Pedro Barbosa Defies the Art Market

The São Paulo-based former engineer’s conceptual and politically oriented collection challenges our daily behaviour

BY Marko Gluhaich AND Pedro Barbosa in Interviews | 07 DEC 23

Marko Gluhaich You purchased your first work of art in 1999. What initially drew you to contemporary art?

Pedro Barbosa I realized that I liked art after going to museums and exhibitions with my sister and to my cousin’s eponymous gallery, Raquel Arnaud, where she gave me an arts education.

When I could afford to, I started buying. I began with bits and pieces, but soon met a generation of Brazilian artists in the 2000s. The collection itself starts around 2005 when I realized that I could put a group of works together – that I had a path to walk.

MG The first piece that you collected was by Jesús Rafael Soto. Do you see a connection between that first work and those since?

PB Between 1999 and 2005, I acquainted myself with the Brazilian scene. I wouldn’t say that the Soto work informed the direction that the collection took, but rather that it had more to do with myself. Since I’m an engineer, I am familiar with maths and geometry, so I was attracted to Soto’s kinetic practice. But I didn’t continue like that. I went towards conceptual art and political critique – mediums that are not conventional in the market way of things.

MG What drew you initially to conceptual art? Were there early artists whose practices you were drawn to?

Jonathas de Andrade, Recenseamento Moral da Cidade do Recife (Moral Census Taking of the City of Recife), 2008, exhibition view. Courtesy: Pedro Barbosa and Pinacoteca de São Paulo

PB The generation of the 2000s used methods like those of the conceptualists of the 1960s and ’70s. Take an artist like Jonathas de Andrade. I don’t know how acquainted to these practices he was, but you can see traces of conceptualism. One work we have by him, Recenseamento Moral da Cidade do Recife [moral census taking of the city of Recife, 2008], resembles Hans Haacke’s work about housing [Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971, 1971]. We can put the two of them in dialogue despite a gap of nearly 40 years.

MG How would you describe the current moment in Brazilian contemporary art?

PB We are no different than what we see in the whole world: flooded by paintings that are no good. But this is an asset class. I would say that it’s no longer the idyllic way of dealing with art. Having said that, other practices are muted at this point. And then I question, well, are we resurrecting these older artists because we have nothing good coming out?

MG One of my, if not my favourite show of the year, was at coleção moraes-barbosa: the stanley brouwn ephemera show. It was incredible, and such a clever presentation of his practice. I understand that ephemera and archives are a large part of your collection, so I wanted to ask, what was the background behind collecting these items? What does it mean to collect archives and ephemera, and how do you see them as relating to an artist’s larger practice?

PB At one point I put together a number of works by different artists and then I said, why do I have to keep on buying things without putting all these things in perspective? How do I put this group of works in perspective, even in a timeline way of showing them?

I started seeing a lot of shows, mostly in New York, with ephemera. I thought I could do something that amplifies the impact of this art that I have if I put it in dialogue with the ephemera created over the years. You could clearly see what happened to brouwn: it’s a different take to what we have seen of brouwn elsewhere.

It’s how we leverage some practices by showing things that are not necessarily artworks. But once they are put together, they are educational. They instruct people. People are challenged, and have to be focused. It’s not like going to a blockbuster show these days, most of which require zero attention span. To go in a show like this, you have to be willing to be in that space. Otherwise, the space ejects you immediately. You have to have time for that. It challenges even the way you behave daily.

Jonathas de Andrade, Recenseamento Moral da Cidade do Recife (Moral Census Taking of the City of Recife), 2008, exhibition view. Courtesy: Pedro Barbosa and Pinacoteca de São Paulo

MG I wanted to ask more about the space. How is it operated and what motivates the programming?

PB Five or six years ago, the artist Deyson Gilbert came to me and said that I had an interesting collection of archives and he wanted to check it out. Soon after, he returned and said that he wanted to organize what I had. Once you start to organize, you begin to see how a lot of things can be put together.

Then one day, right before the COVID-19 outbreak, he proposed we begin a research programme. Jair Bolsonaro had already taken office as president, so there was no money for art – and people needed money. So, we started giving small grants for research projects. Once this started happening, we needed to produce outcomes from this research. So, one person came with a short video, another with a text, a third with a PDF file that you could print at home. But there were also people that had exhibitions ready, so we decided to make those happen. So, I said, I’m going to rent and try to start a project space.

This is an artist-run project space. They use the artworks in the collection for their practice also. Sometimes I bring ideas. Sometimes they bring the ideas. I don’t have a say in the curatorial decision. So, I don’t choose any work. The idea is to continue like this, but it’s incredible how this thing grows. We are programmed for the entire 2024 already and for the beginning of ’25.

This is the kind of collecting that I’m in: you must show what is there in your collection. Otherwise, you are somehow censoring the artwork when you just buy something and put it in a safe. The work disappears from the scene. The message of the artist is no longer shown. I’m a true believer that when an artist sells me an artwork, they’re selling me the obligation to take care of that thing and to spread the word on a constant basis. It’s not a relationship where I just buy.

MG When you’re deciding on purchasing a work of art, if you want to bring an artist into your collection, what is your process?

PB Now it’s way easier. Since there is a consolidated body of works, new additions must have meaning within the collection. So, I’m adding very few artists now. I am very careful and very lucky to say that I made very few wrong decisions.

MG Who are some recent artists whose work you’ve added to the collection?

Denilson Baniwa, Nokitsínda Copo (Amigo de Copo), 2023, acrylic, oil pastels and paper posters on canvas, 100 × 130 × 3 cm. Courtesy: Pedro Barbosa

PB I wouldn’t say it’s that recent, but one artist that I end up buying a few works of is Denilson Baniwa. I was in LA and went to the Getty. Baniwa had been there for six months, researched the archive and put on an exhibition without artworks that was mind-blowing. He’s someone who thinks beyond art as an object. He doesn’t need an object to make art. Of course, some of the outcomes are objects, but it’s not necessarily the outcome.

I travel a lot. That’s the thing: the more you travel, the more you see the practice of artists that are not commercial. He’s an artist that goes beyond any label.

MG To conclude, I want to ask if you have any advice for collectors just starting out.

PB The market pressures everyone, every stakeholder. The market pressures the buyers. The market pressures the artists. The market pressures the curators. Because the market needs to sell and to generate cash. You cannot be swallowed by the tsunami. You don’t have to be the saviour of any market force.

If you want to buy artworks, good. If you want to put a collection, first design a game plan. Of course, this game plan is changeable over time, but design a game plan. Talk to a lot of people. Ask as much as you can. Be like a never-ending asking machine. Don’t be afraid of asking prices because the dealer is there to sell. The buyer is there to buy. Don’t feel intimidated.

Main Image: Jonathas de Andrade, Recenseamento Moral da Cidade do Recife (Moral Census Taking of the City of Recife), 2008, exhibition view. Courtesy: Pedro Barbosa and Pinacoteca de São Paulo

Marko Gluhaich is associate editor of frieze. He lives in New York, USA.

Pedro Barbosa is a trained engineer and retired bond trader who, in the last two decades, has established himself and the Moraes-Barbosa Collection (CMB) as one of the most significant names in conceptual and contemporary art collections in South America.