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?