Feud for Thought

By Fioravante, Celso | Artforum International, November 2000 | Go to article overview

Feud for Thought


Fioravante, Celso, Artforum International


SINCE EARLY MAY, the Sao Paulo Bienal has been embroiled in perhaps the greatest crisis since its inception in 1951. Originally scheduled to open last April, the 25th Bienal was postponed twice, the curator walked out, and six council members resigned, leaving the event in limbo. Whereas previous disagreements have been resolved behind closed doors, in this case council and board members aired their views in the media, which broke the scandal wide open and badly damaged the international credibility of the Bienal Foundation. "It was a dark period in our history. People refused to return our phone calls and even the Ministry of Culture avoided speaking to us," a member of the board of directors reported.

The crisis pitted two powerful personalities in the nation's cultural and economic life against each other: on one side, Milu Villela, president of the Museu de Arte Moderna de Sao Paulo, a member of the international advisory board of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and heiress to one of the largest banking fortunes in Brazil; on the other, Edemar Cid Ferreira, who presided over the '94 and '96 biennials (both curated by Nelson Aguilar) and is now an influential member of the Bienal Foundation council. Cid Ferreira, himself a banker, is also president of Associacao Brasil + 500, the institution that organized "Mostra do Redescobrimento" (Rediscovery exhibition), a historical survey of Brazilian art that attracted a record 1.9 million viewers during its five-month run in Sao Paulo's Ibirapuera Park (by comparison, a mere 1.2 million attended "Treasures of Tutankhamen," the Metropolitan Museum of Art's late-'70s blockbuster).

The crisis was precipitated on May 9, when the Bienal Foundation board of directors voted to postpone the biennial a second time, from next spring until April 2002. The biennial's long-standing and well-respected curator, Ivo Mesquita, who was traveling in Spain at the time, was informed of the decision shortly after the vote, by telephone. On returning to Brazil a week later, he told the Folha de Sao Paulo, one of Brazil's largest dailies, that he would resign if the board's decision stood. Indignant, the Bienal Foundation president, architect Carlos Bratke, fired Mesquita. The dismissal was widely condemned in artistic circles both at home and abroad. Chief among Mesquita's supporters was Villela, then vice president of the Bienal Foundation.

Villela and her group disputed Bratke's claim that postponement was necessary because the Bienal Pavilion in Ibirapuera Park was urgently in need of repair and presented a safety hazard, arguing that if the pavilion were truly at risk, the thousands of works it houses would have been removed and the doors closed. Villela accused the Bienal Foundation of catering to the interests of Cid Ferreira, who, in her view, wanted to avoid competition as he raised money for the planned global tour of "Mostra do Redescobrimento," which includes stops at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Guggenheim Bilbao, the Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume in Paris, and London's British Museum. Bratke denied these charges, but he could not have been unaware of the advantage in having a Cid Ferreira on his side. And, in fact, Cid Ferreira's power was escalating: The Associacao, created in 1998 by Bienal Foundation council members (including Cid Ferreira) as an institution whose sole objective was to organize and promote "Mostra do Redescobrimento," voted to alter its own bylaws and became autonomous this summer. …

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