The art in a state of calamity | Interview with Fernando Santos

In November, the gallery owner Fernando Santos celebrates the 27th anniversary of the opening of his exhibition space at Miguel Bombarda, a street that, in recent years, has been the epicentre of art in Porto. Today, the Galeria Fernando Santos is one of the most important in the city, recognized throughout the country and internationally.

In the context of the crisis, problematic and challenging for art, it is pertinent to speak with someone with great knowledge and experience.


Constança Babo – Taking into account that Galeria Fernando Santos has already reopened its doors, have you taken exceptional measures, such as limiting the number of visitors, changing the schedule, cancelling or restructuring the opening events? The Miguel Bombarda area is known for the simultaneous inaugurations, which are now in question.

Fernando Santos – At the moment, and until June, the simultaneous inaugurations of Miguel Bombarda will not have the usual institutional support, which is understandable. Some galleries, including Galeria Fernando Santos, have also changed their programming. The current exhibitions at Miguel Bombarda were not inaugurated, as they were scheduled for March 14 [between the declarations of the WHO (March 11) and the Portuguese government (March 18)]. It makes no sense to prevent the public from seeing the works of these artists, nor to prohibit the artists from showing their works. We will extend the exhibitions already prepared until 31 July and, from then on, we will carry out the programme as planned. The exhibitions not opened during the period in which the gallery was closed will take place in 2021. We are open to the public since May 18. The galleries are usually large spaces, where people move around without touching anything – unless the exhibition requires interaction. I think the public’s return to art galleries is safe. On our part, we will pay attention to the agglomeration of visitors and will promote the use of masks, in addition to disinfecting hands and surfaces whenever necessary.

CB – About the schedule, and considering the cancellation or postponement of art fairs – like ARCO Lisboa, which would start on the 17th, and which will be exclusively online -, how can you recover what remained stagnant during the closing weeks, and how can you redefine what was already prepared?

FS – About ARCO Lisboa and similar events, we cannot talk about missed expectations or loss. Art fairs are like games: it’s a question of luck or chance. Fairs are important to showcase activity and establish contacts between market players in a limited space and time, which stimulate transactions. But the gallery schedule – at least in the short term – does not depend on the fairs. Of course, some commitments and invitations have gone astray, but everyone understands that this situation requires adaptation. The gallery continues, even in confinement, to take every step to inform clients about exhibitions, artists, initiatives. The way to do this is different, but the difference and adaptation are the same for all parties: artists, galleries and public. If each one of them realizes that only together, with abnegation and resistance, we can overcome adversities, then we will succeed.

CB – You’ve been a gallery owner since the 1990s. You’ve been through several crises, including the troika period. Do you already consider having the necessary tools to deal with this global pandemic? Or do you feel in uncharted territory due to the uncertainties of this calamity, whose nature, although not directly economic, has a financial impact?

FS – It is a new reality: there is no one-size-fits-all answer. It has changed (and will change) our way of relating personally and in the workplace. That is, it is likely that the way we live, how we relate, how we think, will change. But, deep down, we will continue to do the same things for the sake of survival and because the human being has a short memory. As a gallery owner, I had to adapt my activity – which, in my opinion, requires face-to-face contact with the client and not only virtual – to the new reality. But this new reality does not replace the old one. Whoever buys art always wants to see the work before the acquisition.

CB – Fernando also has a restaurant, Oficina, in the same street as the gallery. He often makes joint programming and organizes workshops with artists and cultural names. I think about the relationship between them, on a thematic, logistical and even commercial level. How do you look at the crisis in these two contexts, culture and tourism? Are their scale and repercussions and consequences similar and related?

FS – That’s always been the problem: economic growth based on tourism. It’s as if we expect to receive a marriage proposal while we are sitting at home! We cannot rely on tourism to grow. As we have seen – and as it would happen sooner or later, at least in the city of Porto – it’s a very limited growth path; a deep well. The galleries of Porto will feel the absence of tourists, of course. But the vast majority of these tourists – “weekend tourists” – are visitors and very few are buyers. Of course, the gallery has a propaedeutic role before these visitors and all the others: we advise, we help, we suggest. As such, culture will resent the absence of tourism. There is another issue: the Ministry of Culture, which is absent, has used tourism to convey the idea of a country where art and artists thrive. During this confinement, and even without the necessary support from that Ministry, people continued to consume cultural products (cinema, literature, music…). In other words, the support given to culture must be constant and not only to show the tourist how evolved and cosmopolitan the country is.

CB – Finally, what is your perspective on the current cultural and artistic panorama? What will be the range and duration of the effects, for galleries and artists?

FS – Interestingly, I’m quite optimistic about the future. Perhaps we can’t count on the same number of visitors from the past, but this situation may stimulate the return of an audience to the art gallery circuit of Miguel Bombarda, which had been far away removed from it. Let there be no illusions: we have to think about what we want for culture, what, as gallerists, we want to present and represent. We must be more pragmatic in our choices, more demanding in the face of the panaceas proposed by the State, more critical and more united.

Constança Babo (Porto, 1992) has a PhD in Media Art and Communication from Universidade Lusófona. Her research focuses on new media arts and curatorship. She has a master's degree in Art Studies - Art Theory and Criticism from the Faculty of Fine Arts of the University of Porto and a degree in Visual Arts - Photography from the Porto School of Art. She has published scientific articles and critical texts. She was a research fellow in the international project Beyond Matter, at the Zentrum für Kunst und Medien Karlsruhe, and was a researcher at Tallinn University, in the MODINA project.

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