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Interview with Manuel Borja-Villel, director of MNCA Reina Sofía (Madrid)

Manuel Borja-Villel

After eight years conducting the MACBA, which under his direction has not only trebled its funding and doubled its exhibition space, but foremost has shaped its own identity, turning into an international reference, Manuel Borja-Villel was appointed last year as director of the MNCA Reina Sofía. It is the first time in Spain that an appointment of this kind has been put out to tender instead of being directly designated by the public authorities. The idea is to grant the institution a certain independence from the swings of politics.

Borja-Villel, who was designated president of the International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art (CIMAM) in 2007, now faces the challenge of forging a new model for the Reina Sofía, a model more devoted to its dual condition of museum and centre of art that could allow the MNCARS to be placed among the leading art institutions at a global level. Asserting the space as one of learning and knowledge rather than a source of economic wealth.

AfN: One year ago, you became the director of the MNCARS. What position was the museum in at the time?

Manuel Borja-Villel: Due mainly to the fact that the MNCARS is a relatively young museum, but also for many other reasons, urgent issues had prevented it from facing important issues. Only very specific actions had been taken, but the museum was lacking a clear idea of what it wanted to do.

AfN: And what are the differences between the museum today and the one you found a year ago?

Manuel Borja-Villel: The first measure we have taken in the last year has been the introduction of a scheme aimed at updating the managerial system of the museum, which is still archaic. If everything goes well, I think it will be ready at the end of this year and is going to be of great importance. Moreover, we have started to rearrange the collection and expect it to be ready by May 2009. This rearrangement is focused on a museum that intends not to explain the hegemonic history of the 20th century, but to explain other sorts of stories more related to the South, as it is named by Enrique Dussel; stories more to do with the modernity that has not been able to express itself. Finally, the rearrangement aims at establishing equivalences between the museum and today's global social and political situation. This has entailed the creation of a Department of Public Programs (which, in a way, is like creating a collage within the museum itself), and the arrangement of temporary activities, and is the direction we will follow from now on.

So far, the arrangement of the collection stresses maybe too much on a vision of History of Art based on the name of the artist. All this has been changed, trying to strengthen education elements and elements of thought. This has also evolved towards a reconsideration of the spaces of the museum and of the two buildings that compose the Reina Sofía: the Nouvel and Sabatini buildings.

AfN: In your opinion, which was the most urgent problem to solve?

Manuel Borja-Villel: All of them, because they are all interrelated. It is difficult to propose dynamic activities without creating a modern structure; but without these activities -no matter how good your internal organization is- it is like having the hardware but not the software to activate it. These are just essential procedures.

AfN: What are the guidelines of your acquisition policy?

Manuel Borja-Villel: The guidelines are linked to this new approach for the collection, a collection that is the antithesis of the modern linear global collection, based upon parameters related to the English speaking world. It is located in another perspective in which there is not a sole narration but an array of narrations which discuss with each other a very specific reality -that of Spain, which is in turn related to Europe, Latin America and the Mediterranean- plus another reality that is more complex, more universal.

This principle is not arranged in a homogenous way, but through lines of force, through case studies, through specific landmarks in history. There are three main lines of force; the 30s and everything related to a modernity that faces its own parameters, the change of artistic and political models in the 60s and 70s, and finally, the contemporary. There are also some historic milestones such as the turn of the century, the 20s, the 50s, the transition from the 70s to the 80s as well as some case studies, such as specific situations of the Spanish, Latin American or international sphere.

These historical landmarks bring about a cosmology of micronarrations and our hope is to somehow get this museum, through this method and content, to be the voice of the South, a South that has remained speechless for the last 200 years.

AfN: Do you think Spain is part of this South? Don't you see the country embedded in the hegemonic discourse focused in the United States and Europe?

Manuel Borja-Villel: It may be embedded from a political and economic point of view, but not in relation to the discourse. The Spanish culture has experienced quite a bizarre modernity; you have to take into account we have gone through a very long dictatorship. The fact that our democracy or our economic structures are so recent defines us as a culturally Southern country, in the sense that these countries have remained speechless. When analysing modernity, one realises that it is explained through the parameters of the English speaking world. The modernist concept itself, for example, does not exist in Spanish; there is a whole list of terms that do not belong to us, that are not applicable to what we are doing. Vice versa: the idea of esperpento, for example, which is not exactly the grotesque, nor the carnival is a term that is not applicable to this modernity we have inherited. Therefore, from a cultural point of view, we are absolutely part of the South.

AfN: Being an institution dependant on the public administration, to what extent do you consider the museum free to act as a source of critical thought?

Manuel Borja-Villel: Well, private museums as well as government funded institutions are experiencing a very difficult situation. Though private museums don't depend on the government, they do depend on trustees (usually collectors) who work for big corporations, etc. and, therefore, their alleged freedom is relative. Public museums in Spain have suffered the swings of politics: when a minister changes, all the directors change with him. The approval of the "Code of Best Practice" of the Ministry has entailed that the directors of museums are no longer political positions, but people designated to a specific project by an independent expert committee; this has changed the situation greatly.

But there is yet another determining issue: in general, we are all required to render high figures of visitors. The need to meet these quantitative figures makes museums, both public and private (we all behave in the same way in this respect) respond to economic approaches. Thus, the ability of museums to promote critical thought is nowadays extremely limited.

I believe the salvation, the chance for the museum to engage in critical discourse, involves a change in the scale: the micromuseum, the small centre of art that is not expected to reach the masses, which is free from those forms of pressure coming from the public sector, the media, the trustees or others. There is also the possibility of a museum comprising several micromuseums, with several microcentres.

I believe the MNCARS is in a privileged position to undertake this task because, unlike other museums, it is not exactly a museum-building, but almost a museum-city. Just think, we have the Sabatini, the Nouvel and the two buildings in El Retiro among others. The MNCARS is on a very large scale, it consists of a collection, an activity program for the Sabatini and Nouvel buildings, another for the palaces, another for Silos, a centre for studies, a documentation centre, and an independent program on thought. All these elements require different strategies and allow for very free spaces for critics and thought.

The wealth of classical works in our collection (Dalí, Miró, etc.) widely attracts the public -in fact, 1,800,000 people visited us last year. So we will be able to deal with the pressures each museum has to face. Nonetheless, such a wide structure allows at the same time for a study program or for exhibitions focused on minority audiences, which help keep a critical ability. A museum conceived not as a building but as a city allows for such a space.

AfN: How do you assess the fact that ARCO, an art fair, is the most important artistic event in Spain and one of the key meetings of the cultural calendar?

Manuel Borja-Villel: Well, I have a strong regard for ARCO and Lourdes Fernández, who is a good friend and whose work I deeply respect. However, ARCO being the greatest event of the Spanish cultural world, is a symptom of the weakness of the cultural and artistic system in which we live. A fair is the antithesis of the discourse: in fact, there is no discourse at a fair, there's only accumulation which is not the same. This does not mean that a fair is not useful in itself. The problem appears when the fair replaces the discourse or the rest of the artistic institutions of a country due to their own weaknesses (say a University, Academy, schools, museums). When this happens, we obviously have a problem because this exchange then takes the place of relationship and knowledge. This is a problem in Spain and in many other countries, but I believe it should somehow begin to fade little by little.

AfN: Moreover, this situation seems to provoke rejection among the masses, whose sight on contemporary art occurs only through the peephole of an art fair, making an inevitable association to consumerism.

Manuel Borja-Villel: Exactly. A fair is not history. A fair is not discourse. A fair is not really knowledge. A fair is just that: a fair. So, when a fair is the only contact for so many people to 20th century art, an ahistorical vision of the art is generated: an acritical and adiscursive vision, related almost exclusively to the markets. And when this occurs, we face a very serious problem: the lack of discourse, which is one of the most serious problems of our country.

Interview: Raúl Molín López

Translation: Alba Liñeira Otero
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