Cauê Alves, curator at MAM. Photo: Disclosure

AAfter four years at the head of MuBE (Brazilian Museum of Sculpture and Ecology), Cauê Alves has just taken over the curatorship of the Museum of Modern Art of São Paulo (MAM-SP) in place of Felipe Chaimovich. The curator, chosen after a long selection process, enters the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, with the museum behind closed doors, but already has plans to put into practice a series of initiatives and proposals.

Among them are special care with the collection – there are almost 5.700 works, mainly of contemporary Brazilian art – which does not depend on the exhibition schedule, in addition to work that brings together the areas of curatorship and education better. For Alves, the museum's education, a historically very strong area of ​​activity, can be more intensively integrated into a dialogue with the curatorship and with artists.  

A novelty, planned for soon, is a major action by the museum (together with the Africa agency) to take art out of Ibirapuera Park, spreading images of works throughout the city at bus stops, street clocks and blind gables of buildings (with QR codes that allow the viewer to listen to audios about the works). 

Alves, who holds a PhD in Philosophy from USP and a professor at the Art Department at PUC-SP, has been curator of the Clube de Gravura do MAM, co-curator of the 32nd Panorama of Brazilian Art and assistant curator of the Brazilian Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale. . He assumes the new position after the change in management at the São Paulo museum, which has Mariana Guarini Berenguer as new president since 2019.

Like Berenguer, Alves emphasizes the proposal to work with urgent issues such as racial, indigenous and gender issues. He is concerned, however, that this is done with care and depth, not just linked to a certain “fad” in the market seen in recent times. “Because if that's the case, it doesn't have any transforming power, it's counterproductive. It becomes opportunism, and playing with it is very perverse.” In this sense, therefore, it is necessary to realize the importance of the place of speech. “So it's not me, the white man, who's going to do an exhibition about the black artist. We are going to bring in black curators to do this.”

Alves also spoke about the importance of art being more than a means of propagating discourses – “it can be the place of direct action on people” -, about the museum’s digital performance and strategies to bring the public closer to MAM in such a troubled period for the country. Read the full text below.

ARTE! – You assume the curatorship of MAM-SP shortly after leaving MuBE, where you spent four years. What do you think you bring from that previous experience to your new job at MAM?

Caue Alves – Before going to MuBE I worked ten years as a curator at the MAM Engraving Club. So I had this experience in the museum, but as a collaborator, not as someone who is in the day-to-day of the institution. And at MuBE I actually had an institutional, management experience, of being the chief curator, having to deal with different areas of the museum. So I think I bring a professional maturity, in addition to a greater recognition from a large part of our milieu that MuBE, despite all its weaknesses, has entered the contemporary art circuit. I think the museum has gained a relevance in this medium that it didn't have before. So it's a job I'm very proud of, and I think it helps me a lot in this arrival at MAM, even if they are institutions with different orders of magnitude. 

ARTE! – In your work proposal, there is a special attention to both the work with the collection and the educational. I would like you to explain a little better these proposals and how they are related.

The idea is to give more visibility to the collection, which has almost 5700 pieces and which I think a lot of people don't know well, or only know a part of. There is a lot to explore, to research. I also think that this collection has always been very much subject to the museum's programming and now the idea is for it to play a leading role. That's why we started a new inventory of all the pieces, a huge work that will last nine months, with documentation of the collection. So it's an internal work, diagnosing what needs to be restored, what is in good condition… In other words, it is an attention to the collection that is independent of the exhibitions. And this work also includes understanding where the biggest gaps are, so to speak, and showing that MAM is open to receiving donations and increasing this collection through collections that can be integrated into the museum.

ARTE! – Are acquisitions also in focus?  

Undoubtedly. MAM is one of the few museums in the country that also acquires works, not only receives donations. But this year, at least, we suspended the acquisitions, because I think I first need to carry out a more complete and consistent study of this collection to, from there, draw up a more solid and well-structured acquisition policy.

ARTE! – In an interview with you, a few years ago, you talked about how productive it is to curate exhibitions with artists. That is, curating not as someone who looks from the outside, but someone who dialogues with the artists. In the case of working with collections, this becomes difficult, right? So I wanted to ask you how you intend to bring artists closer to the work at MAM as well?

Look, it's funny, but this side of the documentation has something interesting. Sometimes the museum keeps a piece that it bought or received from an artist and that has some detail that is not known exactly how to make it, how to assemble it. For example, is such a work a five-piece set or can it be shown separately? Of course, there aren't that many cases, but as we have a very contemporary collection, counting on the participation of artists who are still active to reconstruct this documentation will be important. But, without a doubt, the work of the institutional curator is different from the work of a curator of a biennial, or of an independent curator, given this responsibility with the collection. Now, one of my goals is to bring artists closer to the museum, to make it a museum that relates to the environment.

ARTE! – And this also includes something you have already said about working with education, bringing artists to work with the museum…

Exactly. We want to integrate the educational sector more in the curatorship, make these two fields closer, to the point that artists can also work as educators. The fundamental premise is that art educates us. We learn to relate to the world because art gives us awareness. So the idea is to value art in its educational sense and make sure that artists who have a practice of relating to the public can also go to the front line, hold workshops, have this direct work. It means bringing the artist closer to the museum not only as someone who makes works, but also as someone who contributes to the training of the teacher, to the training of the public. So the proposal is for a greater integration between these curatorial and educational sectors, so that they can dialogue in an intimate way.

“The museum is a school: the artist learns to communicate; the public learns to make connections”, by Luis Camnitzer, on the facade of MAM. Photo: Rafael Roncato

ARTE! – Talking about art and education, it seems to me that they are two very threatened sectors in Brazil today. So, thinking a little more about this political context, I would like to know how you see the moment and what it is like to work in a museum in the current situation, in which culture is often seen as an enemy by the government itself.

Yes, I think you are right, it is a moment of great crisis that Brazil is going through. But I think a large part of this crisis is due to a crisis of sensitivity. The crisis of not being able to relate to the other, to diversity. And I strongly believe in the power of art – and it is not a transformative utopia, of a revolution – to act on people directly, to provide transformative experiences that, by acting on the senses, shape us. We are also formed from aesthetic experiences. And I have seen some artists who have seen art more as a means to propagate discourses. But I think art can be more than that. She can be more potent than that. It can be, more than a means to spread ideas, the place of direct action on people. So the educational role that a museum has, and that the artist has, is a very powerful role. There is a force to promote meaningful experiences and reach people, which I think is the museum's role to do, and I hope we can.

And I think the idea of ​​a museum is a republican idea, right, it was born with this ideology. Not that it was fully realized, but that is the origin of museums. The museum is no longer the only place for the nobles, after the French Revolution, so that everyone can have access to art. Of course, this Enlightenment ideal was never fully realized, and it is quite in crisis, it is true, but I still bet that the museum has a formative role. I see it as a partner of the university, a place for research, for reflection. And I think there is no other way for Brazil than to invest in education. There's nowhere else to play.

ARTE! – Now, despite the efforts of several museums, institutions, cultural centers, collectives and artists in recent decades, contemporary art is often restricted to a more elitist circuit of society. How to change it?

Look, thinking about MAM, this has always been a museum mission. If you look at the website it's there, it's the museum's mission to bring art to as many people as possible. And that depends on the curator. Now, of course, my project is to create strategies for that to happen, to bring people closer to an area that seems so specialized – that of modern and contemporary art. Which is perhaps the least sought after field of culture, compared to cinema, music. But that has changed too. We have seen, for some time now, exhibitions with crowded lines at the door. I mean, the masses are interested, they want to see visual arts. So it has transformed. But also, my interest is not just creating the number of audiences, it's not breaking records or having lines at the museum door, even more so now with the pandemic. The idea is to bring art to a greater number of people, but with quality, ownership. I have nothing against the general public, on the contrary, but we want to make the exhibitions relevant research products. I even think that this was one of the great shows blockbusters, which come from the outside ready, is gone, at least for a while. The pandemic will force us, all institutions, to think much more from the point of view of quality than quantity. And then we have to approach the public, schools for example. This is a fundamental question.

ARTE! – In that sense, acting online seems to be a key, doesn't it? Many institutions did not seem to be prepared for this before the pandemic, but they have now realized that the digital universe will also be fundamental when this passes...

For sure. MAM already had good experience in this, but we are learning a lot. We just made this agreement with Google Arts and Culture and the exhibitions by Antonio Dias and Clube de Fotografia are now online. Of course, we hope to open the museum later this year, depending on the authorities' guidance. But even if it opens, it will be for a small audience. Those vernissages, with a lot of people, that won't happen anymore. So the importance of communication is even more fundamental. And we are working on several fronts, from online courses, from exhibitions that may have a web version. But never with the idea of ​​replacement. Just because a person has seen the exhibition online doesn't mean they don't need to go to the museum. Direct experience with the work and its scale, this impact is fundamental. But MAM has had several work fronts and is gaining a lot of followers on the networks, including. So I think this is here to stay, it's not a passing thing, but it hasn't come to replace it. It is meant to be an extra place, even to delve into matters.

ARTE! – Mariana Berenguer also spoke of an action that will be carried out in the city…

Yes, which is to take part of the museum's collection, in images, to urban furniture, in clocks, bus stops and with projections on blind gables. I think this will be very interesting, in the sense of having a MAM presence also in the city at a time when the museum is closed. It is not an exhibition, nor does it want to occupy this space, but it is not just the image either. I made a text for each of these images, and the person goes there on the QR code, photographs and listens to artists on Spotify who read texts that stimulate reflection. So it's the museum's desire to be beyond the park, to extrapolate its physical limits. I mean, I think there are two fronts. This virtual one, of communication in the networks, and this one of going to the city itself, giving materiality to it, even if it is only in images, but of being in the city. I'm betting a lot on that, something we're doing together with a big agency, which is Africa.

ARTE! – Speaking with Mariana, she also spoke of MAM's concern to address very current issues in society and in the art world, such as indigenous, racial, gender and environmental issues, among others. This has been the agenda of many institutions and even the market in recent times. How to work so that it is not just a fad, a passing wave?

Yes, this tends to become a fad or a mere marketing action. That's why we have to be very careful, realize the importance of the place of speech. So it's not me, the white man, who's going to do an exhibition about the black artist. Let's bring in black curators to do this. We will bring indigenous curators and artists. So that it is not just a fad, it has to be worked on the entire internal structure. And there is a great force in this theme, in the world. Especially after the murder of George Floyd this is very evident. And we are very concerned about these issues, as we all should be. It is the duty of every citizen to pay attention. Because not saying anything is already agreeing with this structure. Of course, I'm also worried about the fact that all institutions do the same thing, because that's really a fad. And sometimes disregarding, or overlapping, for example, the work that the Afro Museum has been doing for a long time. So I think MAM has to look at its history, at its origin, and find its identity without having to imitate the fashions and actions of others. But, of course, positioning yourself, without closing your eyes to the world. So it's about making a consistent curatorial program that is actually respectful, and not simply something that can be classified as a marketing action. That's why we're very concerned about doing things consistently, not following the market's wave. Because it's worrying that it's a market wave. Because if that's the case, it has no transforming power, it's counterproductive. It becomes opportunism, and playing with it is very perverse.

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