Museums Leaders Voice Support for Former Director of Reina Sofia
Today, February 1st, Spain begins the search for a new director of the state-funded Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid after 15 years at the helm of Manuel Borja-Villel, who resigned on January 20th and announced he would not be returning to the to seek re-election. In an open letter first published in hyperallergic, museum directors in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and Luxembourg express their support for the former director, who has faced far-right attacks that have characterized his progressive programming as political propaganda. The letter is included in its entirety at the end of this article.
“The impetus for writing this article was our strong hope and request to the Spanish government to maintain the success of the Museo Reina Sofia as it opens a new chapter,” reads the letter, which was written by directors of 14 museums, including the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, and Kunstmuseum in The Hague and Germany’s Museum Ludwig in Cologne. “Contrary to the unfounded recent criticism of the program and staff, we ask that the new director and existing team be encouraged to build on Borja-Villel’s policies. The government has supported the Museo Reina Sofia so that it can become what it is today.”
Borja-Villel has transformed Reina Sofia immensely, hugely increasing the museum’s popularity and tripling visitor numbers to a pre-pandemic peak of 4.5 million in 2019. Among other massive undertakings, the director added social and political contextualization to the museum’s most popular works (including the collection’s crown jewel, Pablo Picasso’s 1937 painting “Guernica”), rehanging the collection twice to create a new dialogue between the artworks , broadened the institution’s focus on contemporary art and deepened the museum’s focus on Latin American art.
In the process, Borja-Villel also received a barrage of criticism attacking his restructuring as overly “political” and “ideological”. The Spanish right-wing newspaper ABC also attempted to smear the director with allegations that he broke museum law when renewing his contract in 2013 and 2018. The Reina Sofia denied this allegation and Barjo-Villel stated that the allegation did not influence his decision to resign.
Charles Esche, Director of the Van Abbemuseum in the Netherlands and Professor of Contemporary Art and Curating at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts in London, is one of the signatories to the letter.
“Across Europe, it’s a really crucial cog in the mechanism of trying to make art something more than a luxury good,” said Esche hyperallergicand explains that before Borja-Villel took office, major European museums like the Reina Sofia were considered “treasure troves”.
Esche gave the director’s project “Rethinking Guernica” as an example. Picasso’s masterpiece is no longer characterized as a one-off work of genius from a star artist; Now the painting is set in the context of the history of the Spanish Civil War and hangs alongside other artworks from the same period, including propaganda artworks denouncing Franco’s fascist regime.
Another letter of solidarity with Borja-Villel, published on Monday 30 January in e-fluxcollected over a thousand signatures from cultural practitioners, from artists and professors to directors and curators at institutions such as London’s Tate Modern, the new M+ Museum in Hong Kong and the Center Pompidou in Paris.
“What the Reina Sofia represented was a project that decolonized and demodernized, and that’s so important — it was the biggest museum to do that,” Esche said.
Read the open letter in support of Borja-Villel below.
A long time ago, the Netherlands, now Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, were part of the Spanish kingdoms, and we in the north knew very well what Madrid had to say to us. Now and in the last ten years we have again carefully observed the Spanish capital, at least in the field of museums. When we heard last week that its director, Manuel Borja-Villel, had decided not to apply for another mandate, we felt compelled to act.
It was Manuel Borja Villel and his dynamic team of collaborators who pushed aside the controlling influence of the modern art museums of New York, London and Paris on our politics and imaginings. He created the space for us to tell the story of art in a different way, one that is more closely connected to the societal changes of the last 150 years. Reina Sofia is today the leading international museum for modern art. Around the world, recent collection presentations are inspired by what Museo Reina Sofia has done and the paradigms introduced by Borja-Villel. One of his outstanding insights was that the relevance and beauty of art is only strengthened when it is presented at eye level and in constant dialogue with photography, film, architecture and archives. Fifteen years ago this was rarely seen in museums, except for the occasional temporary art exhibition. Today it is commonplace. Borja-Villel and his team managed to make such an impact because this formal innovation was the result of a larger one: the desire and ability to embed art in broader reflections on aesthetics, ethics, popular culture, and forms of government.
As the influential American writer Octavia Butler said, “The only enduring truth is change,” and the nature of that change has been so aptly portrayed by the Museo Reina Sofia’s exhibitions in recent years. It’s a museum that follows the best artists and keeps them close. It is always critical and error-prone. It addresses topics that are often the neuralgic points in society without being afraid of possible reactions. It is keen to listen and learn without compromising the task of grappling with change – to the point where the very words ‘modern’, ‘art’ and ‘museum’ are questioned.
Borja-Villel’s politics embeds art in his society. His most recent collection presentations deal with the consequences of colonialism, exploitation and toxic masculinity as well as the reactionary authoritarianism of our time. His work is always set in the history of Spain and Madrid and connects to many other places and stories. The museum’s recent exhibition history makes the extraordinary and inspiring power of art visible in dialogue with visual culture. They open up the artistic value of ephemeral media such as posters, banners or editions. In the museum, neglected artists, forms and media are suddenly presented in a new light. This has made our visits to the Museo Reina Sofia so extraordinary and so enriching over the past few years.
The museum rightly addresses sensitive but vital issues about which there is no consensus. It chooses to make these public, giving audiences the opportunity to reflect and form their own opinions. His exhibitions select great works and then change how we see them by placing them in visual ecosystems. They liberate Dali from the cliché of Dali; They bring Picasso back to the Pavilion of the Spanish Republic and shed new light on the art of Antonio Saura. One of us remembers how, during a particular edition of Arco, international visitors could be categorized according to which exhibition in the museum they were referring to. When asked “Have you seen the exhibition in Reina Sofia?” some would point to the exhibition of Latin American artists who resisted the dictatorships, others to the Cisneros collection of concrete art. Reina Sofia’s program embraces all these diverse forms of artistic practice and gives them the respect they deserve.
With its 3 to 4 million annual visitors, Reina Sofia proves that our societies want modern and contemporary art more than ever, but also that the way this museum connects art with life and our collective capacity for renewal, people achieved in a very direct way. The impetus for writing this article was our strong hope and request to the Spanish government to maintain the success of the Museo Reina Sofia as it opens a new chapter. Contrary to the unfounded recent criticism of the program and staff, we ask that the new director and existing team be encouraged to build on Borja Villel’s policies. The government has supported the Museo Reina Sofia to become what it is today. We say thank you for that. We ask you now to help make it the vital place it is today. Art, artists and audiences, including in the Netherlands, will be forever grateful.
Bart De Baere, Director M HKA, Antwerp
Yilmaz Dziewior, director of the Museum Ludwig, Cologne
Charles Esche, Director Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven
Denis Gielen, Director MACS-Le Grand-Hornu, Mons
Stijn Huijts, Director Bonnefanten, Maastricht
Kasia Redzisz, Canal Director, Brussels
Pierre-Olivier Rollin, Director BPS 22, Charleroi
Bart Rutten, Director Centraal Museum, Utrecht
Dirk Snauwaert, Director Wiels, Brussels
Bettina Steinbrügge, Director Mudam, Luxembourg
Benno Tempel, Director Kunstmuseum, The Hague
Philippe Van Cauteren, Director SMAK, Ghent
Sara Weyns, Director of the Middelheim Museum, Antwerp
Rein Wolfs, director of the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam