Latin American art is on the up

Last month, hundreds of foreign collectors, museum curators and dealers made the long trip to São Paulo in Brazil to attend the opening of the city’s 51st Biennial. Among them were leading art world figures: Sir Nicholas Serota, director of Tate; Catherine Grenier, deputy director of the Pompidou Centre; Hans Ulrich Obrist, roving curator and co-director of the Serpentine Gallery; collector Estrellita Brodsky, who endowed the curator of Latin American art at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Their presence reflected the rapidly rising level of interest in Latin American art. Tate’s Latin American art acquisitions committee is now eight years old; Pompidou is creating a Latin American project; the Lyon Biennale has just named an Argentinean curator for next year’s edition. And the Brazilian art market – the most important in the region – is in effervescence, while the country has shrugged off the financial crisis and is steaming ahead, with its economy predicted to grow by 5 per cent this year.

Culturally, fiscal incentives since the 1980s have led to a proliferation of museums and non-profit contemporary art centres. Museums are free, and attract huge numbers: the Biennial, which continues until December, is expected to greet 1m visitors. A new generation of art collectors – some only in their 30s – has emerged. Brazilian art galleries are also mushrooming: a generation ago there were just five significant galleries; now they number in the hundreds.

Some of these galleries have become regular exhibitors at international art fairs such as Basel, Basel Miami Beach and Arco, and five are attending Frieze this year: Fortes Vilaça, Luisa Strina, A Gentil Carioca, Casa Triângulo and Vermelho. As firmly established on the international scene are a posse of Brazilian artists: Ernesto Neto, Beatriz Milhazes, Vik Muniz and Adriana Varejão.

Nevertheless, the internal art market in Brazil remains modest, and one report “guestimates” it at R$200m (about £75m) a year. The same report claims it has grown by 50 per cent a year over the last decade. Fernanda Feitosa, director of the local art fair SP-Arte says that the market for contemporary art really only started developing in the last 10 years.

“Free entry to museums has brought a much wider awareness of art,” she says, “And over the last 10 years Brazilians have started travelling to international art fairs as well.” According to Francis Outred of Christie’s, a real turning point for international recognition of Brazilian artists was when Milhazes was chosen for the 2003 Venice Biennale: “Everyone is there, curators, collectors, and as a result works are bought for museums: it really puts a country on the map.”

“The art market has grown with the economy, and art is no longer thought of as just for the elite,” says Eduardo Brandão of Vermelho. “Collectors are much younger today, and they do their homework,” says Sotheby’s representative Katia Barbosa.

Luisa Strina owns the oldest contemporary art gallery in São Paulo. She has come a long way since her opening in 1974, when the country was still under dictatorship: “I had no telephone then!” she says. “The market was very small and local, and we were not allowed to take works out of the country. Things really changed when I first went to Basel, in 1989.” She and Fortes Vilaça have now opened second spaces, while Vermelho has tripled in size in the past three years.

But for the internal market, there is one massive problem: a swingeing duty on imported art, which, once you add on insurance, transport and so on, virtually doubles the price. And even exports are taxed, further hampering the market.

A group of dealers has founded the Brazilian Association of Contemporary Art (ABAC), in an attempt to reduce or eliminate the tax, and are pinning their hopes on change after the coming elections. But the association’s president, Alessandra Ragazzio d’Aloia of Fortes Vilaça, says it is tough going: “Economically Brazil is at an excellent moment, but if we do not take the necessary initiatives now – reducing high taxes, facilitating temporary imports/exports – it will be difficult for the Brazilian art circuit to match the pace of other sectors of the economy. Duty is levied even if a work is made abroad – say, for a fair. “If I re-import a work produced abroad, it costs me 60 per cent, when I haven’t even sold it!” she complains.

Site-specific commissions, on the other hand, do not attract duty, and the amazing 300-acre sculpture park Inhotim, buried in the countryside three hours from Brazil’s third-biggest city, Belo Horizonte, features a swathe of art works by international names, among them Matthew Barney, Dan Graham, Doug Aitken, Yayoi Kusama and Chris Burden. The space, founded by the mining billionaire Bernardo Paz, which opened in 2006, is also a showcase for Brazilian artists, boasting major works by the likes of Tugra, Cildo Meireles and Hélio Oiticica.

São Paulo, the centre of the Brazilian art market, has a thriving fair, Sp-Arte. This is held in May and was founded six years ago with 40 galleries; it has doubled in size since then, although the visitors are still mainly Brazilian. There are even stories of investors buying in galleries and flipping at auction, while a group of financiers has launched “Brazil Golden Art”, a R$40m investment fund.

Outside Brazil, interest in its artists has broadened, and Sotheby’s (which holds sales of Latin American art in New York) says that about 50 per cent of buyers in this sector now hail from the US, Europe and southeast Asia. It holds Latin American art sales twice a year, though the best-known artists such as Milhazes or Muniz tend to appear in contemporary art sales, rather than dedicated Latin American sales.

“What contributes to the strength of modern Brazilian art is that there is an uninterrupted history of creation through the 20th century, unlike some other emerging economies which had huge disruptions,” says Frieze director Matthew Slotover, who says he was “blown away” by the Brazilian art scene on his first visit there five years ago.

According to dealers, Brazilian artists are still very affordable, both emerging artists and earlier generations – Lygia Clark, Hélio Oiticica, Ivan Serpa, Mira Schendel or Lygia Pape. The highest-selling living artist is Beatrix Milhazes, whose swirling, colourful pop-inspired canvases figure regularly at auction. She holds the sales record for a Brazilian with the 2001 painting “O Mágico”, sold at Sotheby’s New York in 2008 for over $1m. But prices for other artists have been lower: Varejão’s record is $302,500, Meireles $204,500, and a sculptor such as José Damasceno is under $30,000. Recently, according to an ArtTactic report, Brazilian artists have been outperforming the market: in May, Lygia Clark’s aluminium “Bicho” from about 1960 doubled its low estimate to make £367,250 in an otherwise patchy Bric auction at Phillips de Pury.

Not everyone is thrilled at the rising popularity of Brazilian artists. “Art has become a status symbol in Brazil,” says the New York-based dealer Henrique Faria, “but some of the best-known artists have started repeating the same things; they’ve lost creativity.”

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