Ricardo Ohtake, director of Instituto Tomie Ohtake. Photo: Disclosure

UOne of the most active figures in the field of cultural management in Brazil in recent decades, Ricardo Ohtake is very concerned about the current situation in the country. Not only because of the pandemic of the new coronavirus, but because of the economic, political and cultural crises that have already appeared in recent years. “We have a government that doesn’t like culture and also doesn’t like the progressive positions that culture usually takes,” he says in an interview with arte!brasileiros.

director of Tomie Ohtake Institute Since its founding in 2001, Ricardo sees in the Jair Bolsonaro government not only characteristics that resemble the period of the Brazilian military dictatorship (1964-1985) - which is explicit in the president's own words - but also traces of fascism and Nazism that ruled European countries in the first half of the last century. “It's a very dangerous situation,” he says. 

Even so, Ricardo remains firm with the activities – now virtual – of Tomie Ohtake. “We have to find ways, right? If we cannot act across the country, at least institution by institution, exposure by exposure,” he says. “We have to go back to building a country project”, he adds, thinking both about this daily work of institutions and on a macro scale. “And a country project is about art, education and culture.”

The son of Japanese-Brazilian artist Tomie Ohtake, Ricardo, now 77, graduated in architecture at FAU USP, where he joined the student movement during the military regime. In addition to working as a graphic designer, in the 1970s Ohtake approached cultural and urban projects for the city of São Paulo, becoming the first director of the Centro Cultural São Paulo, in 1982. In the following years, he was director of the Museu da Imagem and Sound (MIS-SP), from Cinemateca Brasileira, São Paulo's Secretary of Culture and Municipal Secretary of Green and the Environment. He also received the Ciccillo Matarazzo Award for Personality of the Year in 2013 and assumed the Olavo Setúbal Chair of Art, Culture and Science in 2017.

Such prestige did not make it simple, however, to raise funds for Tomie Ohtake's exhibitions and activities, as Ricardo says in the interview. “Also because we don't have a sponsor, a patron, as most large institutions do,” he explains. Ohtake also spoke about the virtual activities promoted by the institute during the quarantine, about the institute's educational program and about the art market. Read below. 

ARTE! – We are going through a huge crisis due to the coronavirus pandemic, so I wanted to start by asking how do you see this moment and how are you dealing with it at Instituto Tomie Ohtake? How are they acting and what kind of planning is possible?

Ricardo Ohtake – We are experiencing several crises at the same time. One of them is the country's economic crisis. For a few years now, we've been having trouble getting things done due to lack of money. Then we have another problem that is a political issue, because we have a government that doesn't like culture and also doesn't like the progressive positions that culture usually has. This government doesn't care about anything progressive and does everything to disrupt life. And the third thing is the crisis with the coronavirus pandemic, which means that we have to close cultural institutions and that we cannot leave the house even to hold meetings. And, as a consequence, we are also unable to make a plan, because we do not know when things will happen. So you take the ideas to a certain point and from there you can't plan anything else, it's all half in the air.

ARTE! – Even so, the institute continues to act, with online courses, the podcast, with #juntosdistantes on Instagram…

Yes, we had to invent things for this period, so that nothing happened. So we are also doing activities, including related to the subject of the coronavirus. At #juntosdistantes we take some testimonials from people who think very interestingly about this subject. We invite people who are thinkers of very deep things, essayists, teachers, artists, etc., and with them we make these shorter videos. Videos of five or ten minutes that have given a very interesting result. So we've been able to do a few things. And we also continue with online courses.

ARTE! – Thinking about these proposals and courses, it is very clear an educational concern of the institution, which comes from its foundation. I wanted you to talk a little about that. Should the mission of a museum or cultural institution currently go beyond just the exhibition part?

Well, we opened the institute in 2001, almost 20 years ago, and from the second year onwards we started to organize this educational part. We called Stela Barbieri, an excellent artist and educator, with a very strong action. And she, with the help of Agnaldo Farias, our first curator, organized a very intense educational work. At first we thought we wanted to solve the Brazilian educational problem. We thought this in the morning, but in the afternoon we saw that it was impossible, because the problem is big. So we decided to do something a little less ambitious, but we always wanted to work with a lot of people, so that we had many students, that many people could graduate in art. And that art was the way for a person to receive a more complete education. And we started to work with the Municipal Department of Education, first with Fernando José de Almeida, then with Eny Maia and Cida Perez.    

Facade of Instituto Tomie Ohtake, in São Paulo. Photo: Disclosure

ARTE! – Does this have to do with something you have said before, which is a desire to bring the institute closer to the periphery, to public schools, even if it is located in an upscale neighborhood of the city?

Yes, the fact of working with public schools already brings together a type of public that is not the most elite schools close to the institute. So we went after the public school, in the sense of reaching an audience that is not considered culturally sophisticated. But it's a person of a lot of action and will. And we also decided that we wanted to work more than with the students, but with the teachers. Because the teachers will multiply it for the students. And then we worked, at first, with 4 teachers. That meant reaching thousands of students. And from the short courses at the beginning, we moved on to longer courses, training courses, lasting one semester. And we involved theater, cinema, drawing, music. Not to mention a dive into the more theoretical part. Then, with the change of management in the city hall, the project was closed. But later on, we managed to resume other courses for teachers, not exactly like that one, but also for training.

ARTE! – And the courses are open to the public…

Yes, there are two types of courses. The first are courses in drawing, art history, collage, and more or less closed subjects. And we also give other courses that are critical preparation for young artists.

ARTE! - You talked about working with different artistic areas and languages ​​that existed in the course for teachers. There is this aspect of Instituto Tomie Ohtake, which I think is also related to her personal trajectory, which is multidisciplinarity. What is the importance, at the institute, of working with different areas of knowledge?

I think that as you open up the field of knowledge, the field of experimentation, everything becomes more interesting. The person sees visual arts, but goes to see music, see dance. I think it is of the utmost importance to cover all these areas. And we care about bringing in people of the highest level. For example, the Osesp choir and the Pau Brasil Group. For dance, we bring Ismael Ivo and Balé da Cidade, which I think is one of the biggest dance groups in Brazil. And he even puts on special shows for us, in dialogue with the exhibitions we are doing. For example, at the Takashi Murakami exhibition. We've also done things with Gil Jardim's ECA/USP Chamber Orchestra. When we did the Miró exhibition, for example, they put on a concert with songs from the time the artist lived and the land where he was born. And we are also going to start working with literature, with Cooperifa, which brings together an impressive staff. They have a weekly meeting at a bar in the south zone, with poetry and texts reciting. And it brings together a lot of people, it's an amazing thing. And we are going to do a project with them, together with an exhibition.

ARTE! – In addition, architecture, urbanism and design are given special attention at the institute. Can you talk a little about that?

These are the areas in which we work most directly. We do exhibitions not only of visual arts, but also of architecture and design. We have already had several exhibitions with Pritzker Prize-winning architects (a kind of Nobel Prize for architecture), such as Oscar Niemeyer. We also exhibited Vilanova Artigas, among others. And we organize design exhibitions too, for Brazilians and foreigners. We also have awards, both for design and architecture, which are mainly to encourage contemporary and youth production.

ARTE! – But in addition to the exhibitions, there is a concern to open up and dialogue with the city…

Clear. For example, one of the awards we make is called Territories, aimed at public schools and teachers. And we see what kind of work these teachers are doing together with their students, together with the school, working in the city, close to the school. And it selects ten projects and makes an exhibition with videos about them. And there are amazing things, from furniture made for a square near the school to social work. We have been doing this award with great enthusiasm, because it gives a lot of results. And ishe vast culture and participation program, of which the award is a part, was created by Felipe Arruda, who has brought many people to the institute.

ARTE! – Speaking a little more about the visual arts, in a tribute you received at the Institute of Advanced Studies at USP a few years ago, you stated that the art that is more linked to the market and galleries is, in general, a more formalist art. And he said that the work at the institute seeks to get a little out of this area more dominated by the market. Could you explain?

What I said about three years ago is something that was already changing a little and now I think it has changed more. This very formal, “well done” art still exists a lot, but I think the market has also turned more towards a more political art. And I think that in times like the ones we are living in, we have to show this political art, escape from more conservative things.

ARTE! – At the same time, it is possible to perceive in the institute's programming, in recent years, a large number of exhibitions by big names, also closely linked to the market. From contemporaries like Murakami and Yayoi Kusama to moderns like Picasso, Dalí, Frida Kahlo and Miró. How are these shows of great appeal important to the institute and how do they fit in with this objective of not being overly linked to the market?

Of course, we don't just show things that are out of the market. The organization of large exhibitions, like these, we started to do in order to bring a larger audience, which was not attending the institute. And this audience is not the “chic” audience, so to speak. It is an audience of lower social classes. And that's what we wanted to bring. Because working only with lesser-known contemporary art can end up being a very closed thing, for few. I think we have to reach this audience that is not used to frequenting artistic spaces. And then the guy sees Picasso and is suddenly interested in seeing other lesser-known things as well. It's a process.

And for you to see… as these exhibitions are very expensive to produce, we started charging at a given moment. It was R$12 for the entire ticket and R$6 for a half. And do you know that it changed the face of the public? It no longer had the most popular audience. And so we decided to go back to making it free, because that's our idea, everyone can see it. But the fact is that we have had difficulty doing these shows, because they are very expensive.

ARTE! - But the Murakami, which was showing recently, isn't it one of those?

Murakami, despite what it may seem, is not very popular. He is not as well known in Brazil as we think. He is very well known in other parts of the world, especially in the US, but later I learned that even in Japan he is not so well received.

Exhibition area of ​​Instituto Tomie Ohtake during Murakami's show. Photo: Disclosure

ARTE! – In this sense, I remember an interview in which you said that each exhibition that the institute plans to hold requires a battle to obtain resources.

Yes, because we don't have a sponsor, a patron, as most large institutions do. So we struggle to do the exhibitions, not only the big ones, but also the smaller ones. Capture is really difficult. We even thought about reducing the number of shows a little. We were organizing about 17 shows a year, which is a lot. We will probably have to reduce that number to around 12. And these big shows will only be able to schedule when we get a sponsor right away.

ARTE! – As you yourself said, regardless of the quarantine, a very troubled and threatening situation for culture already existed in Brazil in recent times. How to work right now?

I think that having a government like the current one requires us to invent things to do. We need to be more inventive. And I think everyone in the cultural area is thinking that.

ARTE! – And dealing with political issues becomes more difficult? Or maybe it becomes more urgent?

Look, in 2018 we made a exposure on AI-5, curated by Paulo Miyada – who is our chief curator -, because it was 50 years old. And we organize some exhibitions like this, directly linked to political issues, and others that are not so direct, but have a political character. For example, we made the exhibition of that boy from Minas Gerais, Pedro Moraleida, who committed suicide at the age of 22 and was a guy with a very strong production. He already knew everything, about painting, art history, philosophy, he was an impressive guy. And it is a show that has this political character.    

ARTE! – Talking about the AI-5, you are a person who has a history of fighting the military dictatorship in his youth. In 2014, he was also the author of the project for a monument in honor of the political dead and disappeared. We now have a president who repeatedly defends the military dictatorship, pays tribute to figures like Brilhante Ustra or, recently, Major Bullfinch… in short, I would like to know how you see this political moment.

I think the issue of this president is not just an ideological issue, so to speak. There seems to be a psychological issue too, as many people say. Because he talks so much nonsense. Of course it has to do with his ideological position, but he says anything, he fights with everyone, he sees everyone as an enemy, he provokes everyone. He calls a minister and then sends him away, even if they are people who pray from his booklet, who are of the same line. Also, he talks too much lies, about everything. He answers anything by lying and ends the matter. So I think it's a very complicated situation, which I really don't know how to overcome. But I think the country's democratic institutions need to know how to deal with these things. Everyone complains, but strictly speaking, no one comes and takes the man seriously. Now, we have to find ways, right? If we can't act across the country, at least it's institution by institution, exhibition by exhibition... 

ARTE! “Even censorship has become an issue again, after a long time.

Yes, this censorship thing is very strong, and it shows the arrival of a certain fascism… It's a very dangerous situation.

ARTE! – Do you see parallels between this government and the period of the military dictatorship?

I think it has. And worse than that, I think it has a very strong parallel with the Hitler era. Some situations it causes are very similar.

ARTE! – And in this troubled moment, in what way do you think that art and culture can help, can they propose paths?

I think everyone is looking for ways, looking for ways out of all this. And it is very difficult to know what to do. If we knew, we would already be doing it. So I think that everyone is doing their job, something that can respond to this situation in the country. And we have to go back to building a country project. Projects like we had in the late 1950s and early 1960s, before the coup, or like we've had for about 20 years now. And a country project has to do with art, education, culture. That's thinking about the big. And in the small, it's what each one was already doing and adapting. But I think that if we don't have this vision of the big, pursue it, I don't think we'll be able to get out of the point where we're at. I think that's what we have to look for.    

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