends, and has focused on Catalan, Spanish and international art at the turn of the century, particularly around the Mediterranean.”

So, can turn-of-the-century art only be shown episodically, with no common thread between its different manifestations? “This is a story told in installments. The exhibitions, which occupy the museum’s two floors, can be seen together or separately. Our approach isn’t about providing answers; it’s more about posing questions,” says Marí, as he begins his tour of the museum.

The first stopping point is footage from a 1969 short film by Pere Portabella that shows Joan Miró painting over his mural at the College of Architects in Barcelona, a response to art critic Clement Greenberg’s famous comment from the previous decade that ushered in abstract expressionism: “We must flee from content as from the plague.”

Asked to pose beside a work in the museum Marí opts for one of a series of panels by Raymond Hains that includes fragments of old advertising hoardings. We continue past pieces by Rauschenberg, Antoní Tàpies and Hernández Pijuán, until we reach Santa Comida, Miralda’s “altar,” created between 1984 and 1989, and that depicts foodstuffs as though they were saints.

The second floor of the museum is mainly dedicated to work, and that includes photography by Andreas Siekman, Allan Sekula, and Wodiczko of abandoned factories, contrasting with sculpture by Chillida, Jorge Oteiza, Segi Aguilar, Plensa, Richard Serra and others that details the process of transforming material. “The world of work appears as something that is both appreciated and as something that is worth nothing during the process through which outdated production models are cast aside,” says Marí. Sekula’s huge photograph of an abandoned container carrier from the Shipwreck and Workers series hangs over this section, and can be seen from outside the museum, in the Plaza dels Àngels.

“I think that the function of a museum is to to explain without distorting the perception of works, without interfering with the physical sensations they can produce. Art today cannot be explained in terms of clearly defined categories, as Greenberg wanted. We are better prepared to read contemporary art than we are to decipher a still life from the 16th century, or a work by Velázquez. Our vision is contemporary, it has integrated cinema and advertising. At the same time, our hearing has incorporated a vast world of sound that should also be part of the museum,” argues Marí. The museum staged an exhibition of work by composer John Cage in 2009.

A quarter of a century on, the MACBA Foundation’s public-private model has helped withstand the ongoing economic crisis, although the Spanish Ministry of Culture, which joined in 2007, has so far not been able to make its 1.6 million-euro contribution for this year. Next year’s budget has been cut by five percent, to 11 million euros, and is down 20 percent on 2009. But Rodés says that the MACBA’s problem isn’t finding works to display, but a lack of space: “It’s at times of crisis like these when we need to display our collection.”

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