South America has been a special part of my life for four decades. I have lived many years in Brasil and Peru. I am married to an incredible lady from Argentina. I want to share South America with you.
IN 1811Uruguaybegan the long process of winning independence. In this bicentennial year, Montevideo, the capital, has been adding new museums and expanding older ones as the country re-examinesartand history.
The most striking addition is theEspacio de Arte Contemporáneo(Arenal Grande 1930; 598-2-929-2066;http://www.eac.gub.uy/), which opened in July 2010 in an abandoned 1888 prison occupying an entire city block between the Cordón and Aguada neighborhoods, an area with a post-industrial feel and unassuming working-class homes.
Planning by the Ministry of Education and Culture began in 2008, with work starting in 2009, aided by 700,000 euros (about $970,000) fromSpain’s Agencia Española de Cooperación Internacional. According to Fernando Sicco, the museum’s director, “In reality it was very little time, and very little money.”
Mr. Sicco said the city hoped that the museum, which will eventually contain a cinema, a restaurant and resident artist spaces, would be a gentrifying force. “It will be more of an impact socially and with the development of the neighborhood,” he said.
Of the prison location, Mr. Sicco said, “We wanted to change the meaning of something, playing with the freedom to create, and having it in a jail.” Cells allow viewers to see modern art and installations from Uruguay and Latin America in isolation, but the prison setting isn’t for everyone. “People with claustrophobia have a hard time here,” Mr. Sicco said. But, he added, “In Uruguay, there are not many historical places left to renovate.” In one three-story wing, a glass wall offers a view onto an unrenovated part of the prison, where the long neglected spaces are still piled with rubble, and paint peels from the walls.
In Ciudad Vieja (Old City), near Montevideo’s cruise port,Museo Figari(Juan Carlos Gómez 1427; 598-2-915-7065;museofigari.blogspot.com) opened in February 2010 to house art by Pedro Figari (1861-1938), a Uruguayan folk modernist painter who produced more than 4,000 paintings and other works of art. (The art prize Premio Figari, financed by Banco Central de Uruguay, honors him.) Figari, a lawyer and politician, “only became famous after the third part of his life,” said the museum’s communications officer, Juan Carlos Ivanovich. Many of his paintings were on cardboard, difficult to restore and display.
Figari, whose art reflects his legal work with Uruguay’s poor, often depicted African-Uruguayans and slavery, gauchos and Indians and the early days of Uruguayan independence. Pointing to “Bailando,” a painting of dancing African-Uruguayans, Mr. Ivanovich said Figari “liked to show the dances, the parties, the rituals, the few times when they were very happy, rather than when they were working or in chains. It was something most people never saw in Montevideo.”
He also contrasted the poor and his own wealthy class. “Portraits of blacks have a movement,” Mr. Ivanovich said. “Those of whites show a rigidity. Everything is formal.”
The 1914 Belle Époque structure housing Museo Figari has only one floor open for exhibitions, while two upper floors are being renovated.
TheMuseo del Carnaval(Rambla 25 de Agosto de 1825, 218; 598-2-916-5493;museodelcarnaval.org), on the edge of the Ciudad Vieja, expanded during 2010, adding a larger main gallery with more comprehensive displays explaining the history of the festival in Montevideo and other parts of Uruguay.
TheMuseo Naval(Rambla Presidente Charles de Gaulle and Luis A. De Herrera; 598-2-622-1084), in the Pocitos neighborhood overlooking the Rio de la Plata, reordered and expanded its displays in 2009 and 2010, creating new temporary exhibition spaces, said Capt. Héctor Yori, the museum’s director. He added that the Museo Naval was a reminder to visitors that “the sea was the birthplace of Montevideo.”
A version of this article appeared in print on July 24, 2011, on page TR5 of the New York edition with the headline: In Montevideo, Prison Cells as Galleries.