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March 28, 2014 8:06 pm

Women in art

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In Brazil, art has become a multimillion-dollar business – and many of its power brokers are women

Brazil’s art market is an unusual sector in the country: it is dominated by women. Not only are its bestselling artists female but so are many of its leading gallerists and collectors.

Ruled by a patriarchal military junta until only a few decades ago, Brazil has long struggled to shake off a deep-rooted machismo – only about 7 per cent of the country’s board members are women. Brazil has a woman president, Dilma Rousseff, but she was the chosen protégée of her male predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Similarly, many of the women who have long dominated the country’s art scene have benefited from male patrons – wealthy husbands or fathers. Art began for some as a hobby but now it is a business and artists and gallerists are the power brokers. Meanwhile, younger generations have found success by fighting against the system, carving out their own careers and fortunes

. . .

Adriana Varejão

The former engineering student turned herself into a bestselling artist

Adriana Varejão©Vicente de Mello

Brazilians may not know it but they have Elizabeth Taylor to thank for one of their most successful artists. Adriana Varejão, in front of her “Polvo” series, was halfway through an engineering degree in Rio de Janeiro in the 1980s when she saw the actress playing a bohemian artist in The Sandpiper. “I thought she was amazing, I wanted to be exactly like that woman,” says Varejão, laughing.

She promptly quit university, rented a studio and set her sights on the Thomas Cohn gallery in Rio, which represented some of Brazil’s leading artists. “I asked [Cohn] to visit my studio but he never came so one day I rented a van, put my paintings in it and went down there,” she says. “I started putting them up inside the gallery and he came out of his office to see what on earth was going on . . . he started to visit my studio after that.”

It was this determination that took Varejão to China in the 1990s to study Chinese language and philosophy. It was a turning point, leading to a deeper interest in marginal cultures and a realisation, she says, of “what it meant to be Brazilian”. She also counts among her influences baroque art, history, architectural ruins, natural sciences and theatre.

After a brief stint as a collector, when she was married to Bernardo Paz, founder of the art park Inhotim, Varejão returned to her original passion. Her current husband is a film producer, she says with a smile. “Cinema has marked me in many ways.”

. . .

Fernanda Feitosa

The lawyer who started SP-Arte, the art fair that helped put the country on the world circuit

Fernanda Feitosa©Rodrigo Zorzi

As a child growing up in Rio de Janeiro, Fernanda Feitosa, would spend hours watching her two uncles paint and dreamt of being an artist herself. “I would have been horrible at it, though,” she laughs.

“I don’t have any talent and the sooner you realise that, the better, both for you and everyone else.”

But as the founder of SP-Arte, Latin America’s biggest art fair, she is a major figure in Brazil’s scene. A former international banking lawyer, she turned to art when she and her family came back to Brazil from living abroad in 2004. With her husband, Heitor Martins, she began to collect. “We used to create these charts listing the works we wanted to buy and all their pros and cons,” she says.

It was with this methodical determination that she convinced sponsors to fund the country’s first international art fair in 2005 – a vital step towards professionalising the market. In its initial year the only non-Brazilian exhibitor was a little-known Uruguayan gallery – “just enough to call it an international fair” – but by the time Jay Jopling added White Cube to the list in 2012, SP-Arte had become an obligatory stop on the world circuit. This year 136 galleries from 18 countries will take part, and works by César Delgado and Nick van Woert, above, will be displayed.

Feitosa’s biggest act of persuasion, however, was convincing the government to give SP-Arte’s foreign exhibitors tax incentives, without which it would have made little commercial sense for them to sell in Brazil. Public galleries also dislike the taxman, as levies on donations discourage collectors from bequeathing them works. Feitosa sympathises, of course, but says she is secretly glad – without museums hoarding the best works there are more masterpieces on the market to add to that chart.

. . .

Luisa Strina

The fierce matriarch of Brazilian art who defied a dictatorship and has set an example for younger generations

Luisa Strina

The matriarch of Brazil’s art world has just had knee-replacement surgery and is perched on a red velvet sofa in the bedroom of her São Paulo apartment. “I’m 70 now – you see, just a little old lady,” says Luisa Strina, above with Pedro Reyes’ “Colloquium”. But she is anything but slowing down. She starts to time our interview on her iPhone’s stopwatch – we have exactly 20 minutes.

“I wanted to be an artist but when I was 16 I started buying art and put together a small collection,” she says. After studying art at university, she began to help her painter friends sell their work, until one day they gave her an ultimatum: “Either open a gallery or we’ll find someone else.”

She chose the former – no mean feat in 1974, when Brazil was in the grip of a brutal military junta that liked its art bland and its women behind the kitchen sink.

“I was not the only woman collecting at that time, though – many would study art, get to know artists and start to buy without any support from their husbands,” Strina says. “Without the support of their husbands but with their money, of course,” she scoffs.

Strina’s late husband was a painter, and it was her father, the owner of a paper factory, who first sponsored the Luisa Strina Gallery.

Over the past four decades, she has launched the careers of some of Brazil’s most successful contemporary artists, such as Pablo Accinelli and Tunga, and brought works by Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol to Brazil for the first time.

The internationalisation of the market has its pitfalls, though. In 2011, U2 bassist Adam Clayton stopped by her gallery while on tour in Brazil and ran off with one of her best assistants. She went to their wedding in France last year.

Strina stops talking to look at her phone. “Time’s up!”

. . .

Márcia Fortes

The accidental gallerist has nurtured some of Brazil’s best artists and transformed them into international superstars

Marcia Fortes©Eduardo Ortegadone

Márcia Fortes has just spent a week in Spain looking after Ernesto Neto, one of her most high-profile artists, followed by a night tending to her daughter after a zip wire accident. But her exhaustion is barely noticeable as she paces around her office above the Fortes Vilaça gallery that she co-founded in São Paulo, clutching a cup of Lady Grey tea.

“I never drink coffee because I was born wired anyway, so when I drink coffee I start driving people mad around me, and even though tea has caffeine I take black tea then I move on to herbal teas.”

She says this manic energy and motherly instinct have helped her nurture some of Brazil’s best talent.

“We represent artists but that includes not just selling art but being in the studio, developing ideas, strategising, having conversations about where the art is going, giving psychological and psychoanalytic support.”

Fortes’s career began very differently – she worked as a journalist. During a stint as her newspaper’s New York correspondent she got to know the Brazilian gallerist Marcantônio Vilaça, becoming his confidante and close friend. When he died, his sister-in-law, Alessandra d’Aloia, turned to Fortes to help run the gallery with her.

As well as Neto, Fortes represents artists such as twin-brother graffiti artists Os Gêmeos. Among all of the gallery “offspring” she has helped, though, Beatriz Milhazes is the most commercially successful. The daughter of a lawyer and an art historian, Milhazes also tried her hand at journalism before opening her studio in the early 1980s, going on to develop her signature canvases of colourful geometric explosions and carnivalesque optical illusions. After decades of working away quietly in Rio, her painting “O Mágico” (“The Magician”) sold at Sotheby’s in 2008 for just over $1m, turning her into an overnight sensation. “Brazil’s Kandinsky”, as she then became known, went on to break the record for art sales not only in Brazil but also across Latin America.

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