Interview with the founder of the Museum of Latin American Art in Buenos, his collecting passion, focus on Latin America, and plans of a second MALBA in a precarious neighborhood.
Pat Binder & Gerhard Haupt: A question that surely many people would like to ask you is what answers does a successful businessman as yourself find in the visual arts?
Eduardo Costantini: Art is part of my life and it comes before my business activities. My inclination for the arts started when I was between 22 and 24. In my life, I see everything through that “eye”. Even if nowadays I’m a real estate developer and my business activities have an economic purpose, every project my company undertakes is decided from an aesthetic stance. That is to say, we do projects with which we feel identified, and which are chosen according to their creative potential. Regrettably, businessmen have a negative image because they undertake projects to maximize their benefits. Yes, making money is an objective, but many times you get there from a vocation, and I think that’s what happens to me. As the years went by, I became more and more engaged with my collection project and then with the institutional project of MALBA. And, at the same time, I focused more and more on developing projects characterized by architectural design, the curatorial aspect of the artistic project, interior design, garden and landscape design. I couldn’t conceive it any other way.
Gerhard Haupt: What are the first works you collected and consider of special importance?
Eduardo Costantini: When I started buying art I acquired the first works following my heart, because of the emotions they evoked. I bought many works I’m very fond of but don’t have any weight in the history of Latin American art, which is the primary focus of my collection.
But regarding the significant body of my collection, I can name a group of works by Xul Solar, for instance, Por su cruz jura , undoubtedly Berni’s Manifestación , which I bought from his son and also has a prominent place in my memory. I bought “Frida” (Autorretrato con chango y loro)  because I’ve been in love with Frida all my life [he laughs]. I acquired that work in 1995, in an auction in which there was also a work by Diego Rivera, but I preferred Frida’s, a small format work that is displayed at the museum. Rivera’s work (Baile de Tehuantepec, 1928) was 2 m x 1.60 m and I was able to acquire it this year. There are many works and I remember the story of dozens of them..
Pat Binder: Very early on you bought that iconic work by Berni, a work of social criticism. What attracted you to his work?
Eduardo Costantini: The first work I wanted to buy when I was 23 and I’d just started working and was studying at the same time, was a Berni, the portrait of a boy, also from a precarious background. But later, what I like the most about Berni ̶ and MALBA has seven of his works ̶ is definitely Manifestación, but also La gran tentación . The first one is from the 30s, and portrays a group of people asking for food and work as a result of the Great Depression. The second is from the 60s. Berni shows an Argentina of two divided social groups, where there is a clear exclusion of the poor. Like in El mundo prometido a Juanito Laguna there’s always an impenetrable wall between them, which is poverty. La gran tentación displayed at the museum, which is also one of Berni’s most significant works, shows Ramona, represented by ugliness, watching a beautiful blonde woman holding an American car in her hand. And as a joke and a criticism to society, Berni calls the work “La gran tentación” [the great temptation] as if this indigent woman could even dream of having that car. And that’s what I like the most about Berni. I was buying a Berni when the well-to-do Argentine society was buying a Fader, or that kind of works. People didn’t by Berni’s works, first because he was a communist, and secondly because he had a very different aesthetic that wasn’t in keeping with the European and aristocratic aesthetic of Argentine society.
Manifestación and La gran tentación by Antonio Berni, in the exhibition Verboamérica
© Photo: Haupt & Binder
Gerhard Haupt: Is there a moment when you notice you start to collect systematically?
Eduardo Costantini: Well, yes, in the 80s I met somebody that later became and still is my friend. His name is Ricardo Estévez and he’s a great connoisseur. He taught me what art is, he taught me how to collect. And I always say to him: The MALBA owes its great works to him. The most famous work of the MALBA is Tarsila do Amaral’s Abaporú , which I bought thanks to him, as I did many others.
Gerhard Haupt: But was it always with the criterion of collecting 20th century Latin American art, especially from the first half of the century?
Eduardo Costantini: Yes. I did buy the odd international work, but I forced myself to focus on my main responsibility: Latin American art. At the beginning, I bought Argentine and Uruguayan works, and later I came up with the idea of having a collection of Latin American art, because “united we stand” and because the possibilities of collecting the great masters were increasing -- artists such as Wifredo Lam, Diego Rivera, in addition to Brazilian artists such as Cándido Portinari and Di Cavalcanti, and, of course, the Chilean Matta, and Torres García and Rafael Barradas from Uruguay, and so on and so forth. I believe that the MALBA, in my opinion, has the world’s greatest exhibited collection of Latin American art. It undoubtedly houses very significant works, especially from that modern period, but there are also important works from the 40s and the 60s.
Gerhard Haupt: How would you define the term “Latin American art”? Artists from Latin America were an integral part of avant-garde movements in Europe ̶ like Rivera in cubism or Lam in surrealism, and so on ̶ and long before the term “globalization” was coined, there was an intense international exchange. There are also artists native of Europe who are undoubtedly considered part of the Latin American art scene, such as Mathias Goeritz or Francis Alÿs. So how do you define “Latin American”? Do you consider it a more open term nowadays?
Eduardo Costantini: Globalization is getting stronger, no doubt, and Latin American artists are starting to integrate more as well. Many make their home abroad, or vice versa, like Francis Alÿs. But there is also a segregationist categorization of the North, because Sotheby’s and Christie’s have their Latin American art sales catalogues ̶ which I’ve just received ̶ and the Lams, the Riveras, etcetera, are all in there. The North has the power, it typifies us. You always have to see who is talking, it it’s someone from the North or from Latin America. Also inside MoMa there is a Latin American art acquisition program and there’s a Latin American curator. In the reading of western art history exhibited by MoMA, more Latin American artists start to timidly appear. Now, specifically, especially in the modern period but also later, the artists from this region that travelled to Europe and embraced the avant-garde movements always had the need to have their own identity, an identity related to their nationality or their native region. Then yes, it is true that Diego Rivera does cubism but it’s also true that his most important work from that period is Paisaje zapatista, in which there is a rifle, a sombrero and a serape. I think that the cubist Diego is very important and has distinctive features, but for me, the most significant movement in Latin American art ̶ undeniably ̶ is muralism. And what is more Mexican than Diego’s muralism? But immersed in the European trend.
And Berni, for instance, is an artist who in the 30s masters surrealism. He knew everything that was going on in the world in terms of artistic avant-garde. But works such as La siesta y su sueño , clearly also reflect the marginality that runs through Latin America, and are a veiled criticism of corruption as well.
Many anthropological issues resonate in the work of artists from Latin America, which come from the culture itself, from folklore, from experiencing nature, color ̶ because the sky in a Latin American country is not the same as in England. And the themes they explore, such as violence, exclusion, are different from the ones that may be addressed in Northern Europe, where there’s safety, less social differences. Latin America is one of the regions with the greatest inequality in the world. There are things that are very determining ̶ military governments, political violence, but also, for instance, immigration. There are thousands of themes and there are artists that are more involved in the ones I’ve just named, whereas others are more aseptic, as it also happens in Europe. Art is universal and multidirectional, that’s the most beautiful thing about art, but yes, I think there is a regional idiosyncrasy and a particular character.
© Photo: Haupt & Binder
Gerhard Haupt: When did the idea of creating the MALBA come about?
Eduardo Costantini: Actually, it was a project that grew. Some things happened by chance but implicitly, the idea of turning the collecting into a public social project was always there. I learned social responsibility from my mother. I come from a middle class family that had no money, but my mother invested a lot of her time in volunteer work in La Cava, San Isidro, a very poor neighborhood. Through my professional career I was able to have more purchasing power to buy art and when I had a body of work with a significant artistic and historic value, I became aware of it and decided to donate that collection. Years went by, then this parcel appeared in the market and that’s when the idea of building our own museum came about, which ended up being a very characteristic museum, because it has an auditorium, an independent film program, a literature program. It has a very strong education program, and a program of catalogue edition. That’s how the MALBA came about, with its own identity.
And now we’re undergoing a very ambitious project which makes us pretty nervous and excited, which is to create a new MALBA. It would be locate in the Saldías neighborhood, which is a poor area near the Villa 31. It’s walking distance from here, but is separated by railways and it’s like they were two different worlds. We want to build a new MALBA there that would deploy different art and social mobilization programs, which would go a step further in the direction set by Berni. I’m going to try and create a “bridge” institution, which ̶ even if it is through this narrow bridge ̶ would serve to integrate two very different neighborhoods, and be an artistic educational platform for everyone, but especially for those most in need.
Pat Binder: Then there would be no collection but only temporary exhibitions and educational programs?
Eduardo Costantini: That’s exactly what we’re discussing at the moment. What we’re envisaging now is a cultural center with different activities, where there could be rock concerts, performances, dance, painting workshop, where there could be an amphitheater in which to screen movies and have discussion forums. There will also be a hall with a post-contemporary format, basically determined by its height, in which larger works could also be exhibited, such as installations, big projects. We’re also envisioning a square, an outdoors public space, in which there could be fairs or also performances or musical festivals. We’re thinking of a combination of art programs that would produce a kind of heartbeat, an effervescence, an echo of that institution in its surroundings.
Pat Binder: And when do you think it could become a reality?
Eduardo Costantini: We’ve already requested the space and the national government, through its state property office, has answered that they welcome the whole project. We’re going to submit a concept and a program of what I’m saying and after opening the case file that would end with a bidding document, maybe we could have the space, if all goes well, within a year. Then, we’d need two and a half or three years to build it. That means that we estimate to be opening it in 2019/2020.
Pat Binder: Will there be an architectural tender?
Eduardo Costantini: We’re also discussing that, whether to have a private or a public call for tenders. We’ve already announced publicly the idea of the new MALBA, but we’re in the most interesting process now, which is the conception of the project.
Gerhard Haupt: As regards the MALBA collection, it will be increasingly difficult to get hold of important Latin American artworks of the last century, like that Rivera. I think is unique that you could still get hold of such an important work, not to mention the market value of such a work. Does this scarcity of works affect in any way the MALBA’s collection policy?
Eduardo Costantini: First you have to make a distinction. The MALBA has a patrimony that is the initial donation made in 2001. Then, it has an acquisition program that basically comes from donations of around 40 families. And then there is also Eduardo Costantini buying works. That is to say, the Diego Rivera was bought by Eduardo Costantini, not the MALBA. I’ve acquired many works since 2001 to this day, but I’ve bought them in my name. They’re a complement to the MALBA but it’s “my collection,” although many works are also exhibited at the museum. The wish of the MALBA and its policy is to update its collection as time goes by. Although it has a budget limitation, the acquisitions program equates to US$ 300,000 per year. But in fact there are works that the museum couldn’t possibly afford. I even think that there are very few museums that could afford works such as Diego Rivera’s, even in the United States. In any case, when a work of that quality becomes available ̶ and even though Eduardo Costantini also has a limited budget ̶ there are times, like in love [he laughs], when you break the mold and have a different response.
© Interview by Gerhard Haupt & Pat Binder
Buenos Aires, 3 Nov. 2016. From Spanish: Marina Torres
Photo: Fernando Gutierrez, Courtesy of MALBA
Mentioned artworks from the MALBA collection
Images and more information:
Eduardo Francisco Costantini (Buenos Aires, 1946) has more than three decades of experinece in the financial market, and in the development of large-scale innovative projects in Latin America and the US. As collector and philanthropist, he donated more than two hundred artworks to the foundation of the MALBA in 2001, a non-profit museum which currently holds and exhibits a collection of six hundred works of important artists. The museum combines its highly regarded collection with temporary exhibitions, film and literature programs, and an important educational activity.
On 21st February 2017, the Foundation ARCO (Madrid) awarded Eduardo F. Costantini one of the Prizes “A” to Collecting. As part of the program of Argentina Guest Country of ARCO 2017, an exhibition of his collection is presented in Madrid:
Una mirada a la colección Costantini
21 February - 2 April 2017
Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando
Alcalá, 13, 28014 Madrid