She has contributed with her exertion, with more than three decades of work at the Contemporary Art Museum of Caracas, named after her, and directed by her since its beginning in 1972. Her effort, embarked upon severe and controversial criteria has won her multiple recognitions such as the National Journalism Award, the Order Lazo de Dama Isabel la Catolica, and several Honoris Causa doctorships. By Celia Sredni De Birbragher Celia Sredni de Birbragher: Sofia, I’ve seen how the museum that you founded and direct has grown, but there are a lot of people who don’t know how you began in the art world and how the museum began. Sofia Imber: You don’t “begin” in the art world. Instead, when you live and exist within it, it’s because there has always been a connection. It’s like when you begin to breathe or begin to walk: they are natural processes of people. I’ve always been tied to communication and culture as appropriate processes of a profession and a passion that I carry in my blood, and I entered it through journalism. I’m interested in culture not as a process separate from that of an individual’s normal existential activity, but rather as the process that makes it possible for us to live, to breathe, to move through the world. Regarding the museum, I was initially called around 1970, more as a publicist and journalist to look after the promotion of a new residential complex that was being built in Caracas —which today is the well-known Parque Central— in a TV program. I was hired to promote it because there was a struggle —in the transition from one government to another— concerning the building of this residential complex in the city center. I gave the project the slogan of “a new way of living,” since it was a novel initiative, little developed in Venezuela at that time, that included cafés, laundromats, pharmacies, cinemas, supermarkets, etc. They had considered everything, except art. Then, Carlos Rangel and I proposed that they open at least a small gallery, and Alfredo Boulton, a great friend of ours, presented us with the possibility of realizing an entire museum of contemporary art. The idea of a museum was born of those conversations, and we submitted that idea for consideration. And though it was approved, I wasn’t originally given a gallery, much less a museum. Instead, I received the small space of a room designed for car sales that was surrounded by parking lots. I think the idea was that the space they gave us didn’t matter since it was going to be used for art. I thought: “OK, if it’s a parking lot, then we’ll make a museum out of a parking lot.” It was approximately 600 square meters in all, including the small space for offices, where we soon opened a small library that was the seed of today’s Biblioteca Pública de Arte del MACCSI, the only specialized library in the country. We also began to “steal spaces” for workshops and vaults. Latin America has the idea that everything must start off big. That’s why, from the physical point of view, I had something against me, which was the lack of space, and that made the museum’s growth process difficult. However, little by little, we began to take advantage of the space. Each time we found an empty or unused space, we took it and set it aside for the museum. Through this process it definitely began to come together. But there’s still something else, and it’s that the entire museum makes up a collection, and we didn’t previously have a collection. That collection had to be created and provided, and that was very difficult. It hasn’t stopped being difficult. Even if we were fortunate enough to have a State or some political leaders concerned with culture something that doesn’t exist in Venezuela— to organize a collection would still be difficult. We had to begin to form it with a minimum budget that we were able to set aside little by little. It was a matter of getting the most out of some meager financial resources, and therefore, of thinking very carefully about what works could make up the collection. The Galería de Arte Nacional devotes itself exclusively to Venezuelan art; the Museum of Fine Arts is dedicated to historical collections, and most noteworthy, it has a very complete core of Latin American art. In light of this, I got the idea that, in Latin America, only private collections had works by Pablo Picasso and other, more contemporary artists of the twentieth century. Although it’s a cliché, Picasso is the twentieth century, he brings the artistic sensibility of this century together. So I put forward the proposal of forming a Picasso collection. Other representatives of contemporary creation were joined to Picasso, especially keeping in mind that I had previous contacts with numerous artists and foundational movements of aesthetics after the war, during my stay in Europe: Léger, Soto, Herbin, Vasarely, Poliakoff, Albers, and Again, among many others whom, around the ‘50s, I had put in contact with Carlos Raúl Villanueva on the project for the Ciudad Universitaria. Also, I knew gallery owners and collectors who could help me eventually locate key pieces by Braque, Chagall, Matisse, Miró... C. S. de B.: How were you able to create this collection? Of course, we’re talking about the fact that this was a special period in Venezuela. S. I.: That’s right. It was a very special time for Venezuela, more than anything because of the superabundance of resources stemming from oil revenue. But perhaps I didn’t know how to take the best advantage of the situation because of my nature, since I don’t think we should be parasites of the State, and that the resources shouldn’t come exclusively from the State. Carlos and I realized that there was great wealth in the State, but it really didn’t occur to us to use those monies to the max as an only source, and this might have been an error. However, I dedicated myself to developing alternate forms of financing, going to private companies and turning into what I call the “official pest of Culture in Venezuela.” I was the first person in Venezuela to resort to that system, and maybe that helps me survive times of crisis. I asked everyone, and that’s also how a lot of people became involved with the museum and culture. At that time, the basic thing was to form a collection, and to incorporate the best of each artist in it. We met to determine how to use the low, two-year budget. And beside renowned gallery owners —to whom I explained that we were making the effort to build a museum for people who had never had the chance to approach contemporary art— we were able to achieve greater collaboration. As a result, we finally have a collection that, although not very big, is very exacting, rigorous, and good. That has been my responsibility. I’ll steal that credit for myself. But besides knowing how to invest the money and have the ability to select works, another factor that I’ve tried to put into practice is at stake, which is the system of artists’ donations. Many artists have donated their works to the museum, and not just any piece, but the piece that best represents them. Fernando Botero is one of them. A large part of our Botero Collection was donated by him, including, among others, the sculpture Gato (Cat), which is practically his most publicly acclaimed piece. C. S. de B.: You say that it’s not a very large collection, but I suspect that it’s one of the most important in Latin America. How many pieces does the museum have in all? S. I.: I can’t tell you the exact number, and when asked how many pieces we have I always say that we have “fewer than we’d like.” But you’re right. What you say is what a lot of people say, and they say it rationally, not viscerally. If it’s by chance the best in Latin America, it is so because of its coherence and because each work per se is an essential piece. This collection was formed piece by piece, exclusively seeing to the quality of each work and not the trend, the appropriateness, a style, or its position in the market. The nature of the collection is such that when large monographic exhibitions by artists in the big museums of the world are held, in some form or another they come to us to request loans: for example, the exhibition of Bacon and Picasso —sculptor/painter in London—, and that of Braque in Switzerland, or the Last Picasso in the Centro Georges Pompidou. I’ve just now been asked for a Chagall by the Centro Atlántico de Arte Moderno. Our Moore is also a very representative sculpture. If there’s something that makes the collection truly important, it’s that it possesses those key pieces. On paper alone, to give you an example, we have over 4,000 graphic works of great importance: 50 engravings by Lucian Freud, 137 by Pablo Picasso —although we’d like to have more. We also have Tapies, Moore, Chagall, Miró, Rivers, Segal. It’s been a way to introduce Venezuela to artists’ love of paper and graphic writing. It’s been a way to show that the work is not inferior because it’s on paper. C. S. de B.: Today there are many more collectors than there were 20 or 30 years ago when we began in this world, and new museums are emerging. Many collectors are going to museums in countries like Chile, Puerto Rico, Argentina, etc. What can you recommend to these new institutions? S. I.: I’m very afraid of the number of museums that are emerging. Sometimes I fear that they’re creating museums because it’s trendy and because they don’t know the responsibility and don’t have a good command of the know-how involved with such a task. At times, excess goes against quality and, in the case of museums, the need to create them through trends distorts their essential mission to be educative centers in the public service. At least that’s how I see it. I also don’t think that it’s a magnificent triumph for political leaders to say that they have a museum in every town, because the problem of cultural decentralization is not resolved through improvised measures. When a city has a museum, it should be because it deserves it, because the socio-structural conditions are ripe for it. I’ve been called on to create museums for anything—of tobacco leaves, for example . I’d say that it’s better that the small or medium amount of money that’s going to be spent on a new project might be better invested in the support of museums that already exist: in the endowment of their works, of their libraries, in a specific educative project. In the long run, this is a better decision than that of creating a flimsy museum with works that are in fashion at that moment. I’m very careful and observant in that. Also, when you direct an institution whose essential goal is to incite people in order to better their quality of life, you have to have a lot of respect. C. S. de B.: Do you think that Caracas is an example of a city with many museums, or that it is currently well balanced? S. I.: I think that Caracas is a well-balanced city regarding its museums, and that their quality and their collections are very good. Venezuelan museology is exemplary on a continental level. But all excess is not good, all excess frightens. In the long run, it is a double-edged sword, for often the experience of the museums lends itself to the idea that it is very easy to open new spaces for the new expressions. People then work with less rigor and less investigation, belying somewhat the true sense of what art should be. Moreover, Venezuela has had the privilege of receiving support from some financial institutions and banking entities that contribute with cultural development and diffusion, such as Banco Provincial and Banco Unión, with their exhibition rooms and educative projects, and Banco Mercantil, with its collection. C. S. de B.: What do you think is the most valuable thing that this museum has contributed to Caracas, and to the world? S. I.: I think that if something can be recognized it’s the presence of the work’s culture: the sense of work that we’ve assigned to this project and the levels of quality demanded to enrich the lives of the people who visit us. I think that this is the most valuable aspect of any cultural project. Obviously, I’d have to also mention the endowment of the cultural heritage. We’ve fully returned the country’s own investment with a collection worth much more than it cost. C. S. de B.: How do you make acquisitions today, which are more and more difficult? S. I.: I make them with a lot of fear, and also with respect, and a lot of care in what I’m going to spend. I must add to that the strategy of asking for a reduction in price, doing away with embarrassment when it comes time to haggle. C.S. de B.: The collection is dedicated, as you said, to the postwar artists, but you’ve also acquired many Latin American pieces. S. I.: The collection is mainly dedicated to artists whose works are of extremely high quality. In reality, we manage art’s formal, temporal parameter after 1945. But at the moment of truth, if there’s a possibility of acquiring or receiving an excellent work before this period, we’ll accept it with great pleasure. Being contemporary or not depends on minutes and seconds, the contemporary is the gaze, the manner of establishing relationships, and if I can establish relationships between a relic from the Brazilian baroque and a current work, I wouldn’t hesitate to receive it. I apply the same criteria for Latin American or Venezuelan art. We have around 2,500 works by Venezuelan and Latin American-born artists. Their inclusion doesn’t obey any nationalist duty, but rather the quality that backs them up. That’s what is required: quality. Nationality and technique aren’t considered, only the work’s value per se. C.S. de B.: The first time I came to the museum, nearly 24 years ago, there was an image that I remember which had a great impact on me: the piece by Gego. S. I.: Gego’s work became known in this museum. The first time Gego showed her work was in our spaces. 25 years later, Gego is highly renowned and everyone talks about her as if she were the most recent discovery. C.S. de B.: Every time I come across an exhibition of Gego or one of her pieces, I always think of this museum. S. I.: Her work is really beautiful, profound, and impressive. Her pieces were among the first that we bought in the MACCSI; the collection even begins with a Gego sculpture in the exterior spaces. She was a great worker and a person with a strong character who wasn’t afraid to do very simple things with wires. Imagine if at that time there had been anyone thinking of paying a penny for something like that. Today there is a great passion for Gego. But I’m afraid that she’ll be turned into something worse than the Frida Kahlo of Venezuela, surrounded by wires, instead of macaws, like the original Mexican Kahlo. Gego is one of the idols against whom I’m somewhat prejudiced, because I worry about the lightness with which fashion has approached her labor. Idolatry is very Latin American, and legends arise from one day to the next. I hope that Gego isn’t damaged with so many presumptions that could wind up being simple market strategies supported by a superficial art criticism that discovered in Gego’s sculptures the perfect balance between constructive rigor and the bodily and telluric organicity of our continent. C. S. de B.: The other artist I remember is, of course, Soto.S. I.: We were also the first to follow and, at times, to defend him, because the fact of having been a key piece in the development of a transcendent movement on a world level such as kinetics, cost him in Venezuela the recognition that he deserved at that time. Here they treated him as a “foreign artist” alien to the “national identity.” Today he is justly recognized because he is a Venezuelan who “makes art”: not Venezuelan, or Argentine, or French art, just ART, and great art. We have three of Soto’s pieces incorporated into the architecture and some ten or twelve in the collection. In 1983 we organized a very significant retrospective exhibition, and I’ve always admired his talent and have paid attention to his development. C.S. de B.: You were always very fond of Colombia. S. I.: I adore Colombia, and in an incredible way. I lived and worked there as a journalist, and I have the best memory of that period, as well as very dear Colombian friends like Plinio Apuleyo and Soledad Mendoza. I continue to be fond of Colombia, and I’m torn apart by the enormous pain of the violence. However, my admiration grows in that regard: I wonder how a country that is experiencing a military and political crisis, the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and ELN (National Liberation Army), their conflicts, can develop more and more their intellectual potential, their editorial quality. Colombia has a press and magazines better than ours. It has trade journals in essay, culture, art, literature. It has artists whom I can’t call better or worse because they’re very good. And this is not to mention the newspapers and publications in which we find a great ability and freedom to speak well. Even with all the circumstances through which Colombia has passed, the bookstores are still open, the people keep writing, the literary supplements are excellent. We really admire Colombia here. C. S. de B.: You worked with many Colombian artists, you opened the doors for them and you’ve held great shows. Now the situation between Colombia and Venezuela could become more difficult. S. I.: I don’t believe in difficult situations when art and culture are involved. Painting is a universal language, and when it’s of high quality, it unites better than any political discourse. In 1976, we organized one of Fernando Botero’s first exhibitions in a museum institution, and since then, in all instances, he has done shows with us. And the massive number of people who go to see him has not gone down one bit, and we are pleased with the possibility of bringing him to Venezuela. During the most recent show, about a year ago, they tried to convince him that the situation was too delicate and he shouldn’t do his show. But Fernando came and that was the first activity linked to culture that recently elected Lieutenant-Colonel Chávez attended with pleasure. There were no differences between him and Fernando, just excellent communication. Aside from that, Botero’s donation to the MACCSI is one of our most complete cores. Although it may be a hackneyed phrase, art has no borders. It’s not a question of whether it’s Colombian or Venezuelan or Guyanese: it’s art, and that’s it. C. S. de B.: There’s another aspect that interests me a lot, which is happening now and you have been watching it: the coming together that’s been happening with Spain. Tell us a little bit about how you see that coming together and what’s happened with Spain. S. I.: I have an extraordinary admiration for that country. Spanish artists have been essential in the foundation of the sensibility of the twentieth century: Picasso, Gris, Miró, Chillida, Gargallo, López Garcia... Logically, I have a tighter relationship with France, since my children were born in France and I lived there for many years. My ties with Spain developed after Franco, when I went with the intention of meeting Antonio López Garcia, an artist whom I admire and consider exceptional. I also admire Spain’s editorial activity and production: they publish 55,000 books per year, and culture is supported with total maturity and awareness, and with no restrictions whatsoever. We see it in their ambassadors, in institutions like the Generalitat de Valencia, which has given us unconditional support in joint projects. Their Contemporary Art Fair is very well organized and has opened possibilities to approach new artists who produce with a passion, freshness, and madness that other artists of the European continent don’t possess. At times, the number of young artists that are coming out of Spain and who are so good frightens me. C.S. de B.: One of the things that astonishes me today in the face of what we are living is how Spain continues to support culture. S. I.: They support it ferociously. Museums are growing there all the time. Their ambassadors aren’t decorative figures; instead, they actively participate in cultural activities. They also have their art magazines: Ldpiz, the supplements of ABC, El País. I’m impressed with the number of publications, even when not every book published there is necessarily good, and there’s a lot of bad literature. C. S. de B.: Somehow, we speak of the relationship with Spain, not only on an artistic level, but also in other aspects. We even talk about Spain’s “rediscovery” of Latin America. How do you see that relationship? S. I.: You can’t separate art from the rest of the areas of activity of a nation, just as you can’t separate the organs in order to create a human being. Spain’s new interest in Latin America is related to new interests in their economy, but within that new economic system and those new ties with Latin America, culture is a very important factor. This has allowed for growth and exchange. Other countries also understand it, but their products and their economic moment are not as united to Venezuela as Spain is. The best Venezuelan banks, for example, are Spanish, and those that aren’t Spanish, join up with them and the strength of their currency. Also, Spain is one of the countries whose artists are, at this moment, achieving a greater presence and are providing creative answers on a very high level. C. S. de B.: The United States has developed a particular role in Latin America. How do you see the world of Venezuelan art with regard to the United States? S. I.: I’m afraid that there’s a sort of assimilation without reflection, especially among the youngest artists, who continue to believe that they have to buy Art Forum or Art Whatever, that they have to see the most recent performance, or trendy show, or Documenta in order to be in something. They submit their projects to those trendier things, because they think that’s the only way they will be recognized. New York has become the pole par excellence of illumination of the market and novelties. But the problem is that, right there, it seems that the ideas of vanguard run out, and social practices turn into a sort of official approval of media and expressions that obey a recipe. That’s the main problem that I see: the danger of globalization. That’s why we have to favor growth and reflection from our own institutions and countries. We should support exhibitions like the Salón Pirelli de Jóvenes Artistas, insisting on the search for our own road, not Venezuelan, or North American, or Argentine, or Colombian, but a road and a work of art that come from everyone’s reflections and not the international style in vogue at that moment. C. S. de B.: How do you see Venezuelan art today? S. I.: The Venezuelan art of today is no different from art in general, and it faces the same problems that artistic creation in any other part of the planet is currently experiencing. I don’t see it much different from what is happening in the rest of the world. And we can appreciate it with precision, even in a small and valuable fair like FIA/Caracas, where more or less every three or four stands show the same things: there are people who have talent and others who don’t, and those who have it are the artists who will remain, wherever they may come from. C. S. de B.: Besides ARCO and FIA, do you go to other fairs? S. I.: A museum director should try to go to the greatest number of art fairs, exhibitions, biennials, salons, and libraries all over the world. I try to go to them, to the extent that our small budget allows. For example, I consider that, aside from ARCO and FIA, the FIAC of Paris is one of the best. When I get to a space like that of an international art fair, I’m like a little child without money in front of a toy store window. Good art is still very expensive. C. S. de B.: There’s something I’d like to talk with you about. Today we talk of museums as places of amusement. In France, for example, where museums were very academic and austere, they have begun to grow and transform. S. I.: That process of transformation and growth in the museums is registered within the changes and power of penetration that culture in the contemporary world has had. Culture has become a leading space of changes and institutions —among them, museums— and that’s how it should be assumed. I think that in countries like ours, this change of the role of museums took place in a much more natural fashion and without a lot of fuss, because we had no alternative. For example, from the first moment that I was given the possibility of a museum and was asked how I’d direct it, under what criteria, I answered that I’d do it as a communication medium, “like a newspaper,” because in Venezuela the only thing that could work was a large and communicative outline that contemplated the possibility of opening up to education and the transformation of the quality of life. We did it out of necessity, because it was the only possible alternative. France and other countries later arrived at the same conclusions, through other more conventional routes. C. S. de B.: They’ve just transformed the Louvre and the Pompidou. How do you feel about converting museums into amusement centers, where there are stores, restaurants, etc.? S. I.: Museums are spaces for communication and amusement. Perhaps because I’m a reporter, communication is the most normal process in the world for me. I don’t understand how museums can dedicate themselves to anything other than communication. The MACCSI was the first museum in Venezuela where people danced, the first one where a performance took place, the first one that exhibited popular art and video. Our intention has been to open a space of confluences that people attend out of necessity, because they know that that’s where they’ll feel good and it will change their life. I think that culture shouldn’t be treated as an alternative to leisure or free time, but rather as an alternative of existence, without which it’s impossible to live. C. S. de B.: I was asking because for many years the museum has had shops, museum products, etc. Tell us a little about all those marvelous things. S. I.: Certainly. I’d even sell “artistic condoms in all colors” designed by good creators, and I’d love to do it because I’d also be doing a public service. I think that any beautiful object should be shared with someone and put within his or her reach, if they are able to obtain it. If you have a well-designed piece of furniture, a book, a record, and you show and sell it, the people who buy it will thank you. Also, I’ve always thought that the shops and stores in a museum should be treated without prejudices and with awareness of their importance to raise funds. We have the magnificent example of North American museums like New York’s Metropolitan, the MoMA, and the Guggenheim, whose stores and products are sensational. Museums should open up to the group, and the stores are part of that strategy. Many people criticized us at the beginning, and today all the museums in Venezuela have stores. C. S. de B.: What advice would you give people who are beginning new collections? S. I.: None, because no one pays attention. C. S. de B.: How do you see the museums in the United States? S. I.: They are exemplary. They have an extraordinarily educated line with high quality, and they are innovate in many aspects, such as self-financing. You see that the Metropolitan sells rugs and objects for children, and you’d think that the success is limited to the shows. But it turns out that their success also lies in their stores and with branches throughout the country. Also, the United States has an extraordinary awareness and support of patronage, with laws that allow tax deductions on donations. North Americans with resources know that they have to be thankful for what they’ve earned. Whether for love of art or self-love, and to see their name on a plaque, cultural development is given considerable favor. C. S. de B.: We haven’t been able to achieve that in Latin America. I.: We’re working on it in Venezuela, but we haven’t achieved it yet. Maybe if we were canvassing for a law supporting guns we’d have greater success. We’ll see... ?
February 19, 2018