Looking at the spare, modern majesty of the new Museum of Latin American Art in Buenos Aires (Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires--MALBA), it is hard to imagine that it all began thirty years ago with the purchase of two small paintings at a neighborhood art gallery. That was when the Argentine businessman Eduardo Costantini first discovered his love of art--and before he had made his fortune in investments and real estate. Back then, he had to ask the gallery owner to let him pay in installments.
Since that time, a lot has changed: Costantini has prospered in spite of his country's checkered economic tale, and these days he blithely sets records in Latin American art markets--no more installment plans for him. But other challenges have occurred along the way in those past three decades: First, Costantini's art collection grew to a size where he could no longer keep it at home; and second, the importance of the collection began to make it imperative that it be shared more broadly.
Recently, both those problems were solved with the inauguration of the MALBA in the posh Buenos Aires neighborhood of Palermo Chico. The new US$50 million museum Costantini has built and endowed will house not only his own collection (which now includes more than 220 works of art) but will also be the first world-class museum dedicated to the appreciation and study of Latin American art in Latin America.
"This museum is important in the context of the world, not just within Latin America," says Agustin Arteaga, the MALBA's director.
While the inauguration of the museum in September was conducted with much fanfare and was the culmination of many years of work for Costantini, the moment was also traumatic for him. Though he had long prepared to donate the collection, the final decision to cede the works to a museum that would have a life and dynamic of its own was not done lightly.
Despite being the hard-nosed businessman he is, Costantini speaks of his collection in the quasi-religious terms of death and resurrection. "It was a hard decision because I always associated the donation of the collection with my death. But eventually I realized that the museum was just the opposite of death ... a museum is a center of life ... of communion with people."
Almost as if he were preparing a home for his own family, Costantini, fifty-five, who is married and has six children, has spared no expense in preparing the museum to receive his collection. The MALBA will be, hands down, the finest, most modern, most professional museum in Argentina. From its security systems to its management; from its air conditioning to its storage rooms; from its galleries to, of course, its collection: it will have the best in everything.
It is difficult to believe that such a gift to the city of Buenos Aires would find opposition, but according to Costantini, the greatest obstacle he faced was obtaining approval to open the museum from city officials. When the building was in its final stages of construction, a dispute erupted over whether the city would permit a roof to be built over the top-floor gallery. At one point, the city ordered construction halted, but reason and community pressure prevailed, and the museum was inaugurated, six months behind schedule. Costantini is relieved to put these troubles behind. "It was more work than we expected, but it's a period that is over. Now it's a question of looking ahead." On the bright side, the very public controversy galvanized museum supporters to make their support explicit: they signed petitions, took out advertisements in newspapers, and even organized a public embrace of the museum.
After attending the inauguration, Jay Levenson of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York said of the new building, "I thought it was an amazingly good job--especially given that the architects were young and they had never done a museum before."
Levenson pointed to several features of the new building's design: its success in funneling natural light to all gallery spaces; the simple, intuitive floor plan which is never confusing (good news for museum-goers); the proportions of the galleries; and something that may only be of interest to museum staff, the clever entrance to the administrative offices just off the lobby (no more hunting through endless galleries to reach a nondescript door! …