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Visual Arts

University museum with a national stature

After renovation, USP's Contemporary Art Museum gains importance, visibility, and becomes a model to be followed

eduardo cesar“The Paradox of the Saint”, a work by Regina Silveira: collection houses the best of contemporary arteduardo cesar

In the heart of the campus of the University of São Paulo (USP), right next to the Clock Square, a modernist box houses one of the biggest and most important national art collections of the 20th century. With about 8,000 works, the Contemporary Art Museum (MAC/USP), remained forgotten for a long time by the university community. And even more unknown to the public in general. But the renovation carried out in its premises and a policy of increasing the visibility of the museum have reintegrated it into the route of the major national museums, going beyond the domains of university life.

The initiative was taken by the last director of the museum, José Teixeira Coelho Netto, whose term of office ended in March. With finance from FAPESP’s Infrastructure Support Program and contributions from the Vitae Foundation and from the rectorate of the university itself, he transformed the building into a model for museology, comprising equipment and research material that obey the most demanding international rules. “The consequences of the program and of the reform can be seen now”, says Teixeira Coelho. “We are being visited by representatives from museums that are being organized outside São Paulo. They got news of what had been done, and want to know how they can benefit from our experience”, Teixeira Coelho explains.

FAPESP gave the largest contribution to the reform of the building: R$ 2.7 million. The Vitae Foundation granted some R$ 100,000 for the construction of the Paper Office, and USP’s rectorate provided R$ 54,000 for the construction of the auditorium, the last work delivered under his administration, in February. In parallel with the concern with the physical aspect of the museum, which before the reform showed precarious conditions for the appreciation of art – for example, with the presence of a restaurant between the exhibition space and the technical reserve -, Teixeira Coelho established important alliances for recovering a visibility that the museum has already had in the past.

One of them was with the Sesi Gallery, in the building of the Federation of the Industries of the State of São Paulo (Fiesp), located on Paulista Avenue. Temporary displays are put on there, likeStrategies for Dazzling , now on show there, with works by Bill Viola, Bia Lessa, Amélia Toledo, Eder Santos and others. “Today, museums can’t do without alliances with private enterprise”, says Teixeira Coelho.

“Being in a place where people pass by and very central, it is a space that makes a much larger public get to know the museum”, he reckons. The Sesi Gallery was also important, for housing exhibitions during the time that the USP building was closed for renovation. The museum’s visibility was also expanded with the museum’s website (, where it is possible to learn about its activities and the collection.

On the other hand, an educational project that has been running for the last five years increased the closeness between the MAC and its public of children. Carried out at the museum’s Teaching and Cultural Action Division, the Museum, Education and Play Project is coordinated by Mariangela Serri Francoio and supervised by Maria Helena Pires Martins. It has the goal of researching into a ludic methodology capable of making children between the ages of 4 and 6 feel like coming back and staying in the museum.

“At that age, we believe that it is fundamental for the child to have a relationship of pleasure with the museum”, explains Maria Helena. To do so, the division created pedagogical exhibitions that last for about two years. At these, there are always original works by renowned artists from MAC’s collection in contrast, like Picasso, Tarsila do Amaral and Aldemir Martins, and games based on these same works, produced especially for the museum, like puzzles, dominos, memory games and others. “The games end up having an educational function. Our objective is to give the children the cognitive conditions for understanding the artistic universe, as well as creating a vocabulary relating to the arts, and to develop the capacity for observation”, he comments.

Ludic Methodology
With support from grants supplied by FAPESP’s Improvement of Public Schooling Program, the Museum, Education and Play Project signed a contract, covering the last three years, with the Judge Dalmo do Valle Nogueira Municipal School for Children’s Education, from the Vila Sônia district, on the West side of São Paulo. “Our proposal was to take to the teachers the qualifications for ludic methodology shown at the museum”, says Maria Helena. “In the first year, we carried out the preparation of the teachers. And in the following two years, we organized visits by the children to the museum and activities at school. The whole methodology was developed on the basis of the educational philosophy of Piaget”, she went on. The work could be carried out following the pedagogical exhibition that has just been concluded at the Teaching and Cultural Action Division, entitled Merry-Go-Round of Shapes: Games, Toys and Fun .

“At the end of the project, we realized that the museum had become part of the life of the school and of the community”, she says. The school halls were packed with works relating to art, produced by the children. And the parents also got involved in side l activities”, she went on. In other cases, as she recounts, art served as an exercise in citizenship. For example, when they were studying the work of Frans Krajcberg, an artist who criticizes the destruction of nature, using dead natural elements, like leaves and roots, the school carried out works on environmental education, organizing a visit to the Atlantic Rain Forest reserve at Sesc Interlagos. The teachers’ grants were paid by FAPESP, as were the grants for the recently graduated who were responsible for the construction, at the school, the toys needed for the ludic methodology, idealized in the project.

Just as the children can have, at the Teaching and Cultural Action Division, their access facilitated to the world of the arts, MAC’s new building allows the public to have a linear comprehension of the history of art in the 20th century, by means of some 120 works from the collection that are permanently on display. The works are basically set out in chronological order, in order to guide the visitor to a panorama of how artistic movements developed in the course of the century, both in Brazil and in the world.

New building
Works from the first two decades of the 20th century can be seen in the room at the back of the museum, next to the Paper Office. This Office deserves a special chapter in the history of the MAC’s new building. Built with the support of the Vitae Foundation, it houses hundreds of works, which in general is regarded as a lesser art. “We heard many compliments from art lovers and critics for enhancing these works”, says Teixeira Coelho. Besides the works, one of the attractions of the room is its architecture, which combines a modern system of rails and drawers, in which the drawings and prints are kept, with materials carefully chosen from the esthetic point of view. The best thing is that the visitor can handle the drawers and rails at will, which increases the pleasure and the contact with the works.

In the room where works from the first two decades of the century are found, 1922 and the Idea of the Modern exhibition can be seen, in homage to the 80th anniversary of the São Paulo Week of Modern Art. Coming out of it, the 30s and 40s are to be found, where the clash is seen between two vanguard schools: the Paris school and the Italian one. The decades of the 60s and the 70s are represented by works of Brazilian abstract expressionism, like Yolanda Mohalyi, Manabu Mabe and Tomie Ohtake. Other forms of abstraction can also be seen in the works of Kandinsky, Cícero Dias, Volpi, Milton da Costa, Hélio Oiticica and others. The newest contemporary art, as could hardly be otherwise, is represented by grandiloquent works, such as The Paradox of the Saint (1994), by Regina Silveira, works by Waltercio Caldas and others.

Although, generally speaking, it is organized chronologically, the MAC’s permanent exhibition also gathers together a few works on the same theme. This is the case of an area totally dedicated to marinas, where there are pictures by Anita Malfatti, Di Cavalcanti and Pancetti. Or, again, an area of still lifes, with Matisse, Bonadei and Maria Leontina. Some sculptures merit prominence, such as Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913), by the Italian Umberto Boccioni, whose original plaster mold was entrusted to the Tate Gallery, in London. In other spaces, there are specific narratives, like the one that practically narrates the beginning of the military dictatorship in Brazil, with works produced in 1964 by artists like Flávio Shiró, Iberê Camargo and Ivan Serpa.

Special treatment
This whole collection won special treatment after the reform of the building. Specific equipment guarantees safety from fire (besides sprinklers, there are devices that detect when somebody lights up a cigarette) and from vandalism. “The fire protection system was implanted by the same company that developed the one for the Louvre Museum”, says Teixeira Coelho. In addition, the museum gained special climate control and lighting systems. And even before the country had fallen into the electricity crisis, a generator was purchased, which helped to keep it open to the public during the months of rationing.

“These measures turned the MAC into one of the best qualified museums in the country, as several foreign technicians who visited Brazil to assess the technical conditions of the national museums have attested”, Teixeira Coelho commemorates. A bench of computers allows visitors to carry out research and to make inquiries on the works. The renovation lasted nine months. According to Teixeira Coelho, special partnerships and contracts entered into for the maintenance of the security and climate control systems. The architectural project was drawn up by Maria Cecília Barbieri Gorski, and the reform had the technical consultancy of Engineer João Paulo Miguel.

International entry
The improvements in the physical space and the greater visibility of the museum for the community helped the MAC to make headway towards putting into effect a third objective set by theTeixeira Coelho management at the start of his mandate. This is the museum’s entry into the international circuit, which in a way began to be met with the choice of the MAC, by the Tate Gallery of London, to house a large exhibition of modern and contemporary English art in Brazil, in 2003. This is a display of about 120 works, by about 50 artists, amongst them fundamental names of English art, like David Hockney, Francis Bacon and Gilbert&George pair. “We have our arms open to receive international exhibitions, but, of course, we also want to know about interchanges”, said Teixeira Coelho in February, right after coming back from his visit to London, where he met with the management of the Tate Gallery. “We want the MAC’s collection to be exhibited there as well. But it is not as easy as all that”.

Anyhow, the challenge of including the museum’s collection definitively in the international scenario will be a job for Teixeira Coelho’s successor. As also will be the option of following or not some suggestions from the previous management as far as guidelines for this beginning of the century are concerned. One of them is the construction of a new building, located in São Paulo Downtown, with the objective of showing, according to Teixeira Coelho, “the university’s commitment not only to the arts, but to the culture of the city, of the state, and of the country”.

The building should have more space and better conditions for housing the MAC’s collection. “The Association of Friends of the Museum is willing to go ahead with this project. It has also been presented to the president of the Republic and to the state governor, and there was clearly support for the idea”, says Teixeira Coelho.