Interview with Celia Sredni de Birbragher

Basel, 15 June 2016

As the founder and director of ArtNexus magazine, I imagine that you almost function like a thermometer: for a long time, you have observed and examined Latin American art-related issues, and its ups and downs. You are in the midst of everything, instantly and consciously taking its pulse. What is your opinion of the last twenty years? Where do you see the changes and, specifically, what has changed?

I remember that in 1992, for the 500th anniversary of Europe’s arrival in America, several exhibitions were organized. The largest one traveled to Seville, to Germany, to Paris, and to the MoMA in New York. Also, «America, Bride of the Sun» was presented in Belgium. These shows signaled a turning point. Although they were organized by non-Latin American curators and were too large and not very coherent, they showcased very good artists and works. They also stirred a lot of debate and I believe this made galleries aware of the existence of great creators in Latin America. In addition, these exhibitions were financed by private sponsors, such as Patricia Phelps de Cisneros and others, so people realized that there were resources on this side of the world. Starting in 1992, certain galleries, especially in New York, began to have these big names on their lists. At that time Luis Camnitzer wrote to me: «I think that now things are going to change.»

In Latin America prices vary according to each country`s economic situation. Brazilian artists in the eighties and even in the nineties had reasonable prices. After Brazil entered a good economic period, prices rose excessively. Now that the economic situation in Brazil has worsened, Brazilians very intelligently have left prices in the Brazilian currency, not in dollars, so for them the works are worth the same. This has also affected the Latin American market. The same thing happens in Colombia. There are exceptions, but changes in the dollar affect those who are thinking of investing in art. Today, for better and for worse, collectors are thinking of art as an investment. A recent show at the Throckmorton gallery focusing on Latin American photography revealed that prices have not gone up. Throckmorton tells me that he does these exhibitions because they interest them, not because they are profitable.

It’s ridiculous, given the amount of good Latin American photography out there, that it has not yet reached the market.

One thing is to buy Latin American photography and another to buy international or North American photography. There is a lot of historical Latin American photography. To my surprise, at the Tate Modern there is now a section for photography books from Cuba, Chile…

With good reason, you start your analysis with that key year: 1992. We also saw the great Latin American exhibitions at the Reina Sofía in Madrid at the beginning of the century. There was a boom until 2008, right? What happened to the dissemination and sale of Latin American art after that year? Was there a fracture?

The global crisis starting in 2008 did not heavily impact Latin America. We were already used to living in crisis. The dollar in these countries is strong. I think a worse impact was felt in 2015, when oil fell and currencies were devalued by almost 30%, especially in the oil-producing countries: Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, and Mexico. We saw this change at fairs: galleries began to move to the United States because of the strong dollar, looking for places where they could sell better. I think the artists’ production has always been the same. For the best value for your money, Latin American artists are still a good source, with the exception of a few who are at the very top. Regional markets have grown.

Colombia is a good example. Brazil less so, because there was already a market.

When I met Marcantonio Vilaça around 1991 at a small fair in Bogotá, which did not survive longer than three years, he told me: «I am going to open an art gallery because contemporary art is not sold in Brazil.» He began to participate in all the fairs and put Brazilian contemporary art on the international map. He did everything by himself: even setting up and taking down his stands. In addition, he represented the best artists. Before in Brazil, the contemporary art market did not exist. In Colombia it did not exist either, but there the phenomenon was different: you came to buy important works that were stored away because nobody was buying them, nobody even looked at them… Once Hans from Daros Latinamerica began to acquire them, the market went up and collectors set their sights on these contemporary artists. Concurrently, the Bogotá fair was growing. Fairs help too, right?

What do do you think about our concept behind Daros Latinamerica? That is, the idea of ​​creating a platform to unite all these very diverse people from every Latin American country. In hindsight, does this sound like a very romantic idea to you? Did it make sense to bring Latin Americans together to give them more weight than before?

I think that concentrating on Latin American art allows one to better detect good artists than if one plans to create an international collection. It becomes a much more focused task. Collectors are realizing that. In the 1990s, for example, there were several collectors in Puerto Rico that began by collecting Latin American art: the Berezdivins, The Hugobonos, Chilo Andreu… They followed certain guidelines, certain magazines, certain curators. Some chose to venture into international art, but those who continued to focus on Latin American art have much stronger collections today: Chilo in Puerto Rico, Malba in Argentina, Patricia Phelps, Ella Fontanals… Latin America highly values these collections. At Tate Modern, for example, the Latin American section has become very strong. Today for a collector it is much more interesting to focus on something that is not totally international.

As for the great collecting initiatives from the beginning of the 21st century, which ones would you like to highlight?

Mari Carmen Ramírez has done an extraordinary job at the Houston Art Museum. With an endowment, unprecedented in the United States, she was able to buy, for example, Leirner’s collection of concrete and neo-concrete art. I asked Leirner how he felt after selling his collection and he told me: on the one hand I feel liberated, but on the other hand I think I sold it too early and too cheap. Mari Carmen is also protecting Gego’s great legacy and has done a fantastic job with Cruz Diez. Another great character is Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, because of her donations. She is extremely generous. MoMA has also done good things in the Latin American field, but a bit late.

Regarding art magazines, do you think anything has changed in the last 20 years in terms of quality? Or is everything still the same as before?

I have been publishing ArtNexus for 40 years. In its early days, Latin Americans who wrote for the magazine came from disciplines that did not necessarily involve art history. They came from the world of philosophy, general history, literature. Over the years, new schools of Latin American art history have been created, which did not exist 40 years ago. There are many more specialized professionals now. When they start to write for the magazine, they are usually young and have just finished their studies. Later they become directors of museums, fairs, and other institutions, and they no longer have time to write, but there are always young people behind. They themselves recommend other young writers, who in turn join the magazine and begin to contribute new ideas. 

Today we have much more knowledge about art and what is happening around the world. We travel more. The internet has also opened up a lot of the information we used to look for in libraries. 40 years ago the magazine was as a communication and information tool. Today, I dare say that the magazine is almost like a luxury object. It is surprising that in the art world we still like paper, the printed page. That is why there are still art magazines. Nothing reproduces better than paper. We like to read, but we also like the object.

What did social media change?

For young people especially, networks are extremely important. Social media is immediate. One has always to be on top if one wants to capture that audience.

Did that affect the magazine?

Social media is always superficial. Scant information with lots of images. Nothing is deep. That is why it has not affected the magazine. We have not reached the final days of paper or books or magazines, contrary to what many people had predicted.

How do you see Cuba, now and in the past?

What happened in Cuba was that it occurred to Castro that many kids should learn art. Therefore he created the ISA [Instituto Superior de Arte]. After high school, they study for five years and come out very prepared. Compared with the size of the country, there is a large, high-quality production. Gerardo Mosquera told me something very interesting: in most countries, dissent usually originates from the world of letters, but in Cuba it originates from the visual arts. When artists began to get invited to biennials, they became aware of another reality. For this reason, in the 1980s and 1990s, many left for other countries: Mexico, Spain, France…

I had an interesting experience. When Cuba was still unknown to me, many Cubans asked me to give them space in my magazine. At the same time, I was told by non-Cubans that the Cuban government needed to export these artworks in order to recover what it had invested in art education. Suddenly, I began to see both sides of the coin. Then I discovered how good Cuban art was. In Miami in the 1990s, I was accused of being a communist. I once dedicated the cover to Mendive and regularly published leftist writers. In Miami at that time this was not well regarded. I laughed at all that, but I did confront a lot of opposition. Time has confirmed that the artists appearing in ArtNexus were very good. Today many of them are in the best galleries: those that supported the revolution and those that came later. There are still many very talented young artists emerging in Cuba.

How will the relationship between Miami and Cuba evolve?

It is an illusion to believe that something very different is going to happen. A true transformation will take a long time. However, things have been changing. Every time I return to the Havana Biennial, I see another Cuba. Clearly, the situation depends on the economy. Before Russia was helping them, then Venezuela, China…

How is your relationship with Mexico? It’s a very special country, don’t you think?

Mexico is a strange country which has always had good artists. The state is interested in culture and takes good care of its heritage. Brazil in a certain way has copied this model of support for culture. The difference is that Mexico takes more care of modern and historical art, and Brazil is very focused on contemporary art, backing up galleries so they can go abroad represent national production. That has greatly benefitted Brazil’s growth. These are the only two countries that receive strong public funding. In all the rest, artists depend on private support or on their galleries.

When I started creating Daros Latinamerica, the discussion about identity was still very present. Luckily today one doesn’t hear about it so much anymore. 

There are artists who work in a more global language. Perhaps they are the ones who manage to position themselves more easily at the international level. There are other artists who have a local language, and a very valid one indeed. Art is a reflection of our lived reality. Today, we talk less about identity, this is true. It’s an issue that has ceased to be so relevant. We have exhibitions with more specific topics and, in fact, the magazine covers this type of exhibition more; those that deal with very specific problems, because they are much more interesting. For example, we are not interested in an exhibition of Argentinian art in general. We are witnessing a more specialized production and study of specific topics, problems, and languages. I think that is precisely why Latin American art is becoming more well-known. International exhibitions are featuring more and more Latin American artists that deal with specific issues.

When do you consider that an exhibition is a good one?

I’ll answer you with an analogy. Once, during a conference at a theater festival, someone concluded that it is not only important for a play and the actors to be good. Everything has to be good: the lighting, the spaces… Everything. A good exhibition is like a good play. All aspects of production must work well: the theme, the works, the information, the coherence, the installation, the dramaturgy.

Celia Sredni de Birbragher with the Miami Artnexus team
  1. As the publisher of Art Nexus, Celia has made an enormously important contribution to the international discourse through her emphasis on Latin American art in the broader context. It is insightful to hear her perspective on the evolution of this expanded recognition along with her assessment of the current environment we find ourselves in as well. Christopher Grimes

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