Brazil’s Galleries Go Global in the Face of ‘Kafka-esque’ Climate

Thinking outside the box in Latin America.

A woman walks in front of a painted Brazilian flag. Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images.

Optimism is spreading throughout São Paulo’s art scene, which serves as Brazil’s primary cultural hub.

Brazil has weathered the worst part of a deep economic crisis and political turmoil that saw former president Dilma Rouseff removed from office following an impeachment vote last August. There’s renewed international interest in Brazilian art, as shown by Lygia Pape’s upcoming retrospective at the Met Breuer in New York.

Speaking to artnet News at SP Arte, Madrid-based dealer Elba Benitez said she thinks the local market is recovering. “I came here when the market was high, then the crisis came. But now the market is coming back, I think.”

According to SP Arte founder and director Fernanda Feitosa, the turnaround was brought about, in part, by innovative solutions during the downturn. “This happens in times of crisis,” she said. “There are opportunities to do something different.”

Prompted by the economic dip, Brazilian galleries ramped up international outreach—and now they’re reaping the benefits. For example, São Paulo-based Mendes Wood DM opened an office in New York. “Bringing this art to audiences abroad has been very important,” international head of sales Martin Aguilera said. The experiment worked so well that the gallery is opening a branch in Brussels next month.

On the flipside, in order to circumvent Brazil’s stifling bureaucracy and tough import tariffs—which one German dealer at SP Arte described as “Kafka-esque”—the gallery invited important American and European artists such as David Salle, Dadamaino and James Lee Byars to take up temporary residencies in São Paulo, presenting important artists that many Brazilians have never seen or weren’t familiar with.

Other galleries such as Nara Roesler adopted a more cost-intensive approach by opening a proper space in New York.

Mendes Wood DM’s director Magê Abàtayguara added that without the state funding that European arts enjoy, or the philanthropy that Americans are accustomed to, Brazilian galleries are the life blood of the country’s art scene.

To be sure, Brazil does have an incredibly sophisticated collector base. Mendes Wood’s Aguilera goes so far as to call it “the most sophisticated market outside the US or Europe.” Spanish dealer Benitez agrees, “They are sophisticated in their taste,” she said. “They are not buying to decorate.” It is just a culture of philanthropy that needs to grow.

Foreign collectors are in the city for the fair—but it is this sophisticated group of Brazilians that international exhibitors are trying to connect with, and that’s why they cross oceans to show in São Paulo.

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