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.
The financial world treats Argentina as an emerging market — risky, nascent, unsophisticated — and so does the art world: it has few prominent artists, curators or institutions. But just as the country seduced global investors with a smash-hit bond sale earlier this year, so one Argentine collector is hoping to draw international attention to Buenos Aires with his new foundation.
Federico Castro Debernardi, 31, has established the Fundación Arte, whose mission is “to foster artistic exchange between Argentina and the rest of the world”, in particular through a “one for one” ethos which matches every export the foundation makes — whether art, artist or research — with an import. In December, the foundation puts on its first show, in Buenos Aires.
We meet in the new members’ room at Tate Modern in London. The conversation is instantly political. Argentina’s dual emergence — financial and cultural — is not coincidental, he says: “The foundation would not have been possible a year ago. In the past decade in Latin America certain governments have been very national[ist] and very protective of their ideas and values in a way that isolated them.”
This is a rather euphemistic way of referring to the successive presidencies of Néstor Kirchner and his wife, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who antagonised the international community by defaulting on debt and aggravating territorial disputes. They put their stamp on the arts, too: in 2015 the Kirchner Cultural Centre was opened. The new president, Mauricio Macri, has tried to restore relationships, and this is the thaw Debernardi has seized on. That Art Basel has named Buenos Aires the first city it will work with “to develop and host a series of vibrant cultural events” adds to and reflects the momentum.
Debernardi, whose family wealth enables his collecting and philanthropy, has convinced the Argentine government of the importance of his project. It has let him take over Buenos Aires’ Belle Epoque Palais de Glace — a former ice-skating rink and tango dance hall far from its glory days — for his first show, Evolutionary Travels. Next year the foundation might occupy a prominent brutalist building, he suggests.
Debernardi also blames local complacency for a lack of global cultural engagement. “There’s a very strong artist community that has been part of the contemporary art conversation in Argentina for decades … and when you have a very strong set of local figures, you don’t feel that you need to explore other things.” That is why he will bring work by Americans Rachel Harrison and Avery Singer and Swede Klara Lidén, among others, to Argentina, pairing them in the foundation’s first show with Latin Americans like Gabriel Kuri and Amalia Pica.
The show will certainly burnish Debernadi’s collection: there will be pieces from the foundation and works by the foundation’s artists, either borrowed from fellow collectors or freshly commissioned. But he is making investments in intellect too, with a national/global curator exchange; they will have to undertake research projects on the foundation’s annual theme (this year: evolution) and produce results which can be distributed, free of charge. Here Debernardi seems a child both of Wikipedia and Argentina: “The best education in Argentina has always been free [under] that benefactor/state model that the country took … In this digital world also education should be free.”
Art people flow around the world almost as fast as digital information does, chasing fairs, biennales and openings. Debernardi himself splits his year between New York, London, Argentina and points asunder, but recognises the “craziness” of the art-trotting lifestyle, its speed, its scale, its intensity. His mother and grandmother were collectors, but “they just enjoyed it, with no bigger plans than putting it on the table, or in the hallway.”
He seems confident in Argentina’s recent flourishing, but history does not only run forwards, as the Kirchners’ presidencies showed. Isn’t he worried that when Macri is out of office, Argentina could regress — politically, financially, culturally? He cites Pope Francis, an Argentine, as a model: “Sometimes you have figures who are leaders in this world who give such a strong example that then it’s followed.” Perhaps he is thinking of the art world, too.
December 6-February 28, fundacionarte.org
Art Basel Cities
On December 1, the first day of Art Basel Miami Beach, a panel of Buenos Aires-based art industry figures will assemble to discuss the Argentine capital’s cultural landscape. The Salon event follows the announcement that Buenos Aires is the first city selected for the Art Basel Cities initiative, a multiyear programme during which fair organisers will consult on the development of new global art hubs — and, in the process, extend the Art Basel brand to cities normally outside its purview.
While it is clear that Buenos Aires has been chosen because of its cultural dynamism — the city has more than 80 galleries, and recently developed arts-based development projects in the neighbourhoods of La Boca and Barraca — this is a business move from Art Basel, who are being paid as consultants. The company’s director of business initiatives, Patrick Foret, describes Art Basel as moving towards an “activist” cultural role. This week, visitors from Buenos Aires may be looking to Miami for ideas: the city has seen first hand the transformative power of the art economy.