Argentina’s art scene comes to the fore

Conditions are ripe for the country’s rich but isolated cultural landscape to have its moment in the sun

VIPs on the hunt for the next big thing at Art Basel in Miami Beach would do well to train their eyes on Argentina. As the Pérez Art Museum Miami presents the first US survey of the Mendoza-born Modernist Julio Le Parc and the Buenos Aires-born developer Alan Faena unveils his new cultural centre in Miami Beach, the country seems poised for a breakthrough.

It is not all down to luck. Argentina’s newfound presence in Miami is part of a concerted effort by galleries, government officials and philanthropists to carve out a place for the country in the international art scene.

Until now, Argentina’s artists and galleries have been a comparatively minor presence in Miami. Although international dealers bring biennial regulars such as Tomás Saraceno to the fair, the weak peso has been a barrier for many homegrown dealers. “Mexico and Brazil are so present in the contemporary art conversation, but that’s not the case for Argentina,” says the collector Federico Castro Debernardi, who created the Fundación Arte in 2014 to address this imbalance.

Taking its turn—at last

Judging by the historical offerings at Art Basel, the ongoing reappraisal of regional Modernisms is finally turning to Argentina. Jorge Mara, of Galería Jorge Mara-La Ruche in Buenos Aires, says that during his seven years participating in the fair, “we have seen changes in perspective and appreciation” of Modern Argentine artists. In the past, most of Mara’s sales in Miami were to institutions; this year, US collectors placed reserves on paintings by Sarah Grilo ($50,000-$150,000) before the opening, a development he calls “unprecedented”.

Several international galleries are presenting work by Argentine artists. Espaivisor of Valencia is showing Graciela Carnevale’s El encierro (Confinement) (1968). Forty photographs document a performance in which the artist locked an audience inside an empty gallery to protest against repression by the government. Espaivisor’s co-director, Mira Bernabeu, calls it “one of the most important works in the history of Latin American art” and is offering the final two full editions (priced from €125,000).

London’s Stephen Friedman Gallery is showing work by Manuel Espinosa, a pioneer of Concrete art who, unlike his contemporary Le Parc, was not shown widely outside Argentina during his lifetime. At Art Miami, Cecilia de Torres of New York is exhibiting paintings by the abstract artist Inés Bancalari.

Contemporary dealers have had a harder time breaking through. Nora Fisch, one of seven Argentine dealers at Untitled, is bringing paintings by Juan Tessi, who showed at the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires this year. “He has this amazingly complex, mature approach, yet he costs about the same as a recent graduate from Columbia [University],” Fisch says.

Recipe for success

There are encouraging signs. After almost 12 years of protectionist policies that resulted in an economic crisis, Argentina elected Mauricio Macri, a market-minded reformist, as president in 2015. His administration sees the arts as a potential economic engine. This year, 43 dealers formed an alliance, Meridiano, partly to lobby for revisions to tax policy.

“Historically, artists were seen as potential enemies,” Mara says. “The government has done a lot in the short time that it has been in power to repair that mutual distrust.” Six of the seven galleries at Untitled received government funding for their stands, and Buenos Aires launched a partnership with Art Basel earlier this year; the city is paying the firm to advise on cultural programmes.

The mayor of Buenos Aires, Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, is due to take part in a panel at the fair on Thursday about the city’s efforts to cultivate a cultural economy. The cultural consultant András Szántó, who is moderating the discussion, says: “To integrate into the international art world, you need strong institutions, strong artists, collectors who are able to give that initial boost and a regulatory environment that invites the art trade.” Argentina fulfils only the first three, he says, but it does have a sense of momentum. “It reminds me of Eastern Europe after 1989—that sense of turning the page.”

The Art News Paper