“A plant!” “A cross?” “Cars.” The guesses grow more creative as the tour moves through the gallery, pausing before frames of lines, dots, and spirals. “A street full of people…” “Lights that come and go.” The group peers at yet another canvas, this one an enormous multi-coloured collage that towers above the crowd. “It’s a colour party!” announces one visitor.
Art is what you make of it, and at the Contemporary Art Museum of Buenos Aires (MACBA) this is especially true. The MACBA’s debut in the heart of San Telmo delineates what Artistic Director María José Herrera calls, “a new art circuit” in the culturally prolific neighbourhood. The institution opened on 1st September, next door to the Modern Art Museum of Buenos Aires (MAMBA) and only a block from Plaza Dorrego’s artisans and street musicians. The MACBA specialises in late-20th century geometric abstraction, an international movement to which Argentines have made contributions significant enough to “justify a collection that recounts, enhances, and contextualizes it,” according to Herrera.
Architecturally the MACBA’s exterior may be jarring: like a misplaced slice of Puerto Madero, its shiny glass façade contrasts with the crumbling edifices of historic San Telmo. The sparse interior, however, achieves a subtle stillness that flatters the artwork beautifully, becoming, as architect Marcelo Vila intended, the “silent box that compliments the artwork.” Crisscrossing ramps escort visitors from one of the museum’s four exhibition storeys to another, where the pieces await them on airy, open floors.
According to Herrera, geometric abstraction is “a language based in geometry that represents non-natural and non-ideal figures.” Because geometric artists intentionally avoid depicting specific subjects, their works are especially versatile. This quality, MACBA guides explain, permits the collection to span both time period and geographic origin. Artists hail from Latin America, Europe, the United States, and Asia, yet in sharing walls, they dialogue seamlessly.
Not one of the works offers its viewers a clear subject; instead, squares, dots, spirals, and lines acquire meaning in the interplay of audience and art. Some pieces use reflective surfaces to draw a different colour and shape from each person who approaches. Others use optical illusions to create a false sense of movement—even chaos—within mathematic order. By playing tricks with viewers’ eyes, the act of looking at a piece is what gives it life. Some artists test the boundaries of fine art using extreme scale and form; others withdraw into minimalism by seeking pure colours and shapes. Although diverse, the collection tends to ask its viewers to offer their own interpretations, thus prompting audience participation, an element that some find fascinating, others frustrating.
The MACBA’s deep commitment to education counteracts abstract art’s notorious inaccessibility, or prejudices about it. “Education is—to me—the function of museums,” Herrera declares. A rigorous training program teaches tour guides and gallery attendants to engage and teach the public. Tours solicit visitor participation. Symposiums and seminars are open to the public. “That’s the difference between a collection and a museum,” Herrera muses. “A collection someone treasures and takes care of in his home. A museum is an institution with a commitment to the public, to the neighbourhood, to Argentina, to the world.”
The most outstanding manifestation of that commitment is surely the daily tour given at no extra cost. The tour takes about 45 minutes and places a sample of works within a historical and cultural context, highlighting the unique artistic elements of each. For those unaccustomed to modern art appreciation, we recommend taking the tour first and lingering afterwards to contemplate the pieces solo. If, however, you are uninterested in a group experience, it’s best to avoid the late afternoons as the guide wears a microphone and tours can be as large as 20 people. While the tour and exhibition introductions are in Spanish, the museum plans to offer English materials in the near future.
Only a month old, the MACBA is already making ambitious plans. It will host three exhibits per year featuring artists and curators from around the world. The museum’s current exhibition, “Global Exchange”, in which curator Joe Houston draws from the museum’s 150 pieces, will display until March. Argentines Manuel Espinoza and María Martorell will star in the MACBA’s following two expositions. A prize for young artists is also in development.
But for now, the MACBA can afford to rest on its laurels. The museum’s mission is a tall order: facilitate development and discourse among the international artistic community, and interest and edify the public. And at least in the latter, it succeeds. From the masterpieces themselves to the thoughtfully delivered art education, this newcomer to the Buenos Aires cultural scene is more than worth visiting. Glancing around at the visitors milling contemplatively through the ground floor, Herrera asserts, “Art is a primary need. We need places where we can learn to extend our perception, to recognise beauty.” She pauses and smiles, “And, after all, the more art you see, the more you enjoy it!”
Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Buenos Aires, Av. San Juan 328, email@example.com.
Visits Wed-Mon and holidays from 11am-7pm. Closed Tues. General admission Thurs-Mon: $20, Wed: $10. Students, teachers and seniors: $10. Children under 12: Free.
Guided tours Wed-Mon at 5pm. Sat, Sun, and holidays at 3.30pm and 5pm. Inquiries regarding guided tours: firstname.lastname@example.org.