As the afternoon drinks start to flow, the art scene in eastern Caracas resembles many similar exhibitions held in London or New York. Gallerists talk up the photographs on sale — “in the low, thousands of dollars” — as potential buyers circle, glasses in hand.
The photographs by local artist Juan Toro Diez reflect the current volatility of politically polarised Caracas. His works are artistic representations of the waves of anti-government unrest that left dozens dead more than a year ago. Among other things, Toro Diez photographs Molotov cocktails and empty tear-gas canisters.
Part of an exhibition titled “Country Risk Index”, the photographs highlight how the art scene in oil-rich Venezuela has adapted to a new reality in a country ravaged by an economic, political and social crises as shortages of everything from toilet paper to art supplies affect the everyday life of Venezuelans — even those in the art scene.
While the oil money was flowing, the Venezuelan art world was the envy of many of the country’s Latin American neighbours. The capital’s inhabitants grew used to living among works by Alexander Calder, Fernand Léger and local artists such as Jesús Rafael Soto and Alejandro Otero.
“The Museum of Contemporary Art was a jewel,” says Miguel Miguel García, a respected curator and founding member of the national art gallery. “The first painting by Mark Rothko to set foot outside the US came to Venezuela. Private collections included works by Alberto Giacometti, Paul Klee and Francis Bacon.”
He says, however, that everything started to change when Hugo Chávez, the late president, rose to power in the late 1990s. Critics suggested the once-thriving visual arts scene had started to favour the government, and arts and culture became marginalised in the wake of more populist priorities. Feeling the pressure, a number of curators and arts professionals emigrated, swiftly followed by some private collections.
“There are only a few survivors left,” says Miguel García. “There is still a market, but the big private collections have left the country.”
Moreover, as Venezuelan artist Alexander Apóstol wrote earlier this year: “The scarcity of incentives for creativity and local production also led to an enormous diaspora.”
Yet as the established arts scene moved abroad, it created space in its wake for a network of smaller galleries and private spaces that have graduated to become the city’s cultural lynchpins by supporting the work of the dwindling number of contemporary Venezuelan artists who remain.
“Venezuela was a regional superpower when it came to the plastic arts, and now it is the galleries assuming the responsibility, occupying the place museums used to have, because their situation is pathetic,” says Nicomedes Febres, director of the gallery D’Museo, where Toro Diez is exhibiting his photographs.
“We feel like adventurers, fighting to maintain the presence of art collections that have dwindled,” adds Luis Miguel La Corte of the gallery Espacio Monitor, which sells works by renowned Venezuelan artists such as Carlos Cruz-Diez.
“We cannot replace the museums, but we try to provide a breath of fresh air,” he says.
Carmen Araujo spent 10 years working at the country’s national gallery. She left in 2004 “when policies started to change things within museums”. As policies changed, dynamics changed, she says. After several projects, she started one of Caracas’s most-respected galleries, in a former coffee plantation on a hill overlooking the city.
“With the current situation of art institutions, small galleries like us have an increasing responsibility when it comes to promoting the arts,” she says. Her words are echoed by Miguel García: “Venezuela used to be known for three reasons: the liberator Simón Bolívar, oil and museums. Now, galleries are the cultural resistance.”
The clusters that have emerged or consolidated as a consequence, such as Centro de Arte Los Galpones — hosting galleries such as Oficina #1, Espacio Monitor and D’Museo — and the Hacienda La Trinidad — with the Carmen Araujo Arte gallery — stand as two cultural oases in Caracas.
But the scene is still struggling to survive, let alone thrive.
“If we were doing what we do here in another economy, we would be in a totally different situation,” says Suwon Lee of Oficina #1, a gallery focused on contemporary Venezuelan art. “There are exceptional artists, but a lot of them have left the country while collections and collectors have shrunk.”
Restrictions on foreign currency holdings and allocations mean it is hard for local galleries to showcase domestic artists in places such as São Paulo or at regional art fairs, including Buenos Aires or Bogotá, let alone international events such as Art Basel Miami Beach.
“The most serious problem we have is isolation,” says Araujo. “The country is insecure, so curators, gallerists or critics don’t want to come. And given the economic situation and the lack of state support, we cannot really afford to attend many international art fairs, like the Colombians, Mexicans or Brazilians, who are going places.”
Tired of the situation at home, last year Henrique Faria decided to close his gallery in Caracas and focus on his New York branch, where he continues to showcase Venezuelan contemporary artists, such as Alessandro Balteo Yazbeck and Emilia Azcárate. “Everything was an uphill battle [in Caracas],” he says.
“Here, I continue working with Venezuelan artists, who are exceptionally good, because the gallery’s mission is not only to work with art but also portray what is going on in Venezuela, in every sense,” Faria adds. “We may be a gallery located in the Upper East Side, but our soul is Venezuelan.”
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