Saudades of a collection


Only a few hours ago the art world learned of a tragic event: on Friday night nearly 2,000 works by Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica perished in a fire. It is an incalculable loss of the work of someone who is increasingly recognized today as one of the most influential Latin American artists of the XXth Century. Although the actual number may be lower, the initial and estimate of the lost works was a mind-numbing 90% of Oiticica’s entire production.

The collection at that moment was temporarily located in the house of Oiticica’s brother, Cesar Oiticica, because of a dispute between the Oiticica family and the city of Rio regarding unpaid fees for the lending of the works and, ironically, because of an an argument around the safe storage for these pieces. This past April, the Centro Municipal de Arte Hélio Oiticica opened a large retrospective of his work, which prompted the quarrel that resulted in their temporary relocation on Cesar Oiticica’s house in the Rio neighborhood of Jardim Botanico. Cesar Oiticica claimed that his house was conditioned with adequate alarms and climate control systems— which in any case didn’t help to prevent the fire.

It is true that fires happen everywhere and in the most secure institutions. But after the initial shock and mourning passes, there will be important questions to ask around the circumstances of this loss. For instance, was it inevitable for this invaluable collection to be placed in such a precarious storage? When a national treasure lands in private hands, what kind of responsibility do individual keepers – or a government – should have in order to ensure its safety? And just to what extent was financial greed a factor in causing the works to land in such a vulnerable location? Whatever the answers may be, this situation should open a debate for both governments and collectors to discuss how can the works of important artists be preserved in ways that insure the best conditions, focusing less in rights and money and more on the survival of the works. Will there be a time when issues of preservation of important art works may take precedence over ownership?

Author: Pablo Helguera

Pablo Helguera is a New York-based artist and contributing editor for Artworld Salon. Originally from Mexico City, his multi-disciplinary work often deals with topics such as history, social thought, perception, fiction, and academicism. His works, which are usually performative in nature, have included making phonograph recordings, composing orchestral pieces, inventing fictional artists and museums, founding educational and research institutions, and writing scripted symposia with actors. He has performed individually at the Museum of Modern Art, NY (Parallel Lives, 2003), and has exhibited or performed at other venues such as the Royal College of Art, London; the Havana Biennial, Performa 05, and many others. He received a Creative Capital Grant for “The School of Panamerican Unrest”, a nomadic think-tank that physically traveled by car from Anchorage, Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, covering 25,000 miles, and becoming the most physically extensive public art project on record. This project will be showcased in a solo traveling exhibition organized by El Museo del Barrio in New York, which will also travel to London, Mexico City and in other locations. From 1998 to 2005 he served as Senior Manager of Education of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, where he developed and oversaw the museum’s public programs. He has organized more than 500 public programs in the course of his museum career, including the international symposium The Museum as Medium (2002) and the Fifth Installment of the International Symposium of Contemporary Art Theory in Mexico City (SITAC, 2005). He currently is Director of Adult and Academic Programs of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and a Guggenheim Fellow. He is the author of four books: Endingness (2005), an essay on the art of memory; The Pablo Helguera Manual of Contemporary Art Style (2005; Spanish edition; 2007, English edition), a social etiquette manual for the art world; The Witches of Tepoztlán (and other Unpublished Operas), (2007), The Boy Inside the Letter (2008) and Artoons (2009).

1 thought on “Saudades of a collection”

  1. I remember, about ten years ago, having a conversation with a prominent Oiticica scholar about the care of Oiticica’s work and archives. At that time there was tremendous concern among people who cared about his work that the institution could not support it adequately with basic protection from climate conditions. So it is not that the work fell into Cesar Oiticica’s hands, but that it ever needed such advocacy to begin with. This work has always been in a precarious situation.

    I wonder if there were a better way for the scholars who cared about his work – and effectively produced its value for an audience – to advocate for the care of the work they knew to be at risk. When I learned of it ten years ago the mood was one of frustrated incapacitation over the divide between known cultural value and funding, and sadness over what was understood to be an impending loss.

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