Photos: Nuno Gervásio.
The present-day director of Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Penelope Curtis, arrived in Lisbon in 2015, after spending five years in charge of London’s Tate Britain. This interview, in a natural way, focused itself on museums and on the institution that she’s currently leading, but we also wanted to know her take on Lisbon, art and the national artistic panorama.
Sandra Vieira Jürgens – Before arriving in Lisbon, to assume the leading position of Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, you’ve spent five years as th Director of London’s Tate Britain. Do you miss the city and the country?
Penelope Curtis – Usually not (laughs). To live in, I think Lisbon is actually nicer than London. Given its size I can easily take a walk to see things around. I like the way people go shopping and eat in restaurants – it’s indeed so much pleasant. Thus, the only thing I occasionally miss is the broader diversity within the artistic realm.
SVJ – You live in Lisbon since 2015 – how is the experience going so far?
PC – Lisbon changed a lot already, over the year and a half that I’m here. The shift’s fast-paced rhythm is incredible. When I arrived, some artists told me that I did it too late. I didn’t catch the old Lisbon, the one from the past. They told that the best restaurants, as well as the best bookshops and cafes, were already gone. To me, it seems that there’s a myriad of beautiful things, even though I can witness the way that tourists from abroad, immigrants, expats and real estate investment are changing the face of everything. All this chattering about the pros and cons of this situation seems to follow me everywhere.
SVJ – What are the biggest differences between Lisbon and London?
PC – The size is obviously a big one, which allows things to happen much more spontaneously here, whilst in London everything needs to be booked, at least one month in advance, sometimes two or three even… Things here can take place in one or two days, something that ends up being pretty invigorating. This, for me, is the biggest difference.
SVJ – What is your take on Portugal’s artistic realm, and its art?
PC – This is a rather complex question! Well, I think it’s a vibrating one, in addition to being really supportive. Personally speaking, the artist community has helped me a lot, and I think that it has very good artists. What is a bit unsettling, for someone who comes from the UK, is its relative insularity. Most galleries display Portuguese artists and I like that, but it can also pose a problem, since the conversation ends up being imminently local…. I guess that what tired me the most in London was the way that art was turning into an ever-growing investment opportunity for major purchasers or noteworthy collectors, whilst here it’s the exact opposite that takes place. So, there’s a true dialogue, distant from commercial interests. That has a good side, as people and artists can easily check and discuss their work, which makes the process more dynamic, but its scarce commercial potential can only make artists’ lives harder.
SVJ – Is it possible to establish a comparison between both realities, the British/international artistic setting and the Portuguese one? What are the major differences between the two?
PC – In my view, London has not only ceased to be part of England, it also turned itself into an international city where a lot of non-resident individuals invest in art. Therefore, the growth of London’s contemporary art market, in the last ten years, has been jaw-dropping. It’s amazing to witness the number of people who come from abroad and support the arts, and start living in London because of that. The same may happen here. If that’s something good or bad is a moot point.
SVJ – A year and a half ago, you were appointed director of the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum. Can you talk about the differences between what the museum is right now and what you found when you arrived? What were the major overhauls?
PC – Well, I was entrusted with the task to implement a quick amalgamation between both chains (Gulbenkian Museum and CAM), quicker than initially expected, and so everyone had to work hard throughout a twelve-month time frame, to unite both teams, which weren’t used to work together, in addition to trying to attune the dialogue between two different collections. Since our goal was to create a single museum, we had to have a better fit. We recently launched a new programming, which tries to equate both collections and also carry out a series of exhibitions with recent and older works, taking contemporary artists to meet the historic collection, keeping at the same time a dynamic endeavour with young artists. Thus, it’s a matter of trying to foster a sustainable balance and also to create our own audience. Before, some people visited the modern collection, whilst others preferred the founder’s, but they seldom did both. Our ambition is to match them more often.
SVJ – In your opinion, what is the most urgent or problematic subject that has yet to be solved?
PC – There are important aspects that are outside of my scope. I think that, given its nature, the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation had to question his current role and upgrade its stance, since today’s reality has little to do with the moment of its inception. So I think that the big question in the future will be what the Foundation can actually become, not only in Portugal, but also in the world.
SVJ – Regarding the museum’s collections, do you think that there are gaps to be plugged?
PC – The collections are very distinct. There are lots of gaps in the founder’s collection, but I think we cannot change that, it’s his collection and is closed. What seems weird to me is that the founder’s collection appears to be complete and have a ubiquitous scope, but it’s not like that. Large patches of the world and history were not envisaged, even considering the fact that it starts with Ancient Egypt.
And, when it comes to the modern collection, for me it means working in a quick-witted way with a collection that is essentially Portuguese, but not only. For instance, developing the internationalism of Portuguese art, as so many artists graduated and worked in London or Paris and now in Berlin. Also, approaching colonialism in a smart way, taking into account Angola and Mozambique, not to mention Brazil. In my view, purchasing contemporary art is not the issue, it’s actually easy. For me, it has more to do with knowing how to purchase in a retrospective way, in other words, to improve the collection in comparison with the beginning of the 20th century, to make it more representative and encompassing. In its first years, the collection was purchased almost by chance, and it represented in other ways the Foundation’s priorities, that had little to do with aesthetic issues, but more with good causes or charity, or latitudes such as Iraq and Great Britain. In a nutshell, I think if there are gaps, we have really to look at the past. We have a lot to do ahead.
SVJ – What are the measures that a 21st-century museum should deploy, how and why?
PC – I don’t see all museums as equal, so there’s not a single answer. Our surplus is our collection, which is so incredibly international. It encompasses pieces from the Middle East, a region that is currently so important given its political geography. We can think about it and find a way to update our collections. Even the way we think about them. Right now, we have the celebration of the New Persian Year already scheduled, in an attempt to present our collections to this new audience that is arriving in Portugal, and somehow reflect on the country’s new demographic frame. For us, the issue is to bring the museum closer to the 21st century and make it more relevant in the world we live in. We don’t want to reflect the elitist taste of a collection that was gathered in the early 20th century, but rather envisage the resonance that it has today, in an unexpected way.
SVJ – Do you agree that museums should work as community centres or art schools?
PC – I think that, to some extent, some museums already operate as art schools, whilst there are art schools about to become museums, such is the case of Royal Academy or École de Beaux-Arts in Paris. V&A started indeed as a school or an educational centre, so it’s nothing new.
Being a community centre can also happen through different ways. Right now I’m working with people who live within a kilometre of the Gulbenkian Museum, people who grew side by side with the museum for the last fifty years. There’s a community around us that, over two generations, used the museum as a community centre or its garden as a meeting point. So that already happened. I think that, for many museums, it’s important to ensure their availability to everyone, a place where every single individual is welcomed, and not only for those who think they were born to attend this sort of places.
SVJ – Do the new generations need this new kind of museums?
PC – I would say yes and no. I’d say old museums don’t do anything harmful per se, the museums that don’t change themselves are becoming more and more the ones capable of mesmerising us. People love to visit the Geologic Museum here in Lisbon, precisely because it went through a modernization process. Its environment makes it unique. On the other hand, this can pose some sort of limitation. In terms of knowledge and presentation, being updated is important, I think. That’s precisely the challenge we face right now, since our beautiful museum is somehow stuck in 1969, and modernising and updating it was needed. It’s a situation where we can bring forth the subject of variety. Vast museums such as Tate Modern have dramatically increased their visitors, since they provide the feeling of offering something that is free, accessible and easy. I don’t think they necessarily changed the way people see art, nor who those people are. Nor I think that they achieved a significant impact on the number of people interested in seeing art. About this, one can say that the old ways to do things are the better. These touristic attractions are conceived as public spaces. People enjoy that, and they always did, whether it is an enormous station or a big warehouse or something inside a museum. So, museums are adopting previously attested strategies in other contexts. But these spaces are often separated from the experience of contemplating art.