Tall, with pale eyes, Bernardo Paz was less nervous than in the past. In October, as he was welcoming foreign guests to Inhotim for the unveiling of new works, he smiled, gesticulating, not smoking anymore, a vice that had led to some picturesque episodes at the art center in the past: the restaurants of the complex were without “no smoking” signs to discourage him.
Commenting with his guests on the details of certain works, like the ‘bunker’ by Chris Burden installed in the highest part of the park – Beehive Bunker, formed by 332 bags of cement – the video installation by the German artist Lothar Baumgarten – Fragmento Brasil, which combines drawings made by the Indios of the Brazilian and Venezuelan Amazon region with fragments of canvases by painter-travelers – and the sculpture by Giuseppe Penone – Elevazione, which includes a bronze casting of an age-old chestnut tree – Paz transmitted a great sense of calm.
The chairman of the board of the Inhotim Institute is considered one of the most important collectors of contemporary art in all of Latin America, and the creator of this very special Brazilian art center that has a good reputation in institutional circles, and among Brazilian art critics and artists, as well as outstanding personalities on the international circuit. Their kudos are not a matter of chance. Opened in 2004, Inhotim has a unique story. It is located in Brumadinho, in the metropolitan area of Belo Horizonte, the capital of the state of Minas Gerais, a large city in the southeastern part of the country, the richest in Brazil, but without the central focus on contemporary art found in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.
The mixture of a large botanical garden with plants from all over the planet and spaces set aside for contemporary art on an international level – Matthew Barney, Doug Aitken, Doris Salcedo, Dan Graham, Olafur Eliasson, Steve McQueen and Janet Cardiff are just a few of the many artists whose works can be seen here – has given rise to a new type of cultural center.
At Inhotim many of the constructions have been made by the most famous names in Brazilian art, who are not always properly represented in the museums of the rest of the country, due to institutional shortcomings. Hélio Oiticica (1937-1980), Cildo Meireles and Tunga have permanent shows here that also help to make their works known in their native land. Emerging artists, too, like Cinthia Marcelle, Alexandre da Cunha and Marcius Galan, can show their works in the temporary exhibition areas.
The numbers of the Institute created by Bernando Paz tell a success story: 700 employees for a total area of 245 hectares (1 hectare is roughly the size of a football field), 100 hectares of gardens containing the installations, another 145 hectares of Atlantic Forest, a protected zone of native vegetation. Today only 1% of the forest heritage that existed back in 1500 has survived. In a few years Inhotim has emerged as a tourist attraction, and the center has received ample coverage in the specialized press.
The 78 works now on display, out of a total of 500, the 18 pavilions – permanent constructions – and the 24 works scattered throughout the park have attracted growing numbers of visitors. The average is 21,000 per month, but during the latest school vacation period, in July, 32,000 tickets were sold. An ambitious challenge. According to the traditional rankings in the prestigious ArtReview, on the 100 most influential people in the art world, Paz is listed in 76th place. But this was not always the case.
The critic Fabio Cypriano, in the Folha de S. Paulo, at the time of the opening of the first series of works, in 2004, had this to say: “Megalomania? The initiative certainly reminds us of the excesses of the Opera House of Manaus, built in the Amazon jungle, but Paz adds the ardor of a true art lover, not seen in institutional terms since the days of the creation of the MASP by Assis Chateaubriand in 1947. ‘I believe that contemporary art is in the hands of a few collectors, but we cannot see it, it is a world of vanity. I have created this place so people can see the best of art’, Paz says”. The same critic, in a more recent article in September 2010, says that Inhotim makes “excellent curatorial choices”, regarding the exhibiting of works by names like Miguel Rio Branco, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster and Rirkrit Tiravanija. Much of the capital invested in the pricy artworks seen in the green spaces of Inhotim comes from Itaminas, the mining company once owned by Paz, ceded to a Chinese group for about 1.2 million dollars. It is estimated that the mineral reserves of the small city of Sarzedo amount to 1.3 billion tons of ferrous materials. “I began working when I was 15, pumping gas, then I worked in a boutique.
Then the stock market. In all those jobs I was always very efficient. I grew up fast as an industrialist, becoming one of the biggest businessmen in the country in the late 1970s and early 1980s, in the mining sector. I encountered many difficulties due to all the plans that altered exchange rates to try to curb inflation. It was a tragedy for the economy of the country and for those who were trying to export”, Paz stated in an interview with the journalist Marcos Augusto Gonçalves, in the Folha de S. Paulo in 2009. “I was a handsome youth, but I was ashamed of my beauty. People said that if you had the good luck of being handsome you didn’t have to make much effort, especially to attract people of the opposite sex. They say beautiful people are stupid… So I had an inferiority complex; I didn’t think of myself as a handsome man, but as a person who had to prove he was normal. This was such an arduous struggle that I created 39 companies, providing jobs for 9000 people. I was a pioneer of doing business with the Chinese, and I have traveled all over the world”, he said in the same interview.
Still striking at age 61, Paz has a team of professional curators at the center – the American Allan Schwartzman, the German Jochen Volz, co-curator of a Venice Biennale, and the mining entrepreneur Rodrigo Moura – and has transformed the center into a space of activities focused on the environment and social progress. Many of the employees are from Brumadinho, a city that prior to the opening of the center was going through a period of economic hardship. The institute also supports the activities of local artisans. An educational program permits the students of public schools to make use of the center. “I don’t know what the next step is. Things are not finished here.
This place will be here always”, Paz says. But we can report on the initiatives slated for 2012: by the end of May the pavilions by Lygia Pape and Tunga should be completed, while in October the new constructions for the works of Claudia Andujar, Cristina Iglesias and Olafur Eliasson should be ready. A pousada with 42 rooms, a wellness center and an elegant restaurant will be opened in 2013.
Paz has been able to overcome initial diffidence and emerge as a key figure on the circuit of Brazilian contemporary art
Starting from nothing, he has created an empire of 39 companies. Now the magnate of Brazilian industry links his name to Inhotim, a contemporary art center near Belo Horizonte, where installations by the most highly acclaimed contemporary artists coexist with the uncontaminated Atlantic Forest.