Jochen Volz interview about quarantine and art in the period of coronavirus
Jochen Volz, director general of the Pinacoteca de São Paulo. Photo: Disclosure

Amid the infinite comments, opinions and guesses that circulate in the media and social networks in times of the new coronavirus pandemic, it is common to come across the statement - in an almost celebratory tone - that great works of art will result from this period of isolation. Social. Less optimistic, the director-general of the Pinacoteca de São Paulo, Jochen Volz, does not disagree that incredible works can emerge from this experience, “but not in a romantic sense, but within the idea that art is always being made, despite everything,” he says.

volz observes, in fact, a very worrying situation for the artistic class and for the country's cultural institutions, something that stems both from the pandemic and the existence of a government that despises culture. “Because if culture is not put in its proper place within society, if it is no longer respected, at least at the federal level, and now cannot be lived collectively either, that worries me.”

In this sense, he speaks of the means found by the picture gallery to maintain proximity with its audience, through digital platforms, whether in daily posts about works in the collection, in lives with the curators of the shows or in the virtual tour of the museum available on the institution's website. Volz also says that the exhibitions scheduled by the museum will be rescheduled, but not cancelled, and that the Pinacoteca is making every effort to ensure that layoffs are not necessary, despite the risk. Read the full interview below.

ARTE!✱ - In this context of the coronavirus pandemic and the need for social isolation, I would like to start by asking how you are working at the Pinacoteca, what kind of planning you are doing and what solutions you have found to keep the museum operating.

Jochen Volz – As soon as it became clear, in mid-March, that the public visitation should be suspended and that the presence of the team should be reduced to the maximum, we adapted to three main lines of work. First, take care of the public and the team, making it easier for people on the team to work from home and with the concern that everyone has a good time and feels safe. The second issue is the maintenance of the buildings and the collection. That is, both regular inspections of the collection, carried out with a rotation of the team, and a scheme aligned with security and the Fire Department. And the last line, obviously, is to think about how to ensure that we maintain a good connection with our audience.

And that's where all the activities in the online, virtual world, on social networks come in. We created, for example, a program called Pina de Casa, which takes place both on our website and on social networks, in which every day we select a work from the collection and publish it together with a text written by the curator or the educational team. We understand that none of these actions replaces the experience of visiting the museum, but we understand that it is a possibility to offer complementary content. Then we can bring details about the works, curiosities, facts and other things that we usually don't realize or don't know.

About the exhibitions that would be on display, we have done something else. For example, on March 28 we would open the exhibition THE GEMINI: Secrets. So, as curator of the show, I did a live on this day talking from the catalog, telling the backstage, talking about this show that is almost ready, all assembled, and that at some point will be open to the public. And then the following week Ana Maria Maia, curator of the Pinacoteca, spoke about the exhibition Hudinilson Jr.: Explicit, which was on display at Estação Pinacoteca. Now, last Saturday, Fernanda Pitta spoke about the Marcia Pastore exhibition. And then we will have two more lives already scheduled: next Saturday (18th) José Augusto Ribeiro will talk about the exhibition Brazilian avant-garde of the 1960s – Roger Wright Collection and on the other Saturday Valeria Piccoli, our chief curator, will talk about the exhibition of the collection. They are ways to tell a little about this collection, about our work, about curatorship. And after these five meetings we will continue with others.

Facade of the Pinacoteca de São Paulo. Photo: Rodrigo Zorzi

ARTE!✱ - There is also a virtual tour…

Yes. There within the site we highlighted our virtual visit. It's been around since 2016, but we've re-released it. And in the second half of March alone, we received five times more visitors than we usually receive in a normal month. So people are actually using these tools to be able to visit and get to know the museum. And another front is educational programs. We have a page, linked to the Pinacoteca website, which offers various activities for young people, families, etc., with a more playful way of bringing people closer to the collection. And there, too, we noticed a great increase in visitation, in frequency. And about the exhibitions, they are all suspended or postponed, but we chose not to cancel anything. All the announced schedule will happen. We are changing the dates and working with partners to negotiate new loan terms for works, but at first the entire schedule remains confirmed.

ARTE!✱ - At the international seminar of arte!brasileiros about management you talked a lot about the idea of ​​participation, that a contemporary museum must go beyond the idea of ​​contemplation and involve the participation of the public. How to think about this question in the current context?

I think we're all figuring out what forms of participation and dialogue are actually viable right now. I think we've already started to notice types of content that more or less work. So it's interesting to realize that we're learning how to use these tools in a creative, participatory, surprising way. I understand that the museum is a place of dialogue, of participatory construction in fact. And I think the Pinacoteca managed to develop tools to practice this in the museum. Now we are in a moment of reflection, learning and experimentation to see what are the ways to keep that same spirit but in a digital way, at a distance. Lives, for example, are working. Even though there's a lot being done out there, we've had a lot of interaction, and it's been pretty cool to see. Of course, there are still other fronts to try. But many of the projects – courses, for example – are not things that are developed overnight. So there is a big challenge for the team.

ARTE!✱ - Over the last few weeks, we have seen a series of layoffs or terminations of contracts in museums such as Serralves and MoMA, among others. Is there a risk of something similar happening at the Pinacoteca?

The risk exists, but we are doing everything to avoid it, knowing the importance of all teams and also based on the fact that we already work with a very lean team. But the risk exists.

ARTE!✱ - When talking about these layoffs, the Portuguese art critic Celso Martins wrote that, by acting in this way, museums follow a market logic and behave like companies, which is outside the role that a museum has in society. Do you agree?

The main problem for museums, and this all over the world, is that employee payroll is the biggest cost. It normally represents a large portion of any museum's budget. So to make some savings, it's something complex. There are some things that a museum, unlike other institutions or companies, cannot reduce, such as security, light, etc. So this is a weak point in the structure of a museum or any cultural apparatus. When you don't have enough revenue and you need to balance the bills to keep a museum running, you need to balance your payroll. So there is always that risk.

ARTE!✱ - Now, talking about the work of the artists itself, how do you see this moment, thinking about a class that already lives with great difficulty in Brazil? There are people who say that a lot of production will come out of this period of confinement, but it seems strange to me to celebrate anything at this moment...

I have followed with great concern. The artistic class, whether in the visual arts, musicians, dancers… are people who live from the exhibition or performance of their production, and this is always based on the assumption that there is someone else watching, seeing, being together. So they're all taking a big hit. This is no time to romanticize anything at all. At the same time as art, creativity existed in the worst moments of history. So I think there's a resistance from creation and art that will come out strong. Certainly incredible works will also be produced from this experience, but not in a romantic sense, but in the idea that art is always being made, despite everything. Now, thinking of culture as a collective idea, as a moment of creation of a common base, of a language, of a projection for a common future, of a common imagination divided between several, this worries me. And we have to find other ways not to miss it. Because if culture is not put in its proper place within society, if it is no longer respected, at least at the federal level, and now it cannot be lived collectively either, that worries me.

ARTE!✱ - In this sense, regardless of the quarantine, a very troubled and threatening situation for culture already existed in Brazil in recent times, with a government that seems to see the artistic class as an enemy. How do you see this moment?

Since 2019 I see that the situation shows a certain paradox. On the one hand, you have a federal government that, let's say, despises culture. And the number of secretaries of culture who visited there is a clear sign of that. But this goes a bit against what is happening on another level, which is an increase in the number of museums in Brazil. Not only in São Paulo, but in several places, studies show an increase of approximately 30% in museum visitation in 2019. So if there is a federal policy that goes in one direction, society goes in another and embraces museums and cultural facilities , realizing how important they are in building an idea of ​​a collective, of society.

And we, at the Pinacoteca, as we are a museum in the State of São Paulo, have seen that at this state level there is this perception of embracing culture as a key area that needs to be strengthened. I think there is a policy, also municipal, declaring itself pro-culture. So there's a certain schizophrenia… a discrepancy between what federal policy declares and what society wants. And what we have been defending at the Pinacoteca is that the museum has to be this plural space, where it is possible for different political ideas to coexist, where religious, racial and social issues can be discussed. And we believe that our programming at the Pinacoteca actually creates a plural space.

ARTE!✱ - To conclude, going back to the seminar once again, I remember that you said that the place of art is to imagine other ways of living together, other ways of imagining democratic coexistence, ways that really manage to face the great challenges of our time. I mean, thinking about these difficult times for humanity, maybe it's also a time when we can learn from art about other possible worlds? 

Totally. I think it's time to look at artistic strategies again and see how artists have imagined the unimaginable. It always inspires me a lot to think how anyone could imagine things so different from everything we already knew until then. And when we are living in a moment of total uncertainty, I understand that it is time to look and have other sources of inspiration. And that can be in culture and art. I've been saying this since our 2016 Bienal de São Paulo, when I was a curator, but that's basically it: thinking about how to embrace this moment of uncertainty. And instead of retreating into fear, think about how to turn that moment into action.

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