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A very valuable collection now protected

More security and comfort for visitors at the Museum of Contemporary Art

There was a time when the third most important museum in Latin America excelled by its zero security. Just a glass door separated the outside environment, the street, from the exhibition area, where works of painters of exceptional worth, like Picasso, Modigliani and Matisse, were found. “There was a great risk of a robbery taking place” admits José Teixeira Coelho Netto, the director of the institution, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MAC), of the University of São Paulo (USP).

More problems? The building had been designed to have an air-conditioning system, but it was never installed. The building did not therefore even have any natural ventilation, even of the most precarious kind. “The heat was unbearable, the building really was a greenhouse, people could not stand staying half an hour in the museum” says Coelho Netto. The problem was not only this. The strong heat threatened the very well-being of the works.The list goes on. The fire protection system was little more than a few fire extinguishers scattered around the building, not at all suitable for a museum of this size. The least that could be said about the distribution of space was that it was really bad. The lighting, precarious, used common light fittings, the same as those used in factories and offices, absolutely inadvisable for an environment for exhibitions.

Fortunately, the changes have started. In good measure, with the use of an allocation of R$ 2.6 million from Fapesp’s Infrastructure Program. Over half of this amount was invested in the installation of an air-conditioning system that is not limited to making life more comfortable for visitors and staff. Technologically very advanced, it controls electronically not only the temperature but also the humidity of the air, something of extreme importance for the conservation of the works.

Putting this air-conditioning to work was no easy task. The infrastructure for the installation of the equipment already existed. But the ducts were enormous, and in some cases went as far as to cover half of a wall. The answer was to build false walls of plaster panels, running alongside the brickwork walls. The immense outlets for the air were thereby covered up. The museum gained. The equipment was totally built in, and the new walls are free for pictures to be hung, without any visual pollution.

To improve security, the exhibition area was drawn back and is now isolated from the entrance hall, protected by more resistant doors. MAC gained, too, a very efficient fire-fighting system, similar to the one installed in the Louvre Museum, in Paris. If a sensor detects a source of fire, the system automatically launches in the area affected an inert gas under pressure, called FM-200, which puts out the flames without causing damage to people or to the works. The release of gas is restricted to the area identified by the system’s microprocessors as being the location of the fire. It does not reach any other places.

Exaggerated? Probably not, if the value of MAC’s collection is taken into account. “The museum has the largest and most important collection of modern and contemporary art in Brazil” states its director, Coelho Netto. Amongst oil paintings, engravings and sculptures, MAC has around 8,000 works, more, for example, than the Museum of Modern Art of São Paulo (MASP). The permanent collection represents practically all the artistic movements of the 20th century, both those that arose abroad and the Brazilian ones.

Amongst the foreign artists with works at MAC are, for example, Picasso, Modigliani, De Chirico, Léger, Matisse, Kandinsky, Max Ernst, Morandi, Appel, Albers, Vasarely, Fontana, Calder, Rauschenberg and Wasselman. Amongst the Brazilians, Tarsila do Amaral, Anita Malfatti, Portinari, Goeldi, Flávio de Carvalho, Waldemar Cordeiro, Lygia Clark, Hélio Oiticica, Volpi, Mario Zanini, Bonadei, Gomide, Antônio Henrique Amaral, Nelson Leirner, Tomie Ohtake, Manabu Mabe, Aguilar, Paulo Pasta, Evandro Jardim and Regina Silveira.

When an opportunity appears for easier access, even under conditions that are less than ideal, this collection is greatly appreciated by the public. An exhibition staged by MAC in the Gallery of FIESP, in São Paulo, between April and August 1999, attracted no less than 90,000 visitors, a record for exhibitions of a Brazilian collection. Another measure of the value of MAC’s collection is the frequency with which its works are requested for exhibitions in major international museums. For example, there have already been formal loan agreements with such institutions as the Museum of Modern Art of New York (MoMA), the National Museum of Germany, in Berlin, and the Antoni Tapiès Foundation, of Barcelona.

One of the works most sought after by foreign museums is one of MAC’s highlights, the only self-portrait painted by the Italian painter and sculptor, Amedeo Modigliani. “This is a fundamental work for any exhibition of this artist”, says Coelho Netto. Another work that is much requested is Tarsila do Amaral’s A Negra, regarded as the most representative picture of Brazilian Modernism. But the collection has other rarities, such as a few dozen works by Di Cavalcanti, 21 canvases by Volpi and over a 100 prints by Renina Katz. At the last São Paulo Biennial, in 1998, there were no less than 40 works from MAC on the walls of the exhibition.

But some of the rarities that the museum has are still being discovered. MAC has a permanent archive. Part of its contents remained in packages, ignored, when the collection was transferred from the old building, in Ibirapuera Park, to the new building, on the campus of USP. To organize this material, made up in the main by posters and items donated by artists, and to make it accessible, above it there had to be funds, and these were achieved with the support of Fapesp’s Infrastructure Program.

“What we used to have, whether it was kept at USP or Ibirapuera, was a general archive, heaped up under unsuitable conditions, inside boxes or packages, just as it came when it was donated by the artists”, says Silvana Karpinski, a specialist in documentation and one of those responsible for the work, in conjunction with the director of MAC’s library, Dina Elizabeth Uliana. “Now we have a living archive, capable of receiving researchers, giving easy access to what they want to consult”, Silvana adds.

Special cabinets
The work of opening up the archives brought to light many surprises, such as, for example, the personal documents of the artist Ernesto de Fiori, scattered about among the material. All the documents were dealt with, and the majority is kept in sliding steel cabinets. Some posters and other documents that are difficult to handle went into special cabinets. The collection was digitalized and recorded on CD-ROM. “There is no risk of part of it getting lost or deteriorating”, Silvana explains.

The reform carried out in the building on the campus at USP also improved the arrangement of the exhibition areas. Previously, the museum worked in a single hall. Now, it is divided into eight sections. This has given it flexibility when arranging the works to be exhibited. The lighting has changed too. All the old light fittings were replaced. The new ones were specially designed for the museum. With them, it is possible to direct and control the quantity of light in each of MAC’s sections.

The rearrangement of spaces made it possible to double the technical reserve, the places where the works that are not on display at that moment are kept. This meant that part of the material that remained in the Ibirapuera building, where the conditions of security continued to be poor – about half of the collection – could be brought over. “There was still not enough space to house the whole collection in the USP building, but the museum has now much peace of mind regarding security” states Coelho Netto. The main works are all in MAC.

Great Gallery
Of the eight galleries in which the new building is now divided, four are in the West Wing of the building, and two, twinned, in the middle. The group is completed with a High Gallery, for larger pieces to be hung on the walls, and a Great Gallery, prepared as a space particularly suitable for the display of contemporary works.

People seem to like the changes. The museum that reopened its doors in December last year after seven months of refurbishment is decidedly not the same. The average of visitors, which used to by 30 persons a day before the reform, rose to 80. On the first day of its reopening , 2,000 persons were received, a figure that had never before been reached in its history.

The glass-enclosed entrance continues, calling attention amongst the other buildings in the street of the Rector on USP’s campus. The treated apparent concrete and the installation of smoked glass and of a marquise to protect the main entrance gave the façade a new appearance. The entrance hall got a small shop for the sale of souvenirs, like other great museums of the world. Places for the sale of coffee and snacks will soon be working. The fiberglass domes of the roof were replaced by a concrete slab, increasing security and the resistance to rainwater.

New Work
Coelho Netto says that the reforms have had a great repercussion in the artistic milieu as well. Of the hundred artists invited for the inauguration of the New Work, the display that marked the reopening of the museum after the reform, 97 immediately confirmed their presence, and the others justified their absence, for personal reasons or for being abroad. “The artists are also visiting the museum more” says the director. “Many were very impressed with the modern and pleasing aspect of the building” he adds.

There have been cases where this recognition has had a more practical nature. Several artists were so heartened by MAC’s refurbishment decided to make a contribution to the museum’s collection. More than 20 donations were made in a few weeks, including some by well known artists like Cláudio Tozzi, Ubirajara Ribeiro, Maria Bonomi, Archangelo Ianelli and Renina Katz.

Works on paper
After FAPESP’s initiative, other important donations have begun to arrive at the museum. For example, an association that supports projects in the areas of culture and education, Vitae, advanced R$ 98,000 for this USP institution. The funds were used to pay part of the expenses with the installation of a special room for the conservation of works on paper. The marketing company, Thompson, is drawing up, without any charge, a project to advertise the museum. And a transport company, Alves Tegan, charges nothing for carrying the works of MAC to exhibitions in other places.

The room for the works on paper, the Paper Cabinet, took especially into account the needs of the researchers, besides the interest of the public. The works are not exactly displayed, but kept in special drawers. This is how 400 works are accommodated in the place, when, in a normal exhibition, it would not be possible to hold a tenth of this total. The museum puts the Paper Cabinet into a concept that it calls varied attendance, serving simultaneously researchers, artists, educators, and the general public.

Structure for support
“In technological terms, MAC is today the most advanced museum in the country”, says Coelho Netto, “and, in terms of pleasantness and suitability of space, it is amongst the best of South America”. The director recalls that these qualities are fundamental for an institution created not only to display beautiful exhibitions, but also to provide support for research. In addition to its works and a structure of support for researchers, MAC also maintains a set of laboratories for preservation and restoration. In this area, too, FAPESP was present, with investments in projects of a scientific nature.

It is also important to recall that MAC has a teaching division and one for cultural activities, which works together with the public schools of São Paulo. There are, for example, frequent guided visits to its installations by primary school pupils. Another example is that MAC is at the moment organizing a handbook for teachers, intended to help them to prepare their pupils for this kind of visit. There are also programs aimed to children with physical and mental handicaps, which even include material and activities for this special public.

Coelho Netto explains that Fapesp’s contribution has been decisive for the life of the museum. He declares that MAC’s first great moment happened in 1963, when the couple, Francisco Matarazzo Sobrinho and Yolanda Penteado donated to USP the works of art of their private collections and those that comprised the then Museum of Modern Art (MAM). In exchange, the university undertook to create MAC and to put up a building to house this collection. This building is the current one, in the Rector’s street, inaugurated in October 1992.

The second great moment for the institution, in the opinion of its director, was when MAC, with the support of FAPESP, was able to set up an infrastructure comparable to that of the great international museums. “Without a doubt, this is the second most distinctive moment in the life of museum” he declares.