A rotting jewel of art denoting Venezuela’s divisions may now help it heal

CARACAS, Venezuela — In a dilapidated residential complex filled with garbage-strewn corridors, shuttered shops and barren gardens is one of Latin America’s greatest art treasures.

The vaults above flooded cellars contain the largest public collection of Pablo Picasso’s works in the region, as well as hundreds of millions of dollars worth of paintings and drawings by masters such as Joan Miró, Marc Chagall and Lucian Freud.

Nearby, 700 sculptures by iconic artists, including Salvador Dalí and Fernando Botero, are crammed into a large space to protect them from rising damp.

This is the Caracas Museum of Modern Art in Venezuela, or MACC, once a regional reference for cultural education, which has fallen victim to economic collapse and authoritarianism.

Backed by Venezuela’s oil wealth, the museum hosted exhibitions by internationally renowned artists, bought masterpieces and nurtured groundbreaking local artists, and projected the image of a confident nation speeding toward modernity and prosperity. Now the museum’s underpaid workers and cultural officials are working to preserve and exhibit the collection after years of decline, technical shutdowns and official indifference.

The museum’s decline illustrates the long-lasting effect of political polarization on national culture. A “cultural revolution” launched by Venezuela’s socialist government in 2001 turned every institution into a political arena, dividing citizens along ideological lines, shattering the shared cultural heritage of the past two decades.

“The culture, like everything else, became divided,” said Álvaro González, a Venezuelan art conservation expert who works at the museum. “We have lost the anchor points of who we are as a nation.”

Thanks to the work of the team of Mr. González and the Ministry of Culture, as well as pressure from Venezuelan civil society and local media, partially reopened the museum to the public in February after a two-year closure, reflecting the recent modest, uneven economic recovery.

Workers have repainted five of the museum’s showrooms, sealed the leaking ceiling and replaced burnt light bulbs with modern fixtures. Museum officials say repairs are underway in the remaining eight rooms.

The renovated space displays 86 selected masterpieces from the museum’s 4,500 collected works. During a visit by The New York Times to the main storage vault in February, the museum’s major works were in apparently good condition.

Some officials believe MACC’s partial reopening will herald a wider recovery in the arts scene as President Nicolás Maduro’s authoritarian government abandons radical socialist economic and social policies in favor of a more moderate approach designed to attract investment.

“The collection of our museums is the heritage of all Venezuelan people, which is why it is so important that the spaces are in optimal condition for its preservation,” said Clemente Martínez, president of the National Museums Foundation, which oversees the public museums of Venezuela.

However, several prominent Venezuelan art experts say the museum’s partial renovation masks deeper issues that continue to threaten the collection. They warn that the museum will not recover without major new investments and a major change in the way the Venezuelan state views culture.

Most of the museum remains closed. The veteran technical staff has largely disappeared, having fallen victim to the political purges of former socialist leader Hugo Chávez, or escaping economic ruin under his successor, Mr Maduro.

Years of hyperinflation have looted the institution’s budgets, forcing most of the workforce to emigrate or move to the private sector, which pays in US dollars. Top MACC officials made an equivalent of $12 a month last year, and the museum received a $1.50 daily budget to maintain its 100,000 square feet of facilities, according to a former employee who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.

The Ministry of Culture and MACC’s director, Robert Cárdenas, both declined to comment.

“People cannot work indefinitely for the love of art,” said María Rengifo, former director of Venezuela’s Fine Arts Museum, MACC’s sister institution. “It’s very hard to see everyone leave who devoted their lives to the museums.”

The economic hardship has driven some workers to theft.

In November 2020, Venezuelan police officials detained MACC’s chief of security and a curator for participating in the theft of two works by famed Venezuelan artists Gertrud Goldschmidt and Carlos Cruz-Diez from the vaults.

Art experts say the collection will remain in jeopardy until the state pays a living wage, installs basic security systems and takes out insurance.

Together, the museum’s major works were worth $61 million in 1991, the last time it conducted an evaluation. Today, art dealers say parts of the collection, such as the 190 paintings and engravings by Picasso and 29 paintings by Miró, are worth about 30 times more, bringing the combined value to hundreds of millions of dollars and making it a target for crime.

The economic crisis has also destroyed the building of the museum, which is part of a social housing project called Central Park. Built during Venezuela’s oil boom in the early 1970s, Central Park adopted the slogan “a new way of life” to symbolize the country’s rapid modernization.

The 25-acre complex included schools, swimming pools, restaurants, office buildings, a subway station, church and theater, along with hundreds of luxury apartments in what were the tallest buildings in Latin America until 2003. Many of the apartments were offered to working-class workers with heavily subsidized mortgages.

Today, Central Park’s hallways and hallways are littered with garbage, leaking water, used condoms, and the remains of dead animals. The once lush gardens are arid grounds interspersed with mosquito-ridden puddles. The underground parking garage has been left to the rising groundwater.

The decline of Central Park has impacted the MACC, which relied on the complex’s central air-conditioning and maintenance budget to protect the collection from moisture.

Still, art experts believe that the biggest blow to the museum came not from the economic downturn, but from the policies of the Socialist Party.

After winning the presidency in 1998, Mr Chávez, a former paratrooper born to a poor provincial family, sought a radical break with the discredited traditional parties, which had alternated in power since the 1950s.

Echoing the slogans of his mentor, Fidel Castro, the Cuban leader, Mr. Chávez proclaimed a “cultural revolution,” seeking to elevate Venezuela’s traditional music, dance and painting styles at the expense of what he believed to be the elite culture. of his predecessors.

One of its first targets was the MACC, founded and managed by pioneering Venezuelan art patron Sofía Ímber since its inception. For Mr. Chávez, Ms. Ímber represented everything wrong with the country: a member of a closed elite circle that had monopolized Venezuela’s oil wealth.

Two years after taking power, Mr. Chávez fired Ms. Ímber from the MACC on live television.

It was the first time in 42 years that a Venezuelan president had intervened in the cultural centers, heralding Chávez’s wider dismantling of democratic institutions.

“The museum represented a vision of the country, a space where artistic excellence strengthened democracy and the free exchange of ideas,” said María Luz Cárdenas, MACC’s chief curator under Ms Ímber. “It clashed with Chavez’s government project.”

Mr Chávez’s “cultural inclusion” policies ended abruptly after oil prices and the country’s economy collapsed shortly after his death in 2013. protests and US sanctions.

“When crude oil prices fell, the entire economic system that supported cultural policies collapsed,” said Jacques Leenhardt, an art expert at the School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences in Paris. “The populist government of Maduro, now penniless, has done nothing to protect this cultural heritage.”

Maduro’s crisis management was very different from that of his allies, Cuba and Russia, who have largely shielded their artistic treasures during the worst years of their downturn.

Today, the neat buildings of Havana’s Museum of Fine Arts contrast with the ramshackleness of the MACC. Havana itself has become an international arts destination as Cuba’s communist government hosts exhibitions and festivals to earn hard currency and boost its reputation.

In contrast, Mr. Maduro never followed Cuba’s cultural example.

But paradoxically, Venezuela’s economic collapse could now help revitalize the country’s cultural institutions, said Oscar Sotillo, who led the MACC last year.

In order to survive the sanctions, Mr Maduro has quietly begun seeking private investors for the past two years and has returned a number of expropriated businesses to their previous owners.

Forced moderation is expanding in the art world. Adriana Meneses, Ms Ímber’s daughter, said the government had recently contacted her about collecting financial support for cultural projects from Venezuela’s traditionally anti-government diaspora, a development unimaginable a few years ago.

The government has also recently begun repairing the iconic Teresa Carreño Theater in Caracas and the Central University of Venezuela, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Venezuela’s acclaimed state network of children’s orchestras is negotiating private sponsorship.

Caracas’ private galleries are booming, as are oligarchs and western-trained officials invest wealth in art and mimic the lifestyle of Venezuela’s traditional wealthy elites.

“Art has the ability to transcend politics,” said Mr. Sotillo. “And what is a country if not its culture? Heritage has no price.”

Ed Augustine contributed reporting from Havana, and Robin Pogrebin From New York.

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