Hello, world: how Argentina is making its cultural presence felt
Argentina’s bruising economic crash in 2001 and the period of isolation that followed had at least one upside: the emergence of an edgy art scene that may finally be coming of age.
Although Buenos Aires has a rich cultural heritage as the capital of one of the wealthiest countries in the world a century ago, its art scene had lost its shine by the 1970s when a repressive military junta did its best to stamp out more daring forms of expression. But when collectors, curators and artists from more than 20 countries descended on Buenos Aires for the launch of the Art Basel Cities Exchange last week, they found a city eager to raise its profile on the global art scene.
“Twenty years ago the art world was New York, London and Paris. But today we live in a much more decentralised world,” says Marc Spiegler, global director of Art Basel, looking out over the elegant tiered garden of the Palacio Duhau, a Beaux-Arts gem that recalls the city’s former glory. “We are in a world now where we are ready to take a first step to a new place.”
The unusually large gap between what the city’s museums, galleries and artists have to offer, and what the wider world is aware of, helped Buenos Aires to be chosen from 16 competing cities around the world, says Spiegler. “There’s a lot to be mined here.”
For the past 15 years or so, Argentina’s art scene has evolved largely untouched by global trends, providing it with a freshness and originality that is hard to find elsewhere, claims Alec Oxenford, a technology entrepreneur who runs the city’s largest air fair, arteBA. “Very often you go to collectors’ houses in Paris, London, Berlin, New York or Miami and you see the same artists, the same works, the same style. You’re not going to see that here. It’s refreshing,” he says, amid the buzz of a glitzy opening party for the arteBA Focus show in a former sand factory in the colourful old port district of La Boca.
“Argentina today is opening up and saying hello to the world,” Oxenford adds, referring to the concerted efforts of the two-year-old government of President Mauricio Macri to reconnect with the world after more than a decade of populism. These are evident not just in more obvious areas like international relations, finance and trade, but also in art. “Art Basel is a very clear example of that,” Oxenford says.
Another example of Argentina’s efforts to recover its pre-eminence in the art world is Bienalsur, an ambitious project aiming at nothing less than unifying the region through art, and making it accessible to a wider public. “Buenos Aires was always the cultural capital of Latin America, but that came to an end [during the 1970s],” says Aníbal Jozami, one of Argentina’s foremost collectors and the man behind Bienalsur. “We have to invade the north through art, the opposite of what has happened until now,” he adds.
Although Buenos Aires is the centre of Bienalsur, more than 30 cities across Latin America and beyond — in Spain, Germany, Japan, Australia and Benin — are hosting provocative art works, many in public spaces, as part of the initiative.
While Art Basel and Bienalsur are more complementary than in competition — the former with more commercial aims, the later with a more social commitment — they are both signs of the gathering momentum in Argentina’s art scene which, like the rest of the country, was profoundly affected by the 2001 financial crisis. But like depressed New York in the 1980s, Berlin in the 1990s and Detroit today, the accessibility of airy, light-drenched warehouses, made possible by the post-crisis slump in property prices, was a boon for artists. “The coolest stuff happened when we were at rock bottom,” says Oxenford.
Irina Kirchuk's 'Termo' at former industrial space Móvil © Bruno Dubner
Another factor in Buenos Aires’ favour is a tax amnesty that saw more than $100bn repatriated to Argentina last year, which Oxenford believes explains why arteBA had its best year so far in 2017. “Art is a very discretionary investment, and wealthy people have a disproportionate impact. We might be seeing the beginning of a very positive cycle,” he says.
Spiegler certainly hopes so. He is staking the credibility of the Art Basel brand on a bet that Buenos Aires will be the next city to catch the art world’s attention. “When you have scenes, they always go in waves,” he says, arguing that just one charismatic collector or gallerist can influence an entire generation. The fact that the art world is populated by “neophiliacs” who are thirsty to discover new places also helps, he says. “It’s a very small business and it’s very driven by personalities. It’s interesting how little it takes.”