It is around the ideas of dialogue and coexistence that the current president of the Fundação Bienal de São Paulo, the banker and collector José Olympio da Veiga Pereira, thinks of the curatorial project of 34a edition of the event in São Paulo, to be held in 2020. If the Brazilian political moment is turbulent and “high boiling”, including in the cultural field, this is not the time to encourage greater polarization and confrontations, he says. “We have to be able to dialogue, even if we don't agree with the other's idea”.
Curated by Jacopo Crivelli Visconti, the Bienal proposes to “embrace the city”, spreading in time – throughout the year with exhibitions and performances – and in space – including different institutions in the capital beyond the Ibirapuera Pavilion. This choice, says Olympio, also follows the line of strengthening relationships, creating conversations and encouraging dialogue.
Unlike most people who work today in the cultural area – who propose a discourse of resistance and combat – he prefers to adopt a conciliatory discourse. “Taking sides is the antithesis of what we are proposing. What we are proposing is that the different sides have to be able to relate to each other”, says Olympio, who is also a counselor at MAM-Rio, MASP, MoMA (New York), Tate Modern (London) and Fondation Cartier (Paris).
In addition, he points out that he considers both Bolsonaro’s Minister of Citizenship, Osmar Terra, and his Secretary of Culture, Henrique Pires, “competent, sensitive and well-intentioned people in their work”. He also affirms that if, on the one hand, the president makes controversial statements, on the other hand, Congress gave an example of the capacity for dialogue when approving the Social Security reform.
In interview with ARTE!Brasileiros held at the headquarters of Credit Suisse Brasil, the bank of which he is the current president, José Olympio spoke about these and other issues related to the Bienal and the political context. Read the full text below.
ARTE!Brasileiros – How do you evaluate these first months as the president of the Fundação Bienal?
Jose Olympio da Veiga Pereira – I have been on the Bienal's board for ten years, so it's not that the Bienal is new to me. And about three years ago I was also chairing an international advisory board that we formed. Since I took over as president, I think the most positive thing was realizing the quality of the professionals we have. Knowing more about the structure, talents and capabilities was a very good thing. In fact, we have a very competent team, who wears the shirt, with a lot of experience, which is very important. Because in our governance model – we have a board of 60 members, a board of ten members, with a two-year term renewable for another two – the role of the president is limited in time. What guarantees the continuity of the institution is the staff and management that are there, who maintain memory and training, and I think we are very well equipped in this regard.
At the beginning of the year, Jacopo Crivelli Visconti was chosen as curator. How was this process and at what point is the work of the curatorial team going?
Yes, in this period we also advanced with the curatorial project. Of the proposals I received, which were great, the one from Jacopo Crivelli stood out, who invited Paulo Miyada as assistant curator and Ruth Estévez, Carla Zaccagnini and Francesco Stocchi as guest curators. And we created this concept of a Bienal that embraces São Paulo, which takes place not only in the Ibirapuera Pavilion, but in a network of cultural institutions in the city. Finally, at the same time, we are thinking about what other missions the Foundation can have in addition to holding this great exhibition every two years and the subsequent tours in Brazil and abroad. And this is a very important thing, this promotion of global and Brazilian art among a Brazilian and global audience. So I think things are going really well.
There is the idea of expanding the Bienal in the city, with partnerships with other institutions, but also of expanding in time, with exhibitions that take place throughout the year. Can you tell a little more about that?
Yes, there are two vectors. So the Bienal will start in March, with three solo exhibitions in the first semester, by artists who will also be in the group show later. And we will also have in the first semester three great performances presented at specific moments. And we will also have other events throughout the year, educational, debates, lectures, etc.
And what is the idea behind these changes, this expansion? Is it part of a desire for audience expansion? Does it come from a perception that the Bienal was too restricted to a short period?
I think you have the whole curatorial proposal that has to do with the poetics of relationships, the question of human beings being able to relate to someone different from themselves. And I think that the formation of this network of institutions reinforces the curatorial proposal, to create dialogues. And the Bienal has always been a catalyst for attracting a global and Brazilian audience that comes to see the exhibition, which makes all other cultural institutions want to improve their programming, do special things during the period. So why not do it in dialogue? So we're really going to offer the general public something very interesting. For example, you can see an artist in the collective exhibition at the Bienal that interests you especially, and then you have the opportunity to get to know his production more deeply in an individual exhibition at another museum. And then to understand how this artist is seen individually or how he is seen in relation to other artists. And I think it's important, in order to fulfill our mission of promoting art, to do something that has an impact, to offer a product to the public that is interested, that is something different. Our goal is to transform São Paulo into a capital of plastic and visual arts, from September to December of next year. Make everyone interested in art feel like coming to São Paulo during this period.
One of the things you've proposed since you took over has to do with a job of creating tools aimed at preservation of the memory of the arts, expanding the role, for example of the foundation's historical archive, Wanda Svevo. Could you tell a little about that?
Yes, this is in the pipeline, but it is a longer term project. The idea is to give the Bienal an institutional mission of being a great center of art memory. Focused as a center of studies, of memory. The Wanda Svevo historical archive already serves a large number of researchers, but I think it can be greatly expanded. And we're thinking about how to do that.
There was also talk of strengthening the Bienal's relations with cultural life abroad, not least because of its good relationship with so many international institutions. Concretely, what does this mean?
The Bienal is the most international of our cultural institutions. It has promoted this exchange between global and Brazilian art since the beginning – in the past, there were even international representations. And I think we had lost that contact a little bit. So since 2016 we have started, through the creation of this international advisory board, to reconnect to the global world of the arts. Today we already have 11 members on this council, people from France, England, Holland, the USA, Argentina, Germany, etc. Because we want the help of this network to promote the Bienal, to be able to access artists that we eventually want to bring, to look for important works. Because we are this global institution. And our Bienal, although very traditional and old, has lost part of its relevance over time due to the infinity of biennials that have been created around the world. And what we want is to affirm our importance, to compete for our space of light in the sun in this overpopulated world of biennials.
When the first lines of the curatorial project were presented, both you and the curator spoke of the importance of not feeding polarizations in this troubled political moment, of encouraging the ability to dialogue and live together. After about three months, with recent political events, with the president's policies and controversial statements, how do you see this issue?
I think it just reinforced what we want to emphasize. And I think this is not a Brazilian issue, but a global one. When you look at what is happening in the US, in Europe – with Brexit, or in France, in Italy – we are unfortunately in a moment of polarization, of intransigence with the idea of the other. And what we want to seek is to say that, despite all this, we have hope. We have to be able to dialogue, even if we don't agree with the other's idea. It's curious, because we see at the same time, here in Brazil, two examples: on the one hand, the president's statements, but on the other, a congress that came together and approved the pension reform, with 379 votes, uniting parties from the most different colorations. So there is hope.
Is the approval of Social Security an example of the ability to unite for you?
It is a capacity for dialogue. Just because the idea is someone else's doesn't mean it's bad. We have to think about the country, we have to have this dialogue.
Now, thinking of the Bienal as this event that works with art, experimentation and creation – a space that is often radical – is it possible in this context to avoid taking a position, taking sides?
Taking sides is the antithesis of what we are proposing. What we are proposing is that the different sides have to be able to relate to each other. And deep down, what we want to show is that the side we are taking is the side in which dialogue has to happen. That polarity leads nowhere. This is our position with the curatorial proposal.
As president of the Bienal, you deal directly with the areas of culture and education. In general, these are two areas that seem to be quite threatened by the current government, whether in the change in Rouanet, in Ancine, in the proposals to cut the S system, in the cuts in funding in the universities…. Do you not see a violent speech against these areas? Don't see risks with the new policies?
Look, I don't think anyone argues that education is fundamental for the development of our country. That to me is very clear. You can debate the effectiveness or not of our efforts in education, but the importance of education is unquestionable. I don't see anyone questioning that. And I think that in culture we have a defender, which is the Minister of Citizenship Osmar Terra. I can see it from the way he handled the Rouanet Law. There was a lot of fear of what could be done and I think the final solution proposed by him was an ok solution. And I think that both he and the Secretary of Culture Henrique Pires understand the importance of culture and the importance of cultural institutions like ours, which were absolutely preserved with the change in the Culture Incentive Law. So I think there's a lot of noise, but I don't see any concrete threats, at least from the point of view of cultural entities such as the Bienal and museums. I don't want to get into the field of cultural producers or cinema, etc., which is another field. In the field where I fight and participate, I think the solution given is ok.
And as for the artists, don't you see an atmosphere of apprehension? Aren't people scared?
Yes there is. You see, everyone is scared. There is fear. I just hope that with time this dust, this temperature, will go down. But, without a doubt, we are living a moment of high boiling.
I will insist a little on these political issues, which seem to me to be very relevant at the moment. In a recent interview you said that you thought that culture could be valued regardless of whether it was under a ministry or a secretariat, that the end of Minc was not a problem in itself. Looking at it now, do you think the culture is being valued?
I think there's a lot of noise around the culture. Not so much in the plastic arts, not in cultural institutions, but in other areas, such as the discussion around Ancine. Anyway, I hope this is better addressed. But I continue with my view that we don't necessarily need a ministry to value culture. You can have a ministry and still the culture is devalued, because the ministry doesn't have a budget, it doesn't have a focus – as has already happened –, then it's no use. I just think it's important to leave the record that I consider both Minister Osmar Terra and Secretary Henrique Pires competent, sensitive and well-intentioned people in their work.
Finally, I would like to know your assessment of the Brazilian participation in the 58tha Venice Biennale, with the work of Bárbara Wagner and Benjamin de Burca, and in the perspective of Brazilian participation in the 17tha Architecture Biennale, in 2020, both linked to the Bienal Foundation.
I think that in the previous management we scored a goal with the participation of Cinthia Marcelle. It was the first time that Brazil won an honorable mention with its pavilion, which is an extraordinary thing. The choice now of the duo Bárbara Wagner and Benjamin de Burca, with the work swing war, was also extremely happy. I went to the opening and I could see the success of the pavilion even before all the European press gave the Brazilian pavilion as one of the top ten. It was a great success, impeccably carried out, it made our room proud and the technical solutions found. I also think that the guideline of having only one artist is the most appropriate, it has more force. And now let's introduce the swing war at the Bienal, for the Brazilian public, this work that is absolutely seductive and mesmerizing.
And about the Architecture Biennale…
We have equally ambitious plans for our representation at the Venice Architecture Biennale. It's already addressed, but we'll reveal it soon.