Brazil’s Art Scene Perseveres amid Surge in COVID-19 Cases
Vik Muniz, Protest, from “Surface” series, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.
As parts of the world cautiously begin to reemerge from their respective quarantines, Brazil has been fighting an exceptionally fraught battle with the COVID-19 pandemic in recent months. With over 3 million recorded cases of the virus (including president Jair Bolsonaro) and over 100,000 deaths (figures surpassed only by the United States), the possibility of Brazil returning to normal anytime soon seems highly remote. Despite all this, the nation’s art community has been phenomenally resilient and resourceful. Even as marquee events like São Paulo’s SP Arte were canceled, art in Brazil has found ways to persevere.
Originally planned for the first week in April, the cancellation of SP Arte came as a shock to many Brazilian galleries that have relied on the art fair to generate a substantial amount of their annual income since it began in 2005. To compensate for this void, several online actions were rapidly organized, the most successful of which was Not Cancelled Brazil. The online sale, which ran from mid-June to early July, assembled over 50 galleries throughout the nation. “The tool was relatively simple,” said Karla Osorio, who organized the initiative and also runs Galeria Karla Osorio. “With works in the range of $2,000 to $30,000, it fulfilled market expectations in that critical moment.”
Milton Dacosta, Pássaros (Birds), 1962. Courtesy of Pinakotheke, São Paulo, Rio, Fortaleza.
Renato Rios, Energia (Energy), 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Karla Osorio Gallery.
Having evaluated the success of Not Cancelled Brazil, Fernanda Feitosa, founder and executive director of SP Arte, recently announced that the fair would move online. Currently running through August 30th, this first virtual edition of SP Arte includes over 136 galleries. This week’s fair will be followed by an online version of its fine art photography fair, SP Foto, which will take place some time in late October or early November. Meanwhile, the 10th edition of ArtRio in Rio de Janeiro is still scheduled to take place in person from October 14th to 18th, together with an online version. “Online viewing arrived late in the art market but it will become a permanent tool that will add to the physical experience,” said Feitosa.
Still, without the physical presence of art fairs, galleries have suffered significantly. Galeria Nara Roesler, one of Latin America’s largest galleries with venues in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and New York, saw its sales fall 50% at the beginning of the pandemic. The passing of kinetic art pioneer Abraham Palatnik due to COVID-19 in May, however, offered the gallery some small, if bittersweet, respite. “Palatnik was an artist very dear to big collectors,” said gallery partner Alexandre Roesler. “When he passed away there was a rise in demand for his works ranging from $50,000 to $1 million.”
Ayrson Heráclito, Baobá (Baobab), 2015. Courtesy of the artist and Paulo Darzé Gallery.
Gallerist Max Perlingeiro, who in 1979 founded Pinakotheke gallery in Rio de Janeiro (and later in São Paulo and Fortaleza), has experienced the biggest blow—his life and business partner, the much-admired Bia Perlingeiro, was taken by COVID-19 in April. “Recently I have a new motto: ‘Art takes us to bed,’” said Perlingeiro. “In this painful period with a shrinking economy, badly coordinated politics, we may miss a hug. However, at nighttime watching the live-stream online with wonderful artists, intellectuals, poets, and musicians, ‘Art takes us to bed.’”
Many galleries were forced to lay off employees, renegotiate salaries, and move to smaller spaces. With businesses operating mostly online, art powerhouse Fortes D’Aloia & Gabriel downsized from three locations to two, keeping Galpão in São Paulo (Brazil’s largest gallery-slash-warehouse) and Carpintaria in Rio de Janeiro. Claudia Marchetti’s Arteedições, originally both a gallery and a publisher of limited art editions, left its upscale venue in the Jardins neighborhood in São Paulo for an office space with a staff of three instead of its usual eight, deciding to act solely as a publishing house with a focus on strengthening the gallery’s online marketing. Similarly, Luciana Caravello closed down her 5,000-square-foot namesake gallery in Ipanema and moved to São Paulo, where she now works from a high-rise office with a staff of two. “I’m focused on upgrading our online platform and as for physical exhibitions in the near future I’ll rent the space,” she said. “With the doors shut, low sales, a staff of six and a monthly high rent in the heart of Ipanema, I became a pricey art warehouse.” Central Galeria’s Fernanda Resston, however, opted for a different strategy. “I kept my team of three and gave everyone a 5% salary raise to motivate them in their home-office environment,” said the young gallerist.
Abraham Palatnik, Objeto cinético CK-8 (Kinetic Object), 1966 / 2005. Courtesy of Nara Roesler Gallery.
Rydias, Untitled, 1974. Photo by Everton Ballardin. Courtesy of Central Gallery.
With the lockdown in place, most galleries have invested in e-commerce platforms and in establishing a more dynamic online presence. This includes husband-and-wife gallerists Marcos Amaro and Ksenia Kogan Amaro, who founded Kogan Amaro in 2006. “We took this period to restructure the gallery, make our team more efficient, enlarge our artist portfolio, and invest in our online presence through our website, Instagram, producing digital contents, podcasts, videos, texts, etc., while fine-tuning direct communication with our clients,” said Marcos Amaro. “I’m cautious but optimistic. I think we will come out stronger from the pandemic with art and science by our side.”
Meanwhile, Paulo Darzé Gallery in Salvador was able to bolster its sales by moving online independently. “We migrated all our operations to a digital platform from one day to the next; fortunately, the market reacted positively,” said gallery owner Thais Darzé, who had recently recovered from a mild COVID-19 infection.
Eduardo Srur, A Arte Salva (Art Saves), 2017. Courtesy of the artist and Kogan Amaro Gallery, São Paulo.
Internationally renowned artist Vik Muniz is also optimistic, despite having gallery shows and two museum exhibitions canceled due to the pandemic. He believes galleries and museums will be the first safe cultural experiences once the pandemic begins to subside. “I have spent more time organizing the conceptual side of my work that lately was neglected because of the pressure and the number of fairs and exhibitions going on,” said Muniz. “I find the rhythm of life imposed by the pandemic very much in sync with my creative process.”
Undoubtedly, these are crucial times. Prior to the pandemic, the Brazilian market was accustomed to a steady growth, brought by fairs like SP Arte, which not only brought big-ticket sales but also international visibility for Brazilian art, artists, and galleries. However, one thing Brazil is good at is adapting fast: “Jogo de cintura,” as they say in Portuguese.