ICOM UK member Luigi Galimberti interviews Maria Eugenia Salcedo about the Inhotim Institute, Brazil.
Maria Eugenia Salcedo Repolês is an educator and researcher. Since before the official opening of Instituto Inhotim in 2006, and until July 2019, she had been working there as Education Manager and, more recently, as Deputy Artistic Director. In 2008, she received the Rumos Educação, Cultura e Arte prize given by Itaú Cultural for her work with Inhotim’s educational projects, as well as the Darcy Ribeiro award in 2010. More recently, she has collaborated with the Fundación TyPA in Argentina and the São Paulo Biennial in Brazil.
Luigi Galimberti is a Board Member of Res Artis, the world’s largest membership-based network of artist residencies. He was previously Collection Care Research Manager at Tate, London.
Luigi: What is the history of Inhotim?
Maria Eugenia: Instituto Inhotim opened its doors to the general public in 2006, after being visited by artists, critics, curators and other specialists over the two years prior to that.
Inhotim was a new undertaking, not only because it was outside of the Säo Paulo-Rio de Janeiro Brazilian art circuit, but because it introduced a unique combination between sites spread throughout the land, outstanding national and international contemporary art, and exuberant gardens.
From the start, there was a strong focus on how education could be central to the development of the project together with the curatorial staff. At Inhotim this was being explored as a possibility some time before the educational turn in curatorial discussions became widespread in Brazil. On another level, its commissions brought the site-specific discussion to Brazil. This is also something that is in Inhotim’s DNA. Having works by artists like Cildo Meireles, Adriana Varejäo, Tunga on show for a long period and having them accessible was very special for those who worked there and for the public.
Luigi: How do the botanical and the artistic come together at Inhotim?
Maria Eugenia: Inhotim was established officially as a botanical garden in 2010, but the idea of creating a great garden was there since 2006. Inhotim is a place in which the visitor could be in contact with nature in an organized way, as all gardens are, but actually in a tropical scenario, with the smells, the changing climate and the light. The botanical garden is a place where research is being conducted, while at the same time it is there to stimulate the senses.
Inhotim is hard to define, and our visitors struggle with that too. I remember when I was an educator, I would show things to people and we would walk around for hours. At the end of the tours, some visitors would ask me something like, “When are we actually entering the museum? Where is the big portal?”.
Inhotim is about having this experience of being inside a gallery, outside a gallery, in the garden, or just sitting down talking about the sun in the same way that you talk about, I guess, a work of art by Olafur Eliasson and taking the conversation in a very soft way, because the space and the experience inspires that.
You see people who have an interest in botany and go there for that reason because they have heard about this in a specialized magazine and all of a sudden they are taken by a contemporary art project, and vice versa.
Across all the projects, the 23 art galleries and the outdoor sculptures, we have been able to maintain this experience-based transdisciplinary atmosphere, but also the idea of being able to breathe and relax. I am not sure if relax is the right word, but it is certainly about having some time between one thing and the other. This cannot be said about many tourist places or museums. This is what makes Inhotim quite unique and we have been able to maintain this characteristic since its beginnings.
Luigi: How has Inhotim been evolving since 2006?
Maria Eugenia: Over the years, I have seen Inhotim being dreamt as the greatest contemporary art museum of the 21st century, as a high-end botanical garden research centre, as a place for innovation and technology or as a tourist destination. All this was against all odds because of our location, the scarcity of nearby hotel rooms or services, or just because it takes time to get there.
Focusing on the art collection, the transformation has been about finding and installing great works of art in a very special site all over the territory, creating simultaneously a map that attracts visitors, but enough physical and conceptual space in between one thing and the other, but also for other things to happen, such as shows, seminars or cultural programs.
Not only have we been listening to how artists react when they have a commission in a place like this that challenges their concepts, but also in terms of how visitors respond to the idea of having a hike to find a work of art that maybe it is not beautiful in its aesthetics, but it is beautiful in the way it challenges and makes them question their reality or maybe sparks a great conversation that happens at that moment.
Luigi: Can you tell us something about Inhotim’s more recent past?
Maria Eugenia: Our galleries always originate from a conversation about connecting architecture, landscape architecture and art every time in a unique way. Our last big project of this kind was in 2015, which is when the building dedicated to Claudia Andujar was inaugurated. This project made us think about how we can engage in a deeper way with certain contemporary issues. 2015 was a point where Inhotim had to look back to its history but also look ahead and I think that is one of the reasons why Claudia Andujar was the last biggest building that was built.
After that project and after the landmark retrospective on Tunga, who had recently passed away, we did a couple of revisions of the collection exhibition, which mainly focussed on what else can be shown on a temporary basis that would really give to the public the experience of an interconnected territory. The idea was to expand contemporary art dialogues with nature but also with its own history, such as bringing shows that can reflect and give to the public a sense of historical background and the context to artists that the public seems now to be familiar with. For instance, when you mention Helio Oiticica, you hear, “Yes, of course, I know Helio”. Then, all of a sudden you can put Helio into a context in which you introduce other artists that are really fundamental to understand what Helio Oiticica was and is all about in Brazilian art, but also in the global context.
Luigi: What challenges lie ahead for Inhotim?
Maria Eugenia: Before I left Inhotim earlier this year (I now work on special projects with them), we were considering how to expand its relationship with the neighbouring communities, particularly in light of the Brumadinho dam disaster, which occurred in January 2019. That tragic event put everything into a different perspective and made us aware of a different responsibility about the surroundings.
What we discussed in the last few months was how we can be sensitive to what is happening and what is going to continue to happen around us in a way that does not change our characteristics of being a beautiful, almost enchanted place. Local people are actually very thankful for our presence, not only for economic or tourism development, but also as a way of reconstructing the sense of self, the sense of belonging, on so many different cultural levels, but at the same time being sensible to what awaits us in the future. I think that is a great opportunity.