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March 28, 2014 8:07 pm

Brazil: the new collectors

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The economic expansion of the past decade has brought with it a growing appetite for modern art
Regina Pinho de Almeida©Fifi Tong

Regina Pinho de Almeida at home, surrounded by pieces from her collection

To step into Regina Pinho de Almeida’s home is to enter São Paulo’s art world itself.

The front door in the house’s security wall in the leafy neighbourhood of Alto de Pinheiros opens on to a beautiful courtyard and pool, whose minimalist white lines provide the perfect backdrop for her collection of contemporary artworks. The art starts at the gate, with an untitled 2010 work by São Paulo artist Nino Cais, consisting of the bottom half of a dummy with a suitcase on top instead of a torso, and a distinctive untitled and undated piece by the late, internationally renowned Rio de Janeiro sculptor Sergio de Camargo, a vertical block of marble with shapes jutting elegantly from one side.

São Paulo is a deceptive megalopolis – its grey expanse of utilitarian residential towers and office blocks conceals a vibrant cultural life, including an increasingly active art-collector market of which Pinho de Almeida is a pioneer.

“I like art that has a sense of humour,” she says, explaining one of the threads that unite the works in her collection. “I don’t like ugly pieces, scatology.” On the ceiling of her living room is a piece by the artist João Loureiro entitled “Nuvem” (“Cloud”, 2001). Nearby, hovering like an angry rainstorm, is “Alguns anos depois” (“A Few Years Later”, 2004), a work by his São Paulo counterpart Nazareno that looks like a chain of miniature hospital beds.

Brazil’s economic expansion over the past decade and a half has led to a flowering not only of new shopping malls to serve the growing middle classes but also a broadening interest in art beyond the tiny circle of enthusiasts and gallery owners who once dominated the scene.

José Marton’s São Paulo home©Romulo Fialdini

Wall-to-wall art in José Marton’s São Paulo home

A measure of the growth of interest in art in Brazil is the dynamism of the market. More than two-thirds of the country’s galleries were created after 2000, a quarter of them since 2010, according to a study last year by the Latitude Project, a collaboration between the Brazilian Association of Contemporary Art and the government’s Trade and Investment Promotion Agency, or Apex. “Today, you have an educated market of people who will buy art not just to have something to put on the wall to agree with the sofa,” says designer and collector José Marton. “You have collectors who really are collectors, who collect genuine artworks.”

The Latitude study found that average ­gallery sales grew 22.5 per cent in 2012. Private Brazilian collectors snapped up 71 per cent of works sold in Brazil in 2012 compared to 11.5 per cent for foreign individual collectors. Brazilian corporate collections bought a further 6 per cent and Brazilian institutions just 4.25 per cent.

Another indication of the growing buyer enthusiasm in the market is price. According to the Latitude study, 60 per cent of galleries surveyed reported that they increased prices by 15 per cent in 2012. The average price in the primary market across the galleries surveyed was R$22,000 ($9,400).

José Marton’s collection©Galeria Vermelho

José Marton’s collection includes Tatiana Blass’s 'Dead Zone', 2007

Long-time collectors such as Pinho de Almeida recall an era when few would have dreamt of such prices, especially for the works of younger artists. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Brazil’s art world was still closed to the outside world – it was even difficult to import art materials. Indeed, when Brazil’s great physicist and art critic Mário Schenberg died in 1990, his family passed on to Pinho de Almeida a large number of works by his friend Mira Schendel, the Swiss-born ­Brazilian artist known for her use of rice paper. Today, Schendel, who died in 1988, is considered so significant that Tate Modern in London held what it described as the “first ever international full-scale survey of her work” between last September and this January, featuring more than 250 pieces. Schendel, the museum said, “was one of Latin America’s most important and prolific post-war artists. With her contemporaries Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica, Schendel reinvented the language of European Modernism in Brazil.”

Pinho de Almeida says that 24 years ago, however, when she offered the Schenberg family’s Schendel works to various collector friends for prices of between $100 and $400, few bought them: “[Schendel] did not have any market, there were few collectors here and … artists did not make a living from selling their works.”

Mira Schendel at Tate Modern©Justin Tallis/AFP

Mira Schendel works on show at Tate Modern

This started to change in the mid-1990s, as Brazil’s economy, for years stricken by runaway inflation and crises, stabilised and opened up. Although Brazil has had an international art exhibition, the Bienal de São Paulo, since 1951, the globalisation of the local market received an extra boost in the 1990s from individuals such as Luisa Strina, who opened an eponymous gallery in São Paulo in 1974, and the late Marcantônio Vilaça. Both began taking Brazilian artists to overseas fairs.

“In the 1990s, Brazilian art and the quantity of galeristas was not as great as it is today,” says Marton. He began working with artists on a barter basis to get round financial constraints, offering his services as an art consultant in exchange for pieces. The first work he received was a painting by the Rio de Janeiro artist Renina Katz, “Os Retirantes” (a term for poor migrants from Brazil’s rural areas). “My collection, which consists of 400 to 500 works, was basically constructed through this exchange,” he says. Now Marton’s collection includes installations such as “Dead Zone”, 2007, a living room constructed by young artist Tatiana Blass. It takes a minute to pick up what is different before the eye perceives that the entire scene – sofa, table, plants, pictures, a piano – has been cut in half about a metre from the ground.

While established collectors such as Marton remember the lean times for Brazilian art, new collectors face different challenges. The collection of designer Camilla Barella and her husband, businessman Eduardo Barella, explores themes such as consumerism, urbanism and the notion of frontiers. But, Camilla recalls, when they married, Eduardo had to overcome an instinctive resistance to art.

Camilla and Eduardo Barella©Andre Ligeiro

Camilla and Eduardo Barella

The problem, he says, is that in spite of Brazil’s rich artistic traditions, culturally most of the population is “young”.

“There are not many families that have a cultural background, for example,” he says. “Camilla was around art from a very young age. I didn’t have that … I did not see what role art could play in my life. [But] in a marriage everyone compromises and I started to frequent the [art] circuit with the purpose of trying to understand.”

As Eduardo’s interest in art flourished, the couple had to overcome another barrier – getting themselves taken seriously by galleries. “It was interesting because we received a reception that we were not accustomed to,” says Eduardo. “It is a market in which you come to buy but the person does not want to sell to you. That was until we found a gallery that believed in us; they played a very important role that is lacking in a country like Brazil – a role of introducing people to art, a didactic role.”

Galleries tend to be reticent with newcomers, Camilla says, because they do not want works from promising artists to disappear into the apartments of one-time buyers who will not later exhibit or otherwise help to promote the pieces. “It’s not only the monetary value of the work,” she says. “It’s the certainty that the artist will be able to construct a career that will endure in the longer term.” In spite of the art market’s rapid growth, however, ­collectors in Brazil still face a number of hurdles. Heavy taxes on importing and even exporting works are a ­headache, making it costly to buy overseas for Brazilian collections. Buying by Brazilian institutions such as museums remains weak, meanwhile, reducing the channels through which artists can promote their work.

'Column with Mirror'©Ana Maria Tavaras

In the Barellas’ collection: 'Column with Mirror', Ana Maria Tavaras, 1997

Corporates are given tax incentives to donate money to art but according to Pinho de Almeida, who is director of the Institute of Contemporary Culture, which helps to promote artists and their work, many refrain for fear that it will attract attention from the tax authorities. Her other concern about art today is the possiblity that an overheated market could stunt a young artist’s development. “Collectors used to buy … with the view that something would gain value, giving artists time to develop. There is a risk that when an artist is very young and earns a lot [that process will be lost]. That can be very dangerous.”

Just then, one such budding artist suddenly appears in the living room in the form of Pinho de Almeida’s four-year-old stepson, who challenges her with a plastic sword. She sweeps him up in an embrace. “This here is my preferred artwork,” she says, giving him a big kiss.

. . .

Eduardo Saron

Eduardo Saron

The corporate collectors

They may not know it but, in terms of art, the hundreds of staff who teem through the São Paulo headquarters of Itaú Unibanco every day are among the luckiest people in Brazil.

The offices of Latin America’s largest private bank represent one of the country’s best galleries for Brazilian art. The collection includes masterpieces such as Clóvis Graciano’s “Café”, 1970, part of a series of floor-to-ceiling paintings of Brazilian agricultural industries, and sculptor Victor Brecheret’s “Batedores” (“Scouts”, 1940s), an idealised statue of two horsemen which was the study for his Monumento às Bandeiras, the grand sculpture honouring the early pioneers of Brazil situated outside São Paulo’s Ibirapuera Park.

A tour of the collection in February started with a visit to the Espaço Memória, a commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the merger of Itaú with rival Unibanco. This brought together not only two financial institutions but also two business families that are among the foremost patrons of the arts – the Setubal and the Salles families.

“They began collecting as a means to pleasure the eyes,” says Eduardo Saron, director of Itaú Cultural, the foundation that manages the bank’s collection of 12,000 pieces of art.

While Itaú’s collection is partly contained in its headquarters, another major collector, Carlos Jereissati Filho, president and chief executive officer of Iguatemi group, is introducing his art into the malls of his shopping-centre empire.

He ascribes his interest in art to his involvement in architecture as part of the business of building malls: “You perceive that the concepts of architecture have a lot in common with art … originality, excellence in technique, quality, the emotion derived from the interlocution between a work and its observer.”

JK Iguatemi, Jereisatti’s luxury mall in an elite business area of São Paulo, represents his most daring attempt yet to share this passion for art with his customers. The über-chic building is sprinkled with stylish pieces such as Argentinian Rirkrit Tiravanija’s “Untitled (The Future Will Be Chrome)”, a full-size ping-pong table in stainless steel with a glass net, which sits on one of the terraces.

Indoors, a wall the size of a shopfront is dedicated to “Hospital da Lagoa (Rio)” by Briton Sarah Morris, consisting of a series of semicircular shapes overlaying a coloured chequerboard. In front, Iguatemi has placed a plush sofa with an iPad and voiceover explaining the piece – perfect for delivering the shopper to conceptual planes beyond the harried consumerism of modern São Paulo, if only for a moment.

Joe Leahy is the FT’s Brazil bureau chief

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