Manuel Borja-Villel: "Reina Sofía can be a 21st-century leader”

Director Borja-Villel is instituting radical changes to Madrid museum


When Manuel Borja-Villel took over as director of the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid in January 2008, he said his first task would be to “turn the museum inside out like a glove”. In less than a year, he has started to make sweeping changes to the 28-year-old museum in the Spanish capital, although he modestly says: “I don’t believe in revolution but in small adjustments that together add up to a major change.”

The Reina Sofía was founded in 1990 as the national museum of art placing Spanish modern and contemporary works in an international context. It has extensive collections of works by Spanish masters including Picasso, Juan Gris, Miró and Dalí, drawn from the now-defunct Spanish Museum of Contemporary Art and the 20th century collections of the Prado—which brought it the museum’s most famous work, Picasso’s Guernica, 1937.

Mr Borja-Villel says that although a relatively new museum, the Reina Sofía has been weighed down by political interference and “heavy-handed” bureaucracy. “The institution has ossified: too much time has been spent reacting to emergencies, with basic development ignored. In short, the Reina Sofía has not had the influence one might expect,” he says.

Mr Borja-Villel’s appointment has generated enormous interest in the Spanish art world. He was one of the first museum directors to be appointed by an expert panel, rather than directly by the ministry, a move widely welcomed (although there were concerns over the government’s criteria that only EU nationals would be considered for the post, ruling out the likes of Prospect.1 curator Dan Cameron, who was also tipped for the job). Since he took office, Mr Borja-Villel has built a new team to carry out the Reina Sofía’s exhibition and acquisition programme, led by Lynne Cooke, curator of the Dia Art Foundation, New York.

Trained in the US as an art historian, Mr Borja-Villel was, until December 2007, director of the Museu d’Art Contemporani Barcelona, and before that the Fundació Tàpies (1990 to 1998). He is not the type to deliberately invite controversy, but neither does he mince his words, as he demonstrated when he spoke to The Art Newspaper last month. “In an age of dumbing down and frenetic consumerism, you have to talk straight,” he says. He was the overwhelming choice of the selection panel but, despite making his plans for the museum explicit from the start, some of his ideas have proved surprisingly controversial.

The museum’s new course of action began with changes to the Reina Sofía’s most emblematic painting, which Mr Borja-Villel immediately redisplayed. “We couldn’t touch Guernica itself, but we could radically change the way in which it was displayed. As well as new natural lighting, the reconfigured access means visitors are able to approach it head-on and get a much better view. But the most important thing is that we have changed everything that surrounds the painting,” he says.

Formerly hung alone, the work is now surrounded by examples of politically inspired works of the 1930s. “We have introduced Calder’s Mercury Fountain, 1937, a model of the Spanish Republic’s pavilion [at the 1937 World Fair] and films by Buñuel,” Mr Borja-Villel says. “Guernica is a cry of protest against barbarity, as is the Fountain. This contextualises the painting and allows it to be read in a variety of ways.” The result has been praised and criticised in Spain in equal measure.

Nevertheless, despite the importance of Guernica, Mr Borja-Villel does not want people to talk about transformation in terms of that single work of art. “My intention is to change the whole collection. I’m gradually altering the entire hang. The idea is to make the whole collection less permanent, so we are researching new things on which to base brief, non-linear narratives,” he says. “The collection has been underused. It isn’t quite MoMA, but it’s right up there with the Moderna Museet, Stockholm, the Tate or the Ludwig [in Cologne]. We have to display it and talk about it.”

He says he applied for the directorship of the Reina Sofía because he was “saddened and angered” by the way the Reina Sofía was missing “an immense, historic opportunity to become the great Museum of the south. I don’t mean it in the geographic sense, but in the sense that [Latin American writer and philosopher] Enrique Dussel uses it: to define art that does not represent the predominant world view rooted in Europe and the US.”

Dussel’s use of the term “the south” represents an alternative version of modernity, rooted in Latin America, the Middle East and Eastern Europe, as well as the alternative aesthetic expressions originating in northern Europe and the US: from feminist artists to black art movements. He hopes the gap between “north and south” is one that the Reina Sofía can bridge.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mr Borja-Villel is as resolutely critical of the market and market-led exhibitions as heis passionate about what he calls “art on the margins”. “The museum has nothing to do with show business,” he says. “Meanwhile, because it has become so heavily dependent on the market, art has been trivialised. I defend to the very last non-dependency on the market, because there are many artists who do not figure in the market but are good, while others are major market players but should not be in a museum. An artist such as Damien Hirst has become, is the complete opposite of the kind I would want to put on show. He represents a void, a big name, a consumer product, a business based on speculation—the antithesis of what art ought to be.”

The Reina Sofía is, he says, now actively building links with institutions in the Mediterranean, Latin America and Eastern Europe, from museums such as the Pinacoteca do Estado, São Paulo, to universities and organisations such as El Levante in Argentina. The change in direction will also affect the Reina Sofía’s acquisitions policy: “For example, when we are dealing with the 1930s we will start acquiring art forms such as cinema, photography and posters, a more interdisciplinary approach.” He says the museum is also seeking to buy art from Latin America and Eastern Europe, and Spanish art influenced by the punk scene of the late 1970s.

Despite his outspokenness, he says that the politicians appear to be warming to him. “Unlike earlier periods, there is now a widespread political will to transform the Reina Sofía into one of the leading international art museums museum over the next four years,” if only for reasons of regeneration, tourism and civic pride. “I’m convinced that in a few years the Reina Sofía will come to epitomise modernity in the 21st century, taking on a similar role to the one played by MoMA and the Tate in the 20th,” he says, with conviction.