Interview with José Maçãs de Carvalho
Inaugurated on July 4, 2020, the Coimbra Contemporary Art Centre (CACC) underlines the importance of this city in Portugal’s contemporary art, being part, according to José Maçãs de Carvalho, of the city’s cultural polygon. Corpo e Matéria is the first exhibition of a cycle of three entitled De que é feita uma Coleção?, curated by José Maçãs de Carvalho and David Santos. It includes works by Allan Sekula, Amadeo de Souza-Cardoso, Ana Vidigal, Antoni Muntadas, Antoni Tàpies, António Palolo, Douglas Gordon, Eduardo Batarda, Gerardo Burmester, Helena Almeida, João Louro, João Tabarra, João Vieira, Joaquim Bravo, Joaquim Rodrigo, John Baldessari, Jorge Martins, José de Guimarães, José Loureiro, Julião Sarmento, Júlio Pomar, Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, Nikias Skapinakis, Paul Morrison, Paula Rego, Pedro Cabrita Reis and Rui Chafes.
Fluxo e Metamorfose opened on April 9.
Daniel Madeira – Symbolically, is this edification a decentralising element in Portugal’s contemporary art? Or does it represent a new centrality?
José Maçãs de Carvalho – First, the Ministry of Culture has clearly begun a policy of decentralisation and attention in relation to Contemporary Art. The first example of such is the transfer of these 193 works from the State to Coimbra throughout 25 years, but also the establishment of the Curator of the State Contemporary Art Collection, embodied by David Santos. In this sense, David Santos, together with me, will curate the first three exhibitions of the CACC, based on the State collection on deposit in Coimbra, which largely corresponds to the collection that belonged to BPN and was acquired in early 2020 by the State.
From our point of view (of Coimbra City Council and the project I presented), the aim is to boost Coimbra’s relevance in contemporary art. The city has already enjoyed a relevant position in recent decades. This has been verifiable in several ways: in the CAPC and its new breath, in the Biennial of Contemporary Art/AnoZero, in CAV’s top-notch programming, in Galeria Colégio das Artes’ laboratory proposals in the curatorial area, in the TAGV, in the Municipal Museum, in private galleries and other independent venues. As well as in the different activities in contiguous fields: in theatre, performance, dance and cinema. The city’s cultural geography is also important.
There is a psychogeography that favours artistic proliferation: first, the longevity and quality of some structures; then, the location of the different points, which are concentrated in the Alta, Universidade, Praça da República and Baixa areas, which naturally creates an easily accessible pedestrian route between all these. In short, there is a geographical concentration that promotes the practice and reception of art. I would say that the ambition is to keep Coimbra vital and a central place in contemporary art.
DM – Looking at the title chosen for this cycle of three exhibitions, curated by José Maçãs de Carvalho and David Santos, what do the 193 works from the State Contemporary Art collection, which were part of the former BPN collection, comprise? How would you describe them in a general way (knowing that it might be a work in progress)?
JMC – I would first say that these works want to be a collection, just as an acquis wants to be an archive. From the outset, it is difficult to find a defined identity for this group of works. The acquisitions did not follow any prospective guidelines. It is a rather heterogeneous, erratic set, unlike other collections in the country, which clearly have the identity of the collector or its advisors, with a coherent vision throughout. What could be a problem can become a challenge. From a positive perspective, these works have been rescued from oblivion. Meanwhile, what David Santos and I are doing is a study of the works and their curatorial projection for the three exhibitions. It is a kind of autopsy to find different narrative chains or comprehensive nuclei. Basically, David and I look at them with the same exhilaration that any collector feels when buying works. It’s all new, but it can allow unexpected connections between works that were not intended to be together. The important thing is that the works are seen again by the public, after being “vanished” for so many years.
DM – After Corpo e Matéria, can you tell us the title and concept of the next exhibition?
JMC – Fluxo e Metamorfose. This second exhibition relates works that represent a variety of approaches to these concepts, with formal and chromatic dynamics on the surface of the image, or informal experiences… We will see images marked by metamorphosis, between figuration and abstraction, where the matrix comes from the optical unconscious or the creative force in exercises of absolute freedom, marked by fluid images…
The third exhibition, which will close this cycle with David Santos and myself, will bring together works that have clear-cut narratives, placing image and word in tension or dialogue.
DM – What limitations has this temporary venue imposed on your curatorship? And what are its potentials?
JMC – This venue’s rehabilitation is part of a renovation policy for the historic centre on the part of Coimbra City Council. This building, which for several years was used by a bank, had been vacant. It was chosen for its position in the heart of Coimbra’s historic centre, near the Arco de Almedina, a place where many people pass by. Everyone sees the building. This choice, as well as others that protect certain buildings from real estate speculation, bringing them closer to the public authorities where they can fulfil these cultural roles, is part of Coimbra’s candidacy to European Capital of Culture.
The Coimbra City Council has assumed that this building is a temporary location, whilst guaranteeing all the necessary and legal museological conditions, with the utmost quality. It is an excellent gallery divided into three floors. There are some limitations (it used to be an office building), such as the ceiling height, which makes it difficult to exhibit some works. Even so, there are several positive aspects, such as having a central staircase that allows you to see the building in movement. The access to the works is done upwards – it is possible to do it downwards using the lift. The visitor follows a cadence that seems interesting to me.
DM – What advantages will the new venue have – the former branch of the Military Maintenance in Coimbra?
JMC – The Projects Division, together with the Museology Division and myself, has been working on the preliminary programme for the new building for the Coimbra Contemporary Art Centre, in the former branch of Military Maintenance, located in Avenida Sá da Bandeira. It is almost finished and, in a few months, will partake in the architectural tender for its rehabilitation. I have been working with the City Council to identify the needs, which go far beyond the current demands of this building. In fact, I can say that both President Manuel Machado and the Councillor for Culture Carina Gomes are committed to making this a priority project. A project for the near future, not only thinking of the State collection.
It will be a building with two floors: with a main body and another adjacent body. Between those two bodies, there is the idea of establishing intermediate spaces that allow for circulation and cultural activities. The new building will have considerably more works on permanent exhibition and will be a huge step towards consolidating the importance of the Contemporary Art Centre. Not only from the point of view of space, but also because it will allow us to add to the State Collection another set of contemporary artworks owned by Coimbra City Council. Also, the programme I presented has an annual acquisition policy, which means that this project also has a patronage purpose. Regarding the curatorship, I would very much like the CACC to work exclusively from private or institutional collections. After all, it was a collection that led to its creation – local collections at first and, later, with a national dimension. There are several private collections in Portugal growing exponentially and the collectors end up having no space for their works. In the future, the CACC may become a kind of collector’s house.
The aim is to create an identity that differs from the other art centres in the country.
DM – Could the CACC collection become itinerant, in dialogue with collections from other art centres in Portugal?
JMC – In the coming years, the main mission is to consolidate the collection in the city and in the region, always maintaining a relationship with highly relevant collections in contemporary art. Several collectors, from the city and the region, have high-quality collections, focused on the last 30/40 years of Portuguese and even international contemporary art.
DM – At the beginning of your research, how did you find the collection? Was the information about it dispersed or was there an updated database?
JMC – The operation of the ex-BPN collection was one of the fastest in Portuguese history, I would say. The Ministry of Culture formally bought the collection in early 2020. On July 4 of that same year, we inaugurated the CACC. Having to formally acquire it, identify and appraise all the works… It was the fastest process ever of this kind. The works were identified by the two companies associated with BPN’s liquidation, under the protection of a company specializing in conservation, but the DGPC had to make an expert appraisal of all the works, in a long, efficient and pragmatic process, allowing all of them to have a condition report so that they could travel. At the same time, all the building’s rehabilitation works were completed on time, through the tireless work of all the Coimbra City Council teams, especially the Museology Division and Elisabete Carvalho. For instance, we managed to identify the galleries that sold most of the works, but we don’t have any other type of information. This can be a problem but also a challenge: not having an identity passport for this Collection is our challenge (mine and David Santos’) – to seek identity from the curatorial project, in an analytical, hermeneutic, interpretative, projective exercise. In short, it is to build an atlas, whose identity apogee will be an annual policy of acquisitions. This will differentiate the CACC from other important places in the country, creating a new point of attraction in the city of Coimbra.
DM – Through it, can we understand the history of Portuguese contemporary art or are there “temporal gaps” that break that chronology?
JMC – The chronology of this collection is not very precise. We have truly diverse works – its lack of identity is also evident in this aspect. What we notice is that there is a greater number of acquisitions of works from certain periods, but which probably coincide with the bank’s commercial relations with some galleries. The predominance of works from the 60s/70s is probably due to the pre-eminence of a certain gallery in the acquisitions made by the bank. There are these small details. The collection is chronologically comprehensive, but there are nuclei with few works and artists with only one piece, or artists with two works from a certain period, not allowing a clear artistic identification of that same author. I think it is more interesting that the acquisition policy can create a trail with small nuclei of works instead of going to the market to expand some of these nuclei. Some are small or there aren’t even complementary works on the market. Or those that do exist have remarkably high prices. We think it is more important to relt on young artists or those in the middle of their careers who have connections with these small nuclei. For example, we have two works by Mário Cesariny and one by Joaquim Rodrigo. It would be difficult to complement them by resorting to the market. It is more interesting and sustainable to find affinities based on the identification practices of these nuclei and artists, projecting them into current artistic practices.
DM – In parallel with this first exhibition, Corpo e Matéria, a cycle of talks with important names in national art was organised. How does this cycle complement the exhibition?
JMC – The cycle of talks is part of the mediation and communication processes of the CACC and the collection, whose motivation, at the neuralgic or conceptual centre, is the idea of Collection. This is how it was born and it is from this idea that we look to the future. We think that a cycle of conversations, using all the resources in the country and Coimbra, will allow us to develop, using the experience of the guests, a perspective of the last decades in relation to collections, art centres, museums and cultural policies in contemporary art.
The first conversation with Sandra Vieira Jürgens, Miguel von Haffe Pérez and Pedro Pita, mediated by myself and David Santos, on the one hand made a review of public policies for art, museums and museology. On the other, we tried to understand what could be important for the future. In the second conversation, with Celso Martins and Isabel Nogueira, the debate was obviously focused on aspects of art criticism, its expression in the media and academic publications.
The cycle of conversations included two more activities that ended up being postponed: an open class/thinking in action, based on the mimicking of academic research processes in art, taught by me and my colleague Pedro Pousada; and a collection of testimonials from several important names of the city of Coimbra about several works of the collection, bringing us closer to the diversity of the spectator and bringing the CACC closer to the city. This template will be carried over to the second and third exhibitions of this cycle, from the point of view of the device, but with differences in the ideas to be addressed. All these elements will allow the inclusion of a CACC media library for future consultation and research.
There is also a very important aspect that should be emphasised in the relationship with other entities: at the moment, we are establishing protocols in the field of mediation, educational service and curatorship with the MA in Curatorial Studies of the College of Arts of the University of Coimbra. In my opinion, this connection is essential to create a new, young and updated dynamic in the field of curatorship. We even have an intern who will make a first study of the collection, with active participation in the curatorial and mediation field, so that the CACC can also be a place of knowledge production.
Artists in Fluxo e Metamorfose
Art & Language
João Paulo Feliciano
José Maçãs de Carvalho is an artist, curator and university teacher. PhD in Contemporary Art from the University of Coimbra in 2014. After obtaining a first degree in Modern Languages and Literature at the University of Coimbra, he completed a postgraduate course in Arts Management at the Institute of European Studies in Macau, where he taught and lived from 1994 to 1999. Carvalho teaches in the Architecture Department and at the College of Arts of the University of Coimbra, where he directs the MA in Curatorial Studies. He has works (photography and video) in several public and private art collections. He is also curator for the new Coimbra Contemporary Art Centre.