In Villa Crespo, the walls of the Ruth Benzacar Gallery are blank. Yet all around is music: whirring, banging, sawing so loud it’s hard to hear yourself speak. Just a typical afternoon in the Gallery on the eve of an exhibition. A few days later, the ethereal work of Argentine native Tomás Saraceno would manifest in the form of black spider web sculptures and suspended, meter-high orbs made of filaments. Members of the Buenos Aires art world would drink wine in the Gallery’s pure white room and step carefully over Saraceno’s wire strands, surrounded only by each other and the stark sculptures. A magical space. Among the revelers: Mora Bacal herself, co-director of the Gallery alongside her mother, Orly Benzacar.
“In a piece, I need to feel something,” said Mora. “I’m thinking not of the piece as it’d appear in a show, but in my house. I need to love it and think I can live with that for many years.”
Over the past 50 years, this love has catapulted emerging Argentine artists to international acclaim. The Benzacars discover fresh talent by founding programs such as Curriculum Cero, an annual prize that has produced the contemporary stars Adrián Villa Rojas and Flavia Da Rin, among others.
It’s well-known that the Benzacars have built and shaped the Argentine contemporary art scene since the Gallery’s founding in 1965, when Ruth and her husband Samuel opened up their home in Caballito to sell innovative emerging art. They have also played a vital role in placing Argentine art on the world stage, particularly in 2001 when the Gallery became the first in Argentina to join Art Basel Miami–one of the world’s most prestigious art fairs—under the direction of Orly, surviving the 2000 national economic crisis and recent hardship of Ruth’s death.
Yet as Mora explained during an interview in her office above the Gallery, one of the top challenges they face is to grow its international presence, as Argentine art is not well-represented abroad.
There’s a huge difference in demand in the local art scene here vs. abroad. Could you describe where this difference might come from?
The thing is that we are really far from everywhere, so for Argentine artists to have a strong presence in the international art world is really tough, and if they don’t have an art gallery to represent them outside of Argentina, it’s really hard for them to grow internationally. And I mean, maybe that’s why most of the artists well-known internationally work with us. It’s just recently that we have many other galleries sending artists to international art fairs, which is great because that many more artists will be known by other people. And you asked me about the market—well, the market in Argentina is not huge. I would say that there are more great artists than great collectors in Argentina. And internationally you have many more collectors interested in Latin American art, so that’s the main difference.
Orly once said in an interview with Apertura that Argentine collectors don’t value the art produced here highly—that they’re not willing to pay as much for the art as it is valued internationally, which causes the price of Argentine art to be lower than that of Brazilian or Mexican art, for example.
You need a huge local support in order to have a higher price. Brazil is a really great example of managing to have a symbolic price—the price is much higher but the art is of similar quality. We are neighbors, no? I think Brazilian collectors really support Brazilian art, and they are the first ones to buy Brazilian art outside Brazil. That makes the market grow, and we don’t have that in Argentina. I think we could start, and collectors are more conscious now of their responsibilities, but it’s more recent. Five years ago, when we participated in Art Basel, we were the only Argentinian gallery and there were no Argentine collectors. So we didn’t have anyone to buy our art because they didn’t know what we were showing at Art Basel. And we know that what we have is great, and most of our artists have representation in European galleries, but nobody knows who we are in the market. So we need to have more galleries and many more collectors. It is the great collectors who bring their colleagues from London or Paris, and they will show Argentine art and say, “Hey, I have this, you should buy it too.”
Do you think Argentine artists should develop a national brand?
No, that’s not the issue, the artists are really great. The problem is the country is not well-represented. Prices are low, we do not have many galleries that participate in international art fairs. So that means we don’t have institutional representation anywhere.
You said in recent years that Argentine collectors have been valuing Argentine art more—what events have caused it to move this way, and how do you think people can promote it more in the future?
I think they have to be aware of their responsibility. One thing is to buy art, and another is to be a collector. Both are great, and both are welcome here, but it is one thing to want art to hang over your couch and another to truly think as a collector. And being a collector is a huge responsibility. You cannot miss your artist’s show. You should be closer to the scene, and that doesn’t mean you have to buy an art piece every week, but that does mean you should be closer. You can help them produce a book, you can buy them a piece, you can be there for an opening. You can bring your friends to a show, and if the gallery is participating in an art fair you can bring your friends and tell them, “This is great, you know? You should see more of this work.” And I think that is one thing that is missing in this scene.
A stronger community of people who appreciate art.
Yes, a healthier one. You know blanqueo? There has been a cultural shift maybe forced by the whole world–now if you don’t declare what you have, it’s very difficult to own anything. If it were only Argentina, maybe we would have gone many years with the same tax and declaring system, but since the world is becoming more complex, Argentina is being pushed to declare everything. All that is to say is that now people are proud of showing what they have, so now responsibility of collecting is easier.
What do you think the government’s role should be in the arts?
The first thing they should do is understand that art has a huge power in transforming anything. You can see that in the major cities—I mean in New York, you have the meat packing district; some galleries were established there and that changed the neighborhood. And that happens everywhere. That’s the power of culture in general. And if they know that, they will help a little bit more with the businesses that are starting to lead. We are not getting rich with this business. It’s not something that you do for money. You invest a lot to do a thing that the government should be doing—promoting Argentine art abroad. We are now investing a lot to take Argentine artists to the world, and that is something I think the government should help with much more.
If the government were to start spending more money on art, where is the most need—galleries, schools, or another area?
To start, I think the government should give more money to museums to have a better collection. Nowadays the museums don’t receive enough money to buy art. And of course there is an educational part that should be strong. As for us, we are a private business—we shouldn’t necessarily need money from the government. But for example, wine producers receive help from the Argentine government to participate in wine fairs. So do honey producers. Why not help the art galleries? It’s the same thing. It’s an Argentine product that needs to be promoted outside of Argentina. Currently we are the ones who do the job, and we cannot afford to do it ourselves, so we need help.
So do you think it’s helpful for the Argentine government to perceive its art as a product?
Yeah, in a way it is. You need to understand that it’s not the same thing as wine or soy—it needs a special treatment—but it’s still a product.
Art as an investment.
Yes, of course. It makes me happy to see art all over my house, you know? In the morning I take my coffee and see a beautiful picture by Flavia Da Rin and I feel happy, you know.
Regarding that, have you ever taken on an artist you didn’t think would sell well?
I really trust in my artists what we do as a gallery, so I know that there are some artists that do pieces that are more difficult to sell than others, but I still trust in what they do. And maybe the piece is difficult to sell because the format is a huge sculpture and unlike selling a painting that is not so big, and those artists that do difficult works are really aware that they will not sell a lot. But I’m not afraid of that. I think that if they are good, and if I trust what they do and ourselves and what we can do with their works, everything is going to be fine. Maybe we will not sell hundreds of pieces in their career, but we will sell maybe five to museums and that’s better than anything.