Fabio Schwarcwald
Fabio Szwarcwald. Photo: Fabio Souza/Mam Rio

Fabio Szwarcwald had barely taken over the direction of the Museum of Modern Art of Rio de Janeiro (Mam Rio) when the coronavirus pandemic forced the museum to close its doors and the employees to go to their homes. One of his goals, to increase visitation to the Rio de Janeiro museum, ended up being postponed, but several other plans were put into practice. “If face-to-face activities were suspended, during this period we took the opportunity to plan and promote an intense institutional reorganization”, says Szwarcwald.

In fact, it is notable that recent news around Mam Rio no longer uses the word “crisis”, as it did until a few years ago – in a context in which the museum ended up selling a painting by Jackson Pollock to ease the financial situation – , and start to focus on opening exhibitions, on hiring new artistic directors (Keyna Eleison and Pablo Lafuente), in the establishment of free visitation, in the resumption of the School Block and of the residences or in the reopening of the Museum's Cinematheque. 

The new moment at MAM was not without having been facilitated by the cash generated with the sale of the painting by the American artist, as Szwarcwald emphasizes – “it is more important for the museum to be vibrating than to be closed with Pollock in the collection - but it is also the result of of a series of new partnerships. In the almost two years of the current administration, 25 new companies started to sponsor the museum – which has 91 employees and an annual maintenance cost of R$ 13 million – and the circle of patrons was expanded.    

Of course, not everything is rosy for the administration of the museum, which houses around 16 works of art in the famous building designed by Affonso Reidy in the 1950s. For Szwarcwald, the context is neither “simple nor easy”, since the management of the culture in the country leaves institutions increasingly vulnerable. “I think it's a shame that the Ministry of Culture no longer has [demoted to Secretary in the Bolsonaro government], because culture is as important as education, tourism or health,” he says.

Economist who worked at Credit Suisse, art collector and director of EAV Parque Lage between 2017 and 2019, the executive director of Mam Rio spoke with arte!brasileiros on these and other topics, such as the critical repositioning made by the carioca museum in relation to Brazilian history and contemporaneity, in addition to the intense focus of the museum on educational work. Read on.

Facade of Mam Rio. Photo: Fabio Souza / Publicity

ARTE! - You took over the direction of the mam Rio in January 2020 with a series of plans, including to increase the museum's visitation. Exactly two months later, the pandemic forced Mam – and all cultural institutions – to close their doors. How was this experience, this initial moment, and what was possible to do to not stop activities altogether?

Fabio Szwarcwald – I took over the direction on the 13th of January. And at the beginning of a job like this, you start groping, getting to know the people, the teams, a little of the dynamics, the processes. So, in this moment of transition, we had this totally unusual situation. I mean, the moment I enter the museum, I start to understand what the strategies and works are, I come across this picture in which the presence in the physical space is suspended and everyone goes home. It was a very complex period. Luckily for us, at the beginning, some people joined the team and helped to do the planning, this deep reorganization and adaptation for the online work. And, with each one at home, we don't stop, we manage to maintain our strategy and our project schedule. If face-to-face activities were suspended, during this period we took the opportunity to plan and promote an intense institutional reorganization. Some areas were created, others more developed, and we launched our open call for artistic direction, with an invitation to people from Brazil and around the world. We also launched the residency program with CAPACETE, which was online at the time, we created a channel for Cinemateca on Vimeo, so that people could follow it from their homes – and it was a success, we had more than 40 people watching more than 340 films. So these new ways of continuing to work were very important to preserve the museum and our entire initial management plan, without the pandemic affecting us so much. And we focused a lot on digital channels, which was something the museum did little.

ARTE! – In fact, a lot was said at the beginning of the pandemic about cultural institutions being very unprepared for this type of virtual performance. Do you agree?

Undoubtedly. In general, they already had an important digital role, but that was not the main focus. And the focus has now turned to that, to online communication, online courses, online residencies, mediated visits, etc. A new environment was created for people to visit museums, participating in our daily lives.

ARTE! – And, at the same time, this “forced” focus on the digital universe ended up favoring an expansion of audience for many institutions, since the programming can be followed from any corner of the world. Did this happen at Mam Rio? You mentioned, for example, the large audience that followed Cinemateca on Vimeo…

Yes, there were several gains as well. I think in a way we managed to make lemonade out of a lemon, focusing a lot on this virtual performance. And I think that made us rethink the territorial issue as well, the physical space. When you go virtual, you reach new horizons, other audiences that you never imagined you could reach. In the case of Cinemateca, people from more than 40 countries saw the films; in the online courses were students from 15 states and six countries. So it is an opportunity for many people who are not just residents or visitors to Rio de Janeiro.

ARTE! – And now the museum is fully reopened? How is the visitation?

We reopened in a very innovative way, with suggested contribution – you pay what you want and what you want. We did this because we understand that the public in Rio is very diverse and often cannot afford to come to the museum. A person who earns R$2 a month and wants to go with his two children to the museum cannot afford to spend R$80 or R$100 on a weekend trip. And, as a result, we tripled the number of visitors and almost doubled our “box office” revenue, despite the pandemic. And so, accessibility is also created so that people can visit the museum as many times as they want.

ARTE! – Speaking of the issue of expanding the public, apparently one of the problems is still an idea that exists in society that Mam Rio is a place for the elites. This is a problem in the universe of the arts as a whole, but there are the specificities of the carioca museum. In addition to the free admission, how to change this mentality and bring more people to the museum?

What we most want here at the museum is to create a sense of belonging, so that everyone participates in this museum. In this way, we are very concerned with the education and training of the public. So several courses were created, both last year and this year, and these courses are also free, as are the mediated visits we have on Sundays (supported by Petrobras), the workshops with educators and workshops such as Zona Aberta. And all these actions are very important to bring the public in in different ways and help form it. This gives these people a feeling that they can enter the museum, see an exhibition, ask questions and talk to the mediation team – which we have prepared to be increasingly attentive to the public. So there are several actions to create new and welcoming experiences for all audiences.

ARTE! -  There is this very strong idea currently in the management of cultural institutions that it is not enough to democratize access, to receive a greater number of visitors, but that it is important to have a participating public. What matters is the quality of this visit, the possibility of doing it together. Is this what Mam works in?

Yes, it's no use, for example, if you simply have an incredible exhibition, you have to create an environment for people to enter the museum and feel good, to be able to discuss and understand the exhibition. This sometimes makes more of a difference than just the exposure itself. Because museums are spaces for reflection and education as well. We want to train and educate people to participate and understand what we are doing, what we are showing.

The Escola Bloco and its patio, in 1989. Photo: Aertsens Michel/ Mam Rio Collection

ARTE! – At this point, could you also talk about the importance of reactivating the School Block?

When I joined, I focused on bringing to our strategy this tripod of museum formation: art, education and culture. And Bloco Escola was the first facility to be built and opened in Mam Rio, in 1958. It was a very important school for great artists of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Fayga Ostrower, Ivens Machado, Ivan Serpa, Abraham Palatinik passed by. … and there was the Frente Group, neoconcretism. There was a lot of effervescence here at Bloco Escola that brought great importance to the museum. So my goal was to get back with him, starting with the digital courses, in addition to the residencies. First we did the residencies with CAPACETE, last year, and now we continue with our schedule: we opened two residencies just last year, with 19 places for artists and researchers, and this year we launched five more programs that had 3500 applicants for 38 places. And each of them has a focus: a residency for peripheral curators; one for public school teachers; one for teenagers; one for people with disabilities; and another for artists and professionals in the arts. All these projects are very important because we really want to come back more and more with Bloco Escola, with this focus on education, training our researchers, artists and visitors. We are also carrying out projects to raise funds to also restore this physical space, leaving it remodeled and modernized. And without a doubt these workshops, seminars and lectures are very important demands of society today.

ARTE! – One of the remarkable things in this management was an unprecedented open call for the artistic direction of the institution, which resulted in the choice of Keyna Eleison and Pablo Lafuente. What's the idea behind this process, and how do you evaluate the duo's work so far? With this new duo, does the museum also seek to update itself in relation to the most urgent issues of contemporaneity?

The goal with this open call was, first, to bring the best people possible to the museum. That is, it is not a personal indication of mine, someone in my circle. And the hiring processes have to be like this, transparent, in which vacancies are opened and people apply. In the case of this unprecedented call, it was very good because we had two groups working. An internal group, made up of people from the museum analyzing the submitted CVs and projects, and an external group, made up of curators, artists and directors from other institutions. It was done in a very democratic way, trying to understand what is best for the museum today, what we think really makes sense for our current moment. So there were 103 projects submitted, of which 20 were selected – so that the candidates could deepen the proposals – and then the five finalists came out. Then we entered the part of the interviews, which resulted in the selection of the duo Keyna Eleison and Pablo Lafuente. And the fact that it was a duo, something we hadn't thought of at first, was very interesting, in the sense of having more points of view. And they have done an incredible job, with new exhibition and conceptual visions, with new looks at the collections and also highlighting new, lesser-known and established artists.

ARTE! – Since your time at Parque Lage, perhaps because of your professional background, you have always had a strong focus on the financial-administrative part of the institutions. And that, again at Mam Rio, has brought results. There are 25 new companies that have started investing in the museum since the beginning of its management. I would like you to tell us a little about how this approach took place and what is the main destination of these resources.

I think a major objective of ours is to develop a financial stability strategy for the museum, which we know is not simple. The maintenance of Mam Rio is not cheap, there are more than 15 thousand works in the collection, a Cinematheque with more than 60 thousand rolls of films, 3 million documents. So, at the beginning of the management, this area of ​​institutional partnerships was created, to develop work with companies, bringing in a very clear and objective way all our program that would be developed. We made several presentations for a series of companies, showing this repositioning of the museum, the new education projects, a new artistic direction, etc., always with great transparency about what we wanted to do and in what way. And we also showed that this new strategy would only be possible with their support, because the museum needs resources for its performance and for the maintenance of the collection. And the sponsors really liked the projects. We also created a program for patrons, which was added to the program for associates, and more than 45 people joined them in this period, with the support of free funds. And all this in a very difficult period, because the events ended, contracts were renegotiated, there were problems of default. So these new partnerships brought a very good commitment. Especially because Mam is a unique place in Brazil, and supporters know that. It's a cultural facility with a wonderful history, next to the city center, in front of Guanabara Bay, on top of the landfill, with an incredible collection… So, along with that, these new projects brought enormous interest from sponsors. And for the sake of transparency, of course. In September of this year we delivered a great activities Report with everything that had been proposed and everything that we did in the period, and this is very important, we will do it again next year.

Apart from that, we also have a strategy of developing international funding, a partnership with the Brazil Foundation in which we manage to get a little out of dependence on the Rouanet Law and ICMS. And I think that our biggest goal, moreover, is the development of an Endowment fund, which will really bring medium and long-term financial sustainability to the museum. So there's a path that we've been tracing since last year so that in 2022 we can start this fund, which also arises from the moment people start to believe more and more in the museum project.   

ARTE! – During this period, and because of the pandemic, was it necessary to lay off, cut employees?

We restructured the museum, but we hired more people than we fired. Analyzing the teams, we made some changes, as is normal in any new project development process, and created new areas of communication and funding, for example. In the first year, we also made necessary reforms, in the physical structure, and the financial fund that we had from the sale of Pollock also helped in this process.

ARTE! -  Thinking about it today, do you think that a stronger performance in this search for financial support could have avoided this controversial sale of the Jackson Pollock painting, in 2019?

It's hard to talk about it because I wasn't at the museum. But at the time I supported the sale, understanding that it was very important for Mam's transformation process. It is more important for the museum to be vibrant, as it is today with all these exhibitions and projects, than for the museum to be closed with Pollock in the collection.

ARTE! – It seems to me that these financial issues you talk about are not disconnected from the country's political issues. When you talk about the Culture Incentive Law, for example, it is impossible not to think about the paralysis that is occurring for the approval of projects at the Secretary of Culture. I would like you to talk a little about how you see this political moment in Brazil, more specifically in the cultural area.

I think we are going through a very complex moment in this cultural area, which makes museums have to be very creative. And it's no use trying to do something that won't work, that won't be approved, that won't pass. So what we have been doing is trying to understand the possible paths that appear so that we can make our cultural and artistic projects for the maintenance of the museum viable. And it's not simple, it's not easy, because the scenario is neither simple nor easy. Unfortunately, the cultural area has suffered a lot in recent years. I think it's a pity that we no longer have the Ministry of Culture, because culture is as important as education, tourism or health. Culture educates, talks about our history, our ancestry, brings a sense of belonging to a society. And, in that sense, when Minc dissolved, we already started to lose a lot. And we end up becoming increasingly vulnerable in this context. So it's not an easy moment, but it's the moment we have to face, looking for the best solutions, talking and creating bridges. 

ARTE! – There also seems to be a growing climate of persecution of certain types of artistic expression, even with regard to the approval of these projects in the Cultural Incentive Law. Censorship, which seemed like a thing of the past, is once again a recurring topic. Does this somehow affect the work at Mam Rio?

I think that concern hangs in the air all the time. But within the projects that we are doing at the museum, fortunately we are not seeing this whole issue, so heavy. But without a doubt, with all the situations that have already happened, this is marked in our minds and in many artists' heads. And that's too bad, because art is a free expression, you can't restrict this possibility for artists to do what they imagine, dream and channel.   

Keyna Eleison and Pablo Lafuente, curators of MAM Rio, in front of the museum
Keyna Eleison and Pablo Lafuente in front of MAM Rio. Photo: Fábio Souza/ Publicity

ARTE! – So, to conclude in a more positive sense, I wanted to ask a little about the importance of these exhibitions that opened this month, at a time when the numbers of the pandemic are starting to improve and people are starting to go out a little more. 

We open the exhibition memory is an invention, with around 300 works from three collections – MAM Rio, Museu de Arte Negra/IPEAFRO and Acervo da Laje -, the collective Compositions for Insurgent Times and Ana Clara Tito's exhibition in the project Supernova, which is an individual program for new artists, many of them coming out of our training and research programs. And a major objective is to bring this increasingly current view of what we are experiencing today, what is happening, what people are thinking and what the most current debates are. So I think it is a very interesting moment for Mam, because I see that the museum has really repositioned itself as a space that is more connected to what is happening on a daily basis, more attentive to these lacks that have occurred throughout our history – lacks that we need to bring, talk about, understand a little better what happened in our country. I Think Composition for insurgent times brings a lot of it. And each show has a different expography, using the museum in an open way, valuing all its architecture, putting the curators to think. I think they are more purposeful, more thought-provoking exhibitions that create new openings. And with that you also bring an increasingly diverse, plural and larger audience to visit the museum.    

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