The man from MALBA
E. Jane Dickson meets the founder of the Museum of Latin American Art of Buenos Aires, Eduardo Costantini
The Museum of Latin American Art of Buenos Aires (MALBA), on the edge of the ambassadorial quarter, is its own kind of embassy, mapping its territory and presenting its politics to the world. On a Monday morning, there’s a lengthy queue waiting for the doors to open: arty Porteñas wearing statement jewellery; tourists in elephant-print trousers; the odd professorial type. Inside, enjoying privileged access, school kids drop off their rucksacks and, chattering like magpies, hop up the long escalator to nip and poke in front of iconic canvases by Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Tarsila do Amaral.
Eduardo Costantini, founder of MALBA and donor of much of the museum’s permanent collection, is delighted by his visitors’ broad demographic. ‘Art,’ he says, ‘is a social event.’ He makes it sound like the world’s best party, and MALBA is certainly a favourite cause of Buenos Aires’s hyper-chic elite. But the museum also has a driving social agenda: its stated mission is to stand outside the existing tradition of art-historical museums and present Latin American art on its own uncompromising terms.
MALBA opened in September 2001, in a building funded by Costantini and designed by young architects from Argentina’s Córdoba province. The timing, as its founder points out, was not auspicious: ‘It was 10 days after the fall of the Twin Towers and two months before Argentina’s worst financial crisis since 1929.’ Yet MALBA has zoomed up the league of world-class galleries. ‘I believe that, in terms of quality and range, it’s the best collection of Latin American art exhibited anywhere,’ says Costantini with quiet satisfaction. In April 2016, he gave Michelle, Malia and Sasha Obama a private tour.
The collection’s radical 2016 rehang is entitled Verboamérica. Taking as its keystone América invertida (1943), a modest, hand-drawn map by the Uruguayan artist and theorist Joaquín Torres-García, it turns the continent upside down, locating ‘true north’ in the southern hemisphere.
‘In Latin America in general, and particularly in Argentina, where Spanish and Italian immigration were so strong, we have always looked beyond our borders, and mainly to Europe, for our cultural references,’ explains Costantini. ‘Verboamérica reads Latin American art from the Latin American point of view, focusing on the preoccupations and characteristics shared by Latin American artists. Essentially, it’s about repositioning Latin America in the world’s view.’
As the country’s most prominent entrepreneur and philanthropist (he was the first Argentinian to adhere to Bill and Melinda Gates’s Giving Pledge, which asks the world’s richest people to donate half their fortunes to charity), it might be said that Costantini, 71, exemplifies a new, ideologically confident Argentina.
‘Not quite,’ he says, more interested in accuracy than false modesty. ‘Not yet. I’d like to be part of a new Argentina, but we’re a complicated society. A third of our citizens are living in poverty. So there’s a responsibility, I think, for someone in my position to have a social project.’
Costantini’s own beginnings were relatively modest. His father immigrated to Buenos Aires from Italy in the early 20th century and juggled three jobs to maintain a family of 13 children in Argentina’s burgeoning middle class. From an early age, however, Costantini showed an entrepreneurial streak, scrumping fruit and nuts to sell to local ice-cream makers.
‘One day, I came face to face with a portrait by Antonio Berni. Then I couldn’t stay away’ — Eduardo Costantini
At 21, a graduate of the Catholic University of Argentina, he worked in his brother’s abattoir and hawked clothes knitted by his wife to support his own young family and finance a Master’s in economics from the University of East Anglia. Returning to Buenos Aires with a head full of Keynesian ideals and no capital, he borrowed money from a friend to speculate on the stock market. In 1976, he quadrupled his money on a property deal and, by the mid-1980s, when Argentinian hyperinflation was at its height, Costantini was in a position to buy 15 per cent of Banco Francés, the country’s oldest private bank.
His brokerage and real estate company, Consultatio, is responsible for some of Buenos Aires’s most spectacular developments, including Catalina Towers (BA’s answer to New York’s Twin Towers) and Nordelta, the city’s most exclusive gated village. In May 2017, he paid $44 million for a plot of land in the Puerto Madero district, which he will develop in ‘creative association’ with the hotelier and entrepreneur Alan Faena.
Costantini has recently extended his reach to the USA. Last year saw the topping off of Oceana Bal Harbour, a 28-storey residential tower on the Miami waterfront, where penthouses sell for $26 million and residents gaze down on two monumental Jeff Koons sculptures, Seated Ballerina and Pluto and Proserpina.
The sculptures are more than an extravagant marketing flourish. ‘We invested $14 million in those two pieces for the garden, because, you know, design and aesthetics are part of life,’ says Costantini. ‘You can look at a residential building in terms of pure investment; I prefer to think of it as a proposal to families, a home. In the end, it’s a virtuous circle — yes, you make money, but that doesn’t preclude a beautiful proposal.’ The property and art markets, he says, are not dissimilar. ‘Firstly, you identify what it is you need; then you go for the highest possible quality.’
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Collecting started on a whim. ‘I like the chase,’ he says. ‘As a boy I enjoyed collecting stamps. And one day, I came face to face, in a commercial gallery, with a portrait by the Argentinian artist Antonio Berni. It was an important political piece, and it captured so many emotions for me. I couldn’t afford this painting, but I bought two little still lifes. And then I found I couldn’t stay away from art. I had no knowledge of the art market, but I like to learn and I like to listen — when I was boy I always listened to the advice of my father and my grandmother — and I had a great friend, Ricardo Esteves, who is a great connoisseur. He taught me how to look and what to buy. The best pieces in MALBA are due to his advice, 100 per cent.’
Verboamérica features four magisterial works by Berni, including Manifestación (1934), an epic piece of new realism depicting workers on the march, and La gran tentación o La gran ilusión, a collage in which an airbrushed (and, one assumes, American) glamour girl taunts a cast of wretched grotesques with a shiny Chevrolet. Other key Argentinian artists, such as Xul Solar, Jorge de la Vega, Victor Grippo, Oscar Bony and Léon Ferrari, are represented alongside artists from Uruguay, Mexico, Brazil, Peru, Chile and Cuba.
Abandoning the convention of grouping works chronologically or by nationality, MALBA organises paintings, sculpture and photography in issue-led zones: there are sections devoted to ‘Geopolitics and Power’, ‘City’, ‘Country’, ‘Work, Crowd and Resistance’, ‘Indigenous/Black America’ and ‘Bodies and Emancipation’. It’s a highly dynamic, politicised arrangement that pairs, for example, Mathias Goeritz’s shimmering 1960s abstract Message with David Alfaro Siqueiros’s Mining Accident, a figurative piece from the 1930s whose stylised forms recall the art of the Aztecs and, by extension, human sacrifice.
‘I had been stalking Rivera’s Dance in Tehuantepec like a hunting dog. I bought it over the phone for $16 million’ — Eduardo Costantini
‘It’s not an orthodox approach,’ Costantini agrees. ‘It requires the observer to engage, to make connections.’ Political slant, he insists, rests with the artist, or maybe with the observer, but it is neither the intention nor the responsibility of the collector.
In the four decades since his coup de foudre in front of the Berni, he allows that he has ‘perhaps cultivated an eye’ (something of an understatement given that he has served on the advisory board of New York’s Museum of Modern Art), but he relies heavily on MALBA’s own international selection committee, a starry, international line-up including Andrea Giunta, Adriano Pedrosa, Agustín Pérez Rubio and Inés Katzenstein.
‘When I bought for my own pleasure, I could indulge my tastes,’ he says with no shade of wistfulness. ‘As a professional collector, I have a duty to be objective. What matters is the calibre of the work, and its historic or meta-historic importance.’
The jewel in MALBA’s crown is Tarsila do Amaral’s Abaporu (1928), above, the key work of Brazil’s Anthropophagist Movement (so called because it digests European influence to create something new and indigenous). It is not, as it happens, one of Costantini’s favourites, but he bought the piece at Christie’s in 1995 for $1.3 million, and estimates its current worth at $40 million.
So significant is the painting to Brazil’s cultural identity that when it was returned, on loan, to Rio de Janeiro for an exhibition organised by President Dilma Rousse in 2011, she sent a special air force plane to ‘bring Abaporu home’. Strenuous attempts were made, at government level, to buy back Brazil’s emblematic giant for the nation, but Costantini wasn’t selling. ‘The integrity of the collection is beyond price,’ he says firmly. He did, however, lend it again, to Rio’s MAR museum, for the 2016 Olympics.
Exercise and daily meditation are Costantini’s prescription for a balanced life, and it is true that his business head and his aesthete’s heart have a way of resolving their differences. He recalls the auction in the 1990s when he was forced to choose between Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Monkey and Parrot (1942) and Diego Rivera’s heroic folk scene Dance in Tehuantepec (1928). ‘It was a unique day in the history of Latin American art to see those two pieces on sale together, but I couldn’t aford them both,’ he says.
‘I bought the Kahlo, because, well, I am in love with Frida. But fortune was on my side — in 2016, I took a call from the director of an auction house who knew I had been stalking the Rivera like a hunting dog. He offered me Dance in Tehuantepec and, without even looking at the picture again, I bought it over the phone for $16 million. It was a record price, but worth it to bring Frida and Diego together again.’
Argentina’s fluctuating economy presents its own challenges for Costantini and his institution. ‘You could argue that President Macri’s economic policy strengthens the local currency too much,’ he points out. ‘We are receiving fewer foreign visitors at MALBA because the country is more expensive. On the other hand, this government is much more open to foreign investment. Argentina is more integrated in the world, and that has to be a good thing.’
Plans to build a sister institution in a less affluent part of Buenos Aires are now in hand. ‘I’m very excited about this,’ says Costantini, crouching forward like a biker leaning into a tricky corner. ‘We’re a country where there is powerful antagonism between people in different socio-economic situations. The new museum will have a strong outreach element, building on the success of MALBA’s education programme, and I hope it will be a bridge between us and our neighbours.’
The relationship between the Costantini Foundation (now defunct) and MALBA is intricate. ‘The biggest challenge we had was to effect the transition from a family project to a public institution,’ he explains. ‘But we’re getting there.’
‘It’s nice for the ego to have a street or museum name, but when you die you’re just a street or a museum, you’re no longer a person’ — Eduardo Costantini
Was Costantini never tempted, like so many philanthropists, to put his name to the museum? ‘Actually, I was,’ he says. ‘But I went to visit Glenn Lowry [director of MoMA, New York] to tell him about the project, and he said it was a mistake to call it the Costantini Museum. This was like a stake to my heart, and I was furious at the time, but I came to see he was right. It’s nice for the ego to have a street or museum name, but when you die you’re just a street or a museum, you’re no longer a person. People go to the Guggenheim and they have no idea who Guggenheim was. Nor is it important. Time sweeps us all away.’
Having basically stripped his walls to open MALBA (‘I handed over my collection, 100 per cent; it was a genuine gift to the nation’), Costantini has started collecting again for himself. ‘My personal collection has around 500 pieces. Many of them are on loan to MALBA and other institutions, but pictures from MALBA will never hang in my home.’
MALBA’s astounding collection amounts to a canon of Latin American art. This in turn has radically affected the international market for such art. Costantini accepts the accolade with a shrug; he’s a businessman, it’s what he does. And if, after a lifetime’s collecting, he had to choose just one piece for solace on a desert island? Costantini doesn’t miss a beat: ‘That’s easy. I’ll take the one that floats.’