Interview with Sandra Vieira Jürgens, curator of CACE

Umbigo interviewed Sandra Vieira Jürgens, curator in charge of the Coleção de Arte Contemporânea do Estado (CACE) [Contemporary Art State Collection], a few days before inaugurating the new cycle of exhibition programming with Dark Safari, at Museu do Côa and Centro Cultural de Vila Nova de Foz Côa. In the interview, Sandra Vieira Jürgens briefly describes the origins of CACE, from the collection of the Secretary of State for Culture to the present day, and outlines the new challenges for the curatorship and the collection’s future.

Dark Safari opens on February 17 and is the culmination of CACE’s complex and molecular universe, made up of several distinct collections and eras. Sara & André and Manuel João Vieira are the curators and it includes works by A.R. Penk, Ana Cardoso, Ana Manso, Ana Pérez-Quiroga, André Cepeda, Andy Warhol, Armanda Duarte, Bruno Pacheco, Catarina Botelho, Diogo Bolota, Eduardo Matos, Fernão Cruz, Francisca Carvalho, Gabriel Abrantes, Gonçalo Barreiros, Gustavo Sumpta, Helena Almeida, Hugo Canoilas, Jimmie Durham, João Fonte Santa, Joaquim Rodrigo, Jorge Queiroz, José Luís Neto, Kiluanji Kia Henda, Luís Lázaro Matos, Maria José Oliveira, Mariana Gomes, Mário Cesariny, Mattia Denisse, Nikias Skapinakis, On Kawara, Patrícia Garrido, Pedro A. H. Paixão, Pedro Sousa Vieira, Pizz Buin, Renato Ferrão, Rui Calçada Bastos, Sara Bichão, Susana Gaudêncio, Tiago Alexandre, Tiago Baptista, Vanda Madureira.


First we must situate the readers in the context and origin of the CACE, from the times when it was known as the Collection of the Secretary of State for Culture until the most recent Commissions. When did CACE come into being, what is its mission and who had a hand in the first acquisitions?

CACE was built from the former Collection of the Secretary of State for Culture, which emerged in 1976, under the scope of the Directorate-General for Cultural Affairs, whose operations took place between 1976 and 1992, as part of the Fine Arts Division, where Fernando Calhau was collaborating. The purpose of the acquisitions was to acknowledge national art and to address some of the artists’ demands, as well as to prepare the creation of the National Museum of Modern Art (Serralves) and to allow a dialogue with contemporaneity and international artistic endeavours.

Over time, there have been several acquisition commissions. The first, in 1979, aimed to buy works for the future museum in Porto, formed by José Augusto França, Fernando Azevedo, Júlio Resende, Maria Emília Amaral Teixeira, Etheline Rosas and Fernando Pernes. In 1986, a commission was created, consisting of Fernando Pernes, Fernando Calhau and Fernando Azevedo. They were the ones who bought the artworks in the 1980s and followed the programming of the galleries and the exhibitions of international artists who were on show in Portugal – for example, Wolf Vostell and the exhibition in honour of Joseph Beuys. This meant, on the one hand, supporting creative efforts in Portugal in contact with the international scene and, on the other hand, building up a collection with a museum profile.

After these stages, there was a major hiatus in the policy of acquisitions. There were no acquisitions for decades. In 2019, the incentive to resume the acquisitions and the visibility of this collection was born. In that year, the name changed to Collection of Contemporary State Art, establishing an ambitious annual investment programme for the acquisition of works of art, aiming to encourage national artistic creation and consolidate the State’s contemporary art collection. This is when the parallel formation of the Commission for the Acquisition of Contemporary Art was undertaken.

But there was also the purchase of a small group of works, within the scope of the Institute of Contemporary Art, founded in 1997, which was later housed at the Belém Cultural Centre.

How many artworks are we talking about?

The Collection now has over 1900 works, comprising the collection of the former Secretary of State for Culture, but also recent acquisitions, and the Miró and ex-BPN collections. And, as was announced in November 2022, it will have in the future 860 works from Coleção Ellipse and 385 from Coleção BPP, totalling more than 3000 pieces. The recent boost is extremely significant, underlining the will to make the contemporary art sector more dynamic.

How is it possible to build a comprehensive and plural public art collection, knowing that art and cultural institutions are not neutral by nature? In a neoliberal political context, how does this Collection withstand these forces?

We must counter this neutrality of collections and even of exhibitions and curatorship. We must provide a political context to all these realities. On the one hand, I think that this curatorship should reflect critical thinking, particularly associated with the emancipated ways of thinking about structures and organisations, in the institutional and independent field. On the other hand, we need to consider cultural intervention as an opportunity to take a stand, to express a vision about the world, reality and, of course, the artistic context itself.

We are part of the process of institutionalising this collection, but we do not want to crystallise this heritage. Above all, we are interested in creating a useful, visible and volatile collection, open to change, capable of keeping up with contemporary artistic output. I have always seen this work through its authorial and shared nature, believing it to be a participative and democratic undertaking.

I must clarify that the Contemporary Art Acquisition Committee is an extended collective, with multiple agents – curators, university lecturers and, fulfilling a goal of ours, the presence of artists. The choices, the decisions and the selection process are shared. In the Acquisition Committee we always privilege the collective, the diversity and horizontality – in essence, the most collaborative and community practices. For example, the texts on the works chosen in the application submitted to the Minister of Culture are collectively signed. And, in the selection process, we have ensured the diversity and quality of the art made in Portugal, from an age, gender, geographic and ethnic perspective, without a nationalistic outlook. We always keep in mind all the creators – foreign or national – who work in national territory.

On the other hand, we operate in dialogue with the market, but also with artists not represented by galleries, the so-called independents, who are part of the artistic system.

Also, we have an exhibition programme that does not take place in the major cities. We even visit areas with low population density, attempting to reach the north and south of the country, as this is a Collection for everyone – a public Collection.

Is it possible to make a history of contemporary art in Portugal through CACE? Are there any gaps that you would like to fill in or diminish over time, bearing in mind the period when there were no acquisitions?

Yes, a history of Portuguese art can be compiled through this collection – a critical history, even. And, besides being able to make a history of Portuguese art through the collection, we can also work on the history of the art system, related to the phenomena of mediation and reception. In fact, throughout the years, all the works acquired have been associated with the exhibition programme in Portugal. And that allows us to know the perspective, the selection of the artists involved in these purchases.

There are other phenomena too. For example, in the early years, the strong presence of engravings in the Collection allows us to adopt a rarely seen approach in conventional art history.

Of course, there are gaps, but we are bridging them.

Theoretically, the question of what is contemporary in contemporary art is not consensual. Some think that contemporary denotes a timeless understanding of Time and History, others see contemporary as a way of approaching or delving into the grand issues and problems that shape artists’ Times. And there are also those who consider contemporary as a “presentist” art, current, subject to trends. As a curator, I want to know your opinion on this topic and how CACE reflects this.

First of all, the contemporary stated in this Collection’s title allows us to distinguish it from a collection of older art. It is a practical categorisation.

I have a theoretical understanding quite like Giorgio Agamben’s. For him, contemporaneity is an attachment to our time, while also preserving a distance. Marcel Duchamp is a modern artist, the readymade is a piece of the historical avant-garde, but it can be considered contemporary. In other words, we can find contemporary points of contact in bygone eras, without having a linearity or chronological order. I want to make these connections and transmissions between realities of different periods. As an art historian, it is important to develop this mindset, enabling us to travel through different eras and to make this contextualisation and relativisation of our experience. And, when I work with experimental practices, I look at today, but already thinking about the future, training equidistance. From the collection’s point of view, this blending of times, this dialogue between what was and what is the collection, also allows me to reflect on the contemporary.

What have the acquisitions been like since 2019?

In the first Contemporary Art Acquisition Committee – composed of myself, André Campos, David Santos, David Teles Pereira, Eduarda Neves, Manuel João Vieira and Sara Nunes, we identified works and artists that were not represented in the Collection, clearly emphasising the diversity and plurality of national artistic practices. Since these acquisitions were stalled for a long time, we decided not to acquire works by artists who had already been represented in the Collection, to update the collection.

In the second Commission, in 2021 – with Ana Anacleto, Carla Cruz, David Santos, David Teles Pereira, Fernando J. Ribeiro, Horácio Frutuoso, Mariana Pinto dos Santos, Pedro Portugal and, in 2022, with Emília Tavares and myself – as we had already included more emerging or contemporary art, we filled in some gaps in the collection by historical authors, or those who had already disappeared and were not represented in the collection: Ana Hatherly, Ruy Leitão, Michael Biberstein, Luísa Correia Pereira and Pedro Morais are some examples.

In 2023, in the third Commission that has now begun – with António Olaio, David Teles Pereira, Emília Tavares, Fernanda Fragateiro, Luís Silva, Luísa Abreu, Miguel von Hafe Pérez and myself – the orientation, together with the Secretary of State for Culture, was to monitor and strengthen the nuclei of works by artists representing modern and contemporary artistic production, nurturing a relationship between CACE and the national museums of modern and contemporary art. That is what we are doing: strengthening, further identifying gaps and forging the best possible collection.

When the state or the commissions want to buy a work, who do they turn to? How has CACE dealt with the independent and informal dynamics of the art system?

First we get in touch with the artists and then with the galleries. We are also aware of the production made in independent venues, because the commission is made up of members and elements of that sector. We are interested in the whole artistic ecosystem.

In the auction market, we encounter several challenges, since the periods are short and well-defined. The Commission is not always flexible enough to adapt to those deadlines. We often contact heirs and family members to make these acquisitions. This has mostly happened since the last commission and will continue to occur because these are works that may be unavailable on the market.

From an arts perspective, how varied is the collection?

As a whole, the collection contains more painting and sculpture, given their historical nature. But we have made an effort to increase the representation of less objective practices, such as performance and video. With the incorporation of Coleção Ellipse and the new acquisitions, the representation of procedural and installation media is growing. And we are also paying attention to artistic collectives.

What is CACE’s geographical reach? Are you interested in covering a wider, even global, narrative, so that we can see the similarities and the differences – and understand and explore the same subject?

It is often thought that this collection is solely national, but it is not. Since the beginning, it includes international authors, namely artists who also exhibited in Portugal.

This international component was further reinforced with the inclusion of Coleção Ellipse. Moreover, with the new acquisitions, we include international authors whose work and career are related to the country. And we are also attentive to Portuguese-speaking authors, with deeper connections to Portugal, according to a critical approach to the themes that affect us and according to global contemporaneity.

How do you organize the different collections within CACE? Are there various nuclei? Is it a collection made up of collections? Do you want to establish a curatorial line between the different nuclei or do you emphasise those differences and distinct moments?

Yes. This is a collection of collections. In the initial phase, pieces from the Collection of the Union of Portuguese Banks, which had been nationalised in 1975, were incorporated. As we know, other collections were subsequently included. Although we have several collections in one entity, each one can be seen in isolation. That is an interesting point of this collection: for me, it is a trait of contemporaneity. This is a collection not based on similarity, but on difference.

Curiously, we often think of this public collection as a private collection. And it is not. In a private collection, I can work on coherent nuclei, with different artists, but with similar points, in a common thread. In a public collection, authorship is collective and must be diverse. It is about unifying difference. In other words, the idea of multiplicity is implicit, the opportunity to ponder the question of encounter: how can I make this collection relational, able to represent diversity and to cater for various entities? Difference has existed since the beginning of this Collection; it has been its identity. And I do not want to impose a coherence, nor a unity, but to assume its history and what makes it organic.

Where does this collection position itself? How do you manage a collection that is spread across several collections, museums, venues, all with different strategic and curatorial interests?

Since the beginning, this collection has been spread over different sites, in storage or on display, in a dialogue between collections and museums of modern or contemporary art. There has always been a decentralised network composed of depository entities. Interestingly, it is not centralised or restricted to a single venue, and requires a dialogue between entities. Above all because it allows a more contemporary perspective.

The website is an organised and curious platform. Have you invested in it?

Yes. It’s interesting, because the website is where the collection is gathered, and we can have a full perspective. We took three lines of action: in the first case, we made an effort to systematise information; then we invested in the production, gathering and visibility of photographic documentation; finally, we reinforced the transmission of knowledge through the presentation of short texts that go along with the documentary record of the works. In short, the website allows us to activate this collection, which we do not want to be hermetic. And, of course, we make the reports of the Acquisition Commission available for the sake of transparency.

How is the show of this collection being prepared?

We find it essential to develop an exhibition programme of the collection that supports artistic creation and the democratisation of its access through partnerships with museums, cultural centres, and municipal entities, from various regions, to implement the decentralisation of public service and equal access to knowledge and contemporary arts. We are developing an exhibition programme in several areas of the country, from north to south, and we will start with the exhibition on February 17 in Foz Côa, at Museu do Côa and at Centro Cultural de Vila Nova de Foz Côa, as part of a partnership between DGPC, Fundação Côa Parque and Vila Nova de Foz Côa City Hall.

We initially thought of making exhibitions of acquisitions, but we concluded that it would be much more interesting to make comprehensive exhibitions, without limiting ourselves to the purchases of a specific year. We are organising shows that follow a specific theme, with works from the Collection integrated into different periods.

This first exhibition is curated by the duo Sara & André and Manuel João Vieira, who were part of the 2019/2020 Commission. This programming line already dates to previous years. We also had an exhibition in Abrantes and others in Coimbra. Now we are starting a new exhibition cycle, which will continue in June, Castelo Branco, and then in Beja and Tavira – always based on partnerships and a collaborative work that endorses decentralisation and the promotion of the artistic ecosystem.

February 3, 2023

José Rui Pardal Pina (n. 1988) has a master's degree in architecture from I.S.T. in 2012. In 2016 he joined the Postgraduate Course in Art Curation at FCSH-UNL and began to collaborate in the Umbigo magazine. Curator of Dialogues (2018-), an editorial project that draws a bridge between artists and museums or scientific and cultural institutions with no connection to contemporary art.

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