CARACAS — It seems incongruous that Venezuela, the country with the largest oil reserves in the world, is undergoing the worst economic and humanitarian crisis in the hemisphere. Most Venezuelans currently survive day by day: collecting water, saving food, and trying to stave off illness due to the lack of medicine. Yet they can still go to museums for free. As a Venezuelan, I am often asked about how the art scene operates in the midst of the national crisis. It is hard to think about the cultural sector when the devastating situation — characterized by violence, hyperinflation, censorship, and massive migration — deprives people, including artists, of basic needs.
Regardless of media reports and political interests, what is going on in Venezuela is essentially a matter of right versus wrong; the violations of human rights by the so-called Bolivarian Revolution, started by Hugo Chávez in 1999 and presided over by Nicolás Maduro since 2013, are endless. In 2019, the United Nations presented a human rights report on Venezuela that urged the Venezuelan government to take immediate measures to halt and rectify the infractions: as of mid-2019 there were more than 900 political prisoners and by early 2020 there will be more than 5.3 million Venezuelan refugees and migrants, inflation is projected to grow to 10 million percent, food and health care are not guaranteed to citizens, and there have been hundreds of national blackouts, sometimes for weeks at a time. Venezuelans have no alternative but to continue their daily activities despite the difficulties. During one of the first blackouts, on Sunday, March 10, 2019, curator, author, and photography researcher Sagrario Berti launched her outstanding publication Printed Photography in Venezuela at the GBG gallery in Caracas. An Instagram post ahead of the event read that “with light or without light” the book would be presented.
The national museums were established as part of the modern plan for the country under the oil boom, but they were also in the purview of the Bolivarian Revolution. Throughout the 20th century the promising public art museums included the Museum of Fine Art (MBA), the National Art Gallery (GAN), the Contemporary Art Museum (MAC), and the Alejandro Otero Museum; all were dedicated to free thinking. Significant exhibitions as well as acquisition programs for modern and postwar art reflected the country’s prosperity. International artists such as Henry Moore and Lucio Fontana had major retrospectives in Caracas, and 1985 saw the Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange (ROCI) at the MAC, consisting of a large-scale international traveling exhibition organized by the artist that doubled as a cultural exchange program in Mexico, Chile, Venezuela, China, Tibet, Japan, Cuba, the Soviet Union, East Germany, and Malaysia.
Hugo Chávez arrived in 1999, first modifying budgets. In 2001 he fired museum directors such as Sofía Imber on his Sunday radio and television talk show, Aló Presidente, and in 2005 he placed museums under the control of the organization Fundación de Museos Nacionales. Curators and staff members who remained adapted their programming to the Bolivarian Revolution; they argued that they were preserving the artworks, but at the same time they collaborated with Manuel Espinoza and Farruco Sesto, ministers of culture and key supporters of Chávez who imposed their own program. The cultural revolution turned the national museums into ideological voiceboxes for the regime and its accomplices.
After 20 years of revolution, a few artworks are still on view, but the national museums are deserted. In a recent walkthrough at the MBA, GAN, and MAC, some of the galleries were closed — at the MBA, only three of the 18 galleries were open — there were leaks and bat droppings on the walls, the exhibition spaces were not air conditioned, and people were touching the art. Some of the employees who were at the national museums during the cultural revolution have voluntarily departed, opting to work at private institutions or leaving the country entirely. Many artists have refused to show at these institutions on moral grounds. In 2012, art historian and critic Roldán Esteva-Grillet said, “Only revolutionary artists have the right to exhibit at the National Art Gallery.” Many important artists from the recent past (pre-Chávez) have not had retrospective exhibitions at the national museums, such as Eugenio Espinoza, José Antonio Hernández-Diez, Nela Ochoa, Jorge Pizzani, Rolando Peña, Javier Téllez, Miguel Von Dangel, Alfred Wenemoser, and Carlos Zerpa.
The Venezuelan Pavilion in the Venice Giardini, designed by Carlos Scarpa and built in 1959 as one of the spoils of the oil boom, is an extension of the cultural revolution, exclusively presenting artists and curators who are complicit with its campaign of corruption, torture, and humanitarian violations. It is no coincidence that these artists and curators also judge and receive the national art prizes again and again. One of the most significant gestures near the beginning of dissent was when artist Javier Téllez declined the official invitation to represent Venezuela in the 50th Venice Biennial; in an open letter he stated, “This decision is a fundamentally ethical one and I have taken it as a Venezuelan and as an artist responsible and aware of our reality.” Téllez had radically opposed the regime, undertaking a social media campaign denouncing writers and artists who support and benefit from it. His most recent film, Los Caminantes (2019), commissioned by the Aichi Triennale 2019 in Nagoya, Japan, is about the forced displacement of Venezuelans.
There is a long tradition of private collections in Venezuela, and in the recent past you could find anything from masterpieces by Caravaggio to the largest collection in the world of works by Giorgio Morandi. Throughout the country’s 40 years of democracy (1958–98), Venezuelans developed an interest in contemporary art, and philanthropists and collectors funded private institutions such as Sala Mendoza, Espacio Mercantil, and Fundación Calara. These supported artists through salons, grants, residencies, and partnerships with international institutions, including MoMA PS1 in New York City and Gasworks in London.
Since the regime dismantled private industry, some of these initiatives no longer exist due to lack of funding, and others have precarious budgets and can no longer undertake ambitious projects. The prestigious collection of Patricia Phelps de Cisneros no longer operates in Caracas, and most of the artworks were given to MoMA and other museums outside of Venezuela, while the celebrated Cisneros seminar, which began in Caracas in 2011 and featured international speakers, is now defunct. These changes coincide with increasing difficulties traveling to Venezuela. There are no longer direct flights from the United States to Venezuela as airlines are afraid to go there.
Currently, the most active private space in Caracas is probably Sala TAC, which produces relevant and well-researched exhibitions such as Enmarcando a Gerd Leufert: Listonados, Tramas Andinas: Tradición e Innovación de textieles de Barbara Brandli, and Tito Caula: El registro inagotable in collaboration with the private collection Archivo de la Fotografía Urbana. Sala TAC has also hosted a series of exhibitions on architecture in Caracas designed by Italian and Spanish architects, organized by the nonprofit Docomomo Venezuela (for instance, Las Italias de Caracas and Suite Iberia: La arquitectura de influencia española en Caracas). In 2009 Periférico Caracas at Centro de Arte los Galpones held exhibitions such as Meyer Vaisman / 6:1 and Carlos Cruz- Diez: La Experiencia Sensorial del Color. To a certain extent, these private initiatives have picked up where national museums left off.
Independent initiatives play an essential role in promoting contemporary art in Venezuela. Since 2012, the artist-run space La Organización Nelson Garrido (ONG) has focused on photography exhibitions and workshops that have been fundamental to many artists working in the medium. ONG now operates in Caracas, Santiago de Chile, Buenos Aires, and Madrid. Oficina #1 (now called Abra Caracas) is an artist-run gallery founded by Luis Romero and Suwon Lee that shows emerging artists and exhibits personal archives of artists from the 1970s including Maruja Rolando, Pedro Terán, and Carlos Zerpa. Other artist-run spaces, such as Al Borde, are no longer operational as all the artists have left the country. Yet some artist residencies (for example, La Macolla Creativa, El Avispero, and Terra Gráfica) have persevered by partnering with international universities and institutions. Tráfico Visual began in 2009 as an independent digital platform on contemporary art, producing news and screenings, and has become a trustworthy source on the Venezuelan art scene; in addition it has organized programs in partnership with other initiatives like Cruzando la linea for the 45 Salón Nacional de Artistas de Colombia. Tráfico Visual has also been included in the traveling exhibition Publishing Against the Grain, organized by Independent Curators International (ICI).
There are few Venezuelan contemporary artists with whom the global art world is familiar, and many significant artists, like Margarita D’Amico and Claudio Perna, are yet to be discovered. Both Venezuelan state institutions and private collectors have failed to bring visibility to national artists. The post-Chávez generation of artists is most affected by the Bolivarian Revolution. Most of them have immigrated to areas where there are more opportunities, while some are in exile to escape persecution, and the ones still in Venezuela survive day to day. Yet artists continue to produce engaging work, both regarding and apart from the Venezuelan political drama. Erika Ordosgoitti performs in public spaces, using her body to question what else the government is going to take from the Venezuelans. She was persecuted for her artwork and today is in exile. Marco Montiel Soto, currently in Berlin, addresses the precariousness of life in the Venezuelan Caribbean and rainforest mostly through conceptual videos and installations that also refer to history and current reality. Still in Venezuela, Sheroanawe Hakihiiwe is an indigenous artist living in the remote Yanomami community of Pori Pori in the Amazon. His drawings on artisanal paper are firmly grounded in the Yanomami cosmogony as well as the ancestral traditions of his community.
If Nicolás Maduro ever leaves Venezuela and the country can recover, art and culture must be priorities. For now, we can only encourage and support Venezuelan artists — and it is now that any support from philanthropists, collectors, and Venezuelan curators with international stature is most needed. Simón Rodríguez, the pioneer of mass education in Latin America, in 1826 said, “Teach, and you will have who knows; educate, and you will have whoever does.”