Thousands of Argentines gathered on a futuristic footbridge in July this year, clutching smartphones and holding mirrors up to an azure sky. Clouds of multicoloured petals rained down to the docks of Buenos Aires from a helicopter overhead. Inside, artist Marta Minujín surveyed her work from on high.
With rock-star status in Argentina (she compares herself to Madonna) Minujín had no problem getting the citizens of Buenos Aires to participate in one of her “happenings”. They downloaded an app that would identify their “soul mate”, who could be found on the bridge by a matching design showing on their smartphone.
Perhaps it was appropriate that Minujín, now 72, remained so distant from the crowd. As a young artist she left Argentina to seek success on the international art scene, as the country’s biggest artists do to this day. Buenos Aires remains too limited for its most ambitious talent.
“I don’t feel I belong here,” says Minujín from behind aviator sunglasses, her black clothes contrasting with almost fluorescent blonde hair. She complains that she is mobbed when she goes out and must even organise her dentist appointments abroad.
Nevertheless, a vibrant and youthful art scene has thrived in Buenos Aires, despite its isolation from the cities where the art world is concentrated, such as London and New York — where Minujín, who befriended the late Andy Warhol, feels more at home — and the economic crises that periodically batter Argentines. Rather, these obstacles have fostered a refreshing degree of innovation and pragmatism. Graffiti art, for example, has transformed the city.
The problem is that the market for the fine arts in Buenos Aires, which depends on a small group of collectors, is not big enough to support the legions of aspiring young artists produced by the city known as the Paris of the South.
In the absence of strong state-backed institutions and funding to support and nurture artistic talent, those who want to make their living as artists must rely on a commercial gallery scene that is fiercely competitive. Their only other option is to move abroad.
“There are many fewer galleries than the amount of young artists able to join them. Even so, they keep producing a huge amount,” says Adriana Rosenberg, the director of Fundación Proa, a private arts institute with one of the city’s most visited exhibition spaces in the colourful but rundown district of La Boca, which she says is attracting aspiring artists in droves.
Eduardo Basualdo, who at 37 belongs to a younger generation of artists that has broken into the international scene, says that without affiliation to a gallery, there is little chance of success. But the lack of formal training for up-and-coming artists, many of whom study under established peers rather than at art schools, does at least allow them greater freedom. “Elsewhere, aspiring artists have to mortgage their homes to study, and are bound to a system. Here artists are more daring but also have shorter careers. Once they hit 30, they may have to do something else in order to pay the rent,” he says.
For those who make it, international recognition is essential. “The successful artists of my generation are all on the international scene,” says Basualdo, explaining that if he does 10 shows in a year, only a couple will likely be in Argentina.
Orly Benzacar, who runs the Ruth Benzacar gallery, laments that the Buenos Aires art market is controlled by a small group of “capricious” collectors.
“Great art is produced here, the challenge is how to generate a bigger market,” says Benzacar, who invented a successful, if only partial, antidote to the lack of institutional support. More than a decade ago she set up the Zero Curriculum programme, a competition for young artists whose prize — a solo exhibition for the winner — is one of the most coveted in the country.
Eduardo Costantini, who established the city’s best-known private museum, the Latin American Art Museum of Buenos Aires (Malba), offers a reason for Argentina’s lack of collectors.
“We’re a miserable lot,” says Costantini, one of the country’s most prominent art collectors. “There is a lack of self-esteem here. We tend not to value things that are Argentine. Instead, we have always looked beyond our borders,” he adds, conceding that there is an incipient market for less valuable artworks under $500,000, evidenced by the growing success of the city’s biggest art fair, arteBA.
Nevertheless, there is greater interest abroad in Argentine art, in which the Malba has played an important role — even if this has also made collecting more complicated.
“These days we have to compete with all the big international museums,” Costantini says, explaining that galleries such as the Tate in London watch closely what the Malba buys.
While Argentine artists have made great strides on the international scene over the past two decades, important museums and galleries have started to set up Latin American departments. This creates a “dangerous” niche that artists want to escape from, says Guillermo Kuitca, one of Argentina’s best-known artists internationally.
Ultimately, attempts to categorise Argentine art are futile, says Kuitca, describing the scene as too “diverse and chaotic” to be pigeonholed. “It’s very difficult to come up with a cliché about the Buenos Aires art scene,” he says.
Argentine artists on the world stage
Argentina’s geographical isolation has not prevented its artists from becoming famous abroad. The outrageous public persona of Marta Minujín, her provocative performance and conceptual art — from a Parthenon made of books banned by Argentina’s military dictatorship to her symbolic repayment of the country’s foreign debt to Andy Warhol with ears of corn — makes her one of the most headline-grabbing of Buenos Aires’ artists.
At the other end of the scale is the softly-spoken abstract painter, Guillermo Kuitca. Kuitca has become one of Argentina’s most renowned artists internationally, with his work characterised by his fascination for theatrical imagery, maps and architectural plans. He also runs a training programme that has become a vital platform for the country’s most outstanding young artists, such as Jazmín López.
Other established artists include Jorge Macchi, who works across a wide range of mediums, with an abiding interest in music. A giant of the Buenos Aires art scene from an older generation, and who remains influential, is León Ferrari, who died in 2013. His iconoclastic work — such as Jesus Christ crucified on a falling US fighter jet — led to his exile during the years of the dictatorship. He won a number of international prizes, including the Leone d’Oro at the 2007 Venice Biennale.