'Museums Can Be Live Spaces‘: Centro Botín
Artistic Director Benjamin Weil talks to us about Centro Botín as a space of collaboration and learning, supporting artists at all stages of their career, and how the landmark Renzo Piano-designed building shapes each exhibition.
Can you tell us about the beginnings of Fundacion Botín and its cultural purpose?
Fundación Marcelino Botín was established in 1964 by Marcelino Botín Sanz de Sautuola and his wife, Carmen Yllera, to contribute to the social development of Cantabria. The visual arts program truly started in 1992, with the awarding of grants and the organization of workshops for young artists directed by more established peers. These continue to be core to the foundation's exhibition program and its collecting process.
The foundation showcases the works of grantees and also organizes solo shows by the artists invited to direct workshops in Santander. In addition, the program includes exhibitions of 20th-century masters, which focus on lesser-known aspects of their work, such as “Calder Stories”, curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist. The foundation has a commitment to drawing, which started with the support of academic research on the works on paper by Spanish masters. Finally, staging exhibitions of the collection has become an integral part of our programming since we opened Centro Botín in 2017. There is a permanent presence of works from the collection on the building’s 1st floor, which is enriched with the purchase of new pieces.
Renzo Piano designed the iconic building, how do you think the space contributes towards visitors’ experience of the art? And how does it connect with the city of Santander?
Renzo Piano’s building is beautifully settled on the coastline of the bay of Santander, among a few other landmark buildings. Along with the construction of the building, the foundation also underwrote the building of a tunnel, to bury part of the dual carriage road that cut away the bay from the city. This also enabled us to refurbish the existing public park and extend it all the way from the city to the bay, offering the citizen an opportunity to walk over to the shore from the center of town. So not only the building has become an instant landmark, but also the construction work related to its building has resulted in a new and expanded public space, where thousands of people come every day. Because the building stands on stilts, the view from the city to the bay is uninterrupted and Centro Botín becomes a shelter from the rain – a gathering place for anglers, strollers and teenagers alike. On one side of the building, a giant screen enables us to project films and videos – in fact, Martin Creed used the screen to present one of his film works during the course of his show in 2019.
How have artists responded to the building?
The second-floor exhibition space can be wide open, and is flooded with natural light. The first to present his work in that room was Carsten Höller, who invited the visitor to enter the space through his famous “Y” sculpture. S/he could then choose to either exit to the right and travel North to the bay window overlooking the park and the city, or exit to the left and travel South to the one that overlooks the bay of Santander.
Julie Mehretu chose to present her paintings using only natural light - electric light was only turned on at nightfall. With the fast-changing nature of the light in Santander, her work looked dramatically different at any given time. I have never seen her work in such a way since, as electric light evens out the surface, to a certain extent. It was truly amazing.
Renzo Piano also designed the scenography for “Calder Stories”, the exhibition we hosted last summer curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist. It was an opportunity for him to stage the work of an artist who has profoundly inspired his architectural practice. All the exhibition furniture seemed to be floating, in a way that enhanced the lightness of Calder’s work.
Your programming includes historical as well as contemporary art, for example in 2017 an exhibition of Francisco Goya’s drawings was shown alongside a major show of new works by Carsten Höller. Do you think it is important to represent a spectrum of art history?
The Goya drawing show was part of the foundation’s program related to the scholarly research on drawings by great Spanish masters. Francisco de Goya was the last great Master not to have a comprehensive Catalogue Raisonné, and in partnership with the Museo del Prado, we supported the research that will eventually lead to the publication of a five-volume catalogue, the first of which was released last fall.
When we inaugurated Centro Botín, we believed it would indeed be important to offer the visitor an experience of art that would span the many aspects of the foundation’s support of knowledge sharing. It was actually really interesting to go from Goya to Höller, or vice versa. It created a unique dynamics and perhaps generated new readings of each of those artists’s work. Fundación Botín has often put together exhibitions that span the centuries, and will continue to do so in the future. Art History is also about that. African art, or perhaps ancient art from Egypt, and modern masters or contemporary art are all part of our culture. The historical continuum is interesting to showcase.
How do you discover and purchase works for the collection? Which works – historic acquisitions or new discoveries – are your personal highlights?
The building of the collection is formed by the relationship we maintain with a growing group of artists who direct a workshop, or who are (former) grantees of the foundation. We do not acquire works by other artists.
A jury of four art professionals, which changes each year, selects the new roster of grantees. The artistic committee, formed by Paloma Botín, Udo Kittelmann, Manuela Mena, María Jose Salazar, Vicente Todoli (its president) and I , selects the artists who lead the workshop program – and who therefore, present a solo exhibition at Centro Botín. We are particularly interested in inviting artists with an important following by their younger peers, who have seldom of never exhibited in Spain, or whose work has not been presented in the recent years in this country.
It has been particularly exciting to return to artists who received a grant many years ago and purchase more recent and important works: such has been the case with Leonor Antunes, Carlos Bunga, Irene Kopelman, or Renata Lucas, just to name a few. We also take the opportunity of a new collection show to select new works we then acquire.
As Artistic Director, can you share your personal exhibition highlights from recent years?
One of the first exhibitions I organized was “Sol LeWitt: 17 Wall Drawings“, which was the first large-scale survey exhibition in Spain dedicated to this extraordinary body of work. We collaborated with the Estate of Sol LeWitt, and were able to stage a number of drawings which had seldom been executed after they were first shown. We even staged a drawing that had never been executed before! This in turn enabled the Estate to fully document those works for a future Catalogue Raisonné. Working with Joan Jonas, with Martin Creed and with Anri Sala on site specific projects was also exhilarating. I believe the space of Centro Botín works beautifully when the artists approach it as a large-scale project room: we can then share with our audiences a more intimate access to the artmaking process. Working on the „Calder Stories“ exhibition with Renzo Piano, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Alexander Rower was also an extraordinary moment.
Tell us about AS YOU GO (Châteaux en Espagne), your current exhibition by Anri Sala.
Anri Sala often works on exhibitions as new compositions using older work as component to elaborate new narratives, something that was also part of Carsten Höller’s approach when he exhibited here.
As You Go is a unique installation of films by Sala: Ravel, Ravel, Takeover and If and Only If. They are shown gliding down a complex structure of projection surfaces, including a main screen that is 100ft. long. There is play with movement and transparency that is deeply immersive and mesmerizing. The sound also glides down with the images, creating a unique experience of listening to music (Concerto pour la main gauche, by Maurice Ravel; Elegy for Viola by Igor Stravinsky; and the mixed tunes of “la Marseillaise” and “l’Internationale”, two seminal revolutionary tunes that became national anthems).
Sala has also placed a sculptural piece – derived from his intervention at Centre Pompidou in 2012 – in front of the monumental bay window overlooking the bay of Santander, reflecting upon the notion of Veduta, the idea of a still point of view that is usually the way we look at moving images and paintings, whereas looking at sculpture implies a movement of the spectator. The third movement in this composition consists of placing „All of a Tremble“ - the wallpaper sound work that was once shown at the 2017 Biennale di Venezia – so as to block the view.
The show is an intricate reflection on time, space and movement. It is a magnificent choreography of images and sounds. We feel enourmously privileged to host this work for a few more weeks (it was extended because of the COVID crisis that led to our being confined for over two months in Spain). It is also wonderful to see visitors come back and sit, listen, wander, and enjoy the show more than once. With the Martin Creed exhibition, Anri Sala’s truly has brought the local audience to realize museums can be live spaces, places where one can go to often, the same way one can take a stroll. That I think it truly exciting and prefigures the way all museums should function in the future, I believe.
What are your hopes for the future of Centro Botín, and the Fundacion’s significance in European culture?
Now perhaps more than ever is the time to think about the function of the art institution in society. The exhibition program needs to be contextualized, and that is an important part of what Centro Botín does, besides organizing exhibitions. The museum should be a place people go to share an experience with friends and family. It should become a familiar place: one should go there for 20 minutes, perhaps more, perhaps even less. We are always exploring new ways to engage new audiences. We have launched a 10-minute tour, which has been quite successful. The idea is to encourage prospective visitors to spontaneously step away from their daily routine and walk in the gallery to see one work, a small group of works, or just sit there for a moment, gazing at works of art, as some sort of a mental landscape. But there are many more initiatives geared towards families, teenagers, and more. Fundación Botín has been collaborating with Yale University Center for Emocional Intelligence, in order to devise specific tools to help new audiences acquaint themselves with art.
Like all institutions, we need to find ways to share with others and see how we build intelligent cultural networks, share projects and exhibitions, means to develop new tools that may be relevant to attract new audiences in a meaningful fashion. I do not believe in art as a consumable object or as entertainment, and am quite weary of ways some institutions focus on quantity for obvious economic reasons, instead of quality. Art is here to infuse a critical, more acute perspective, to better comprehend the complexities of the world in which we live.
Can you tell us about the exhibition programme coming up?
The pandemic crisis has adversely affected our programming strategy. Like many other institutions, we have had to think about new displays and projects while others were being postponed. This is a great opportunity to think about new ways to value our assets. As of this fall, more theme shows will provide new approaches to the collection. With “Architecture into Art”, we will for instance examine the artist’s relation to architecture, something that is all the more interesting given the strong architectural presence of our building, and in more general terms, the museum as monument or landmark in a city. I am also interested in looking into series, not just from the standpoint of art history, but perhaps informed by the importance of this form in the field of entertainment.