When it officially reopens next week, Rio de Janeiro’s futuristic Museu de Arte Moderna (a.k.a. MAM Rio) will not only have a slew of COVID-19-related safety measures in place, it will also feature a pair of new artistic directors—the first in the museum’s 70-year history. The duo come to MAM after an unusual recruitment process: Rather than rely on a conventional search firm or committee, the museum put out an “open call” in May of this year for qualified candidates to apply and vie for the position. Some 103 applicants took part in the four-month-long process, and two were ultimately selected: curators Keyna Eleison and Pablo Lafuente.
As they prepare for their MAM debut, Eleison and Lafuente share with AD their vision the museum’s potential to expanding the role of art and culture in Brazil.
AD: You both come to your positions via an open call, which is highly unusual in the museum world. How did this work?
Pablo Lafuente: It was a real open call; literally anyone could apply and many did. I think this process was much more interesting and useful: Usually, selections involve maybe five or 10 folks invited to apply, but we had over 100. Of course there were some basic conditions, but everything was very clear, very transparent—and this clarity felt incredibly encouraging.
AD: Most museums have just one artistic director—but now MAM has two. What was the thinking behind this?
Keyna Eleison: There’s always been this idea of the artistic director working alone—working as a “hero” of sorts. But because the museum didn’t have an artistic director before, there was an opportunity to reconsider the position and find ways to work together.
AD: What might this type of collaboration look like?
PLF: Well, there is a lot to do and, obviously, two people can tackle things better than one. But one of the key things is that we will have far more diversity of thinking with both of us here; we can far better reflect the complexities of Brazilian culture and society, and this is crucial right now.
AD: Is this diversity reflected in the museum’s permanent collection?
KE: The museum experienced a serious fire in the 1970s, so there is a major gap in our collection and our ability to tell the story of modernism over the past 30 to 40 years. But recent Brazilian art is also important—especially for a museum of our size—and part of our project is to reevaluate the acquisitions policy.
AD: How will diversity play a role in this process?
PLF: The history of modernism cannot just be a “history of white art.” We must also focus on Indigenous art and Black art. White intellectual pursuits are not necessarily good or bad—they’re just one form of thinking. We need to expand this model. We can’t necessarily apply Western [cultural] practices to Afro-Brazilian art or Indigenous art—you must honor the fact that they come from an entirely different world view.
AD: Part of your intent is to make the museum more accessible to the average citizen. How will this happen?
KE: We are one of the most popular museums in Brazil with some 800,000 visitors a year, but museum-going is still a relatively elitist activity here in Brazil. So we will now make the 25 reis [$4.75] admission cost voluntary. For many people, this is not a huge amount, but in Brazil—especially for, say, a family of four—it is really a lot. We want schools to bring kids, kids to come with their parents on weekends—we want to make sure that the museum feels like it belongs to everyone.
AD: And what about COVID-19, how will the pandemic factor into the reopening on September 12th?
PLF: We will reduce the number of people allowed in the museum at any one time to help maintain social distancing and will train our staff to follow all of the local guidelines. Luckily, we are in a modernist open building located in a large park, so there is a lot of space for us to work with. Ultimately, I think we will learn from day to day—learn as part of the process. Because the truth is that no one really knows how things will turn out right now.
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