To say that Bernardo Paz, the visionary behind what is arguably the most exciting contemporary art museum in the world, Inhotim, is passionate about his project and its purpose would be an understatement. He is a man obsessed. And only such a man could have created the world’s largest and most ambitious contemporary art museum in the middle of rural Brazil. The magical art space must be seen to be believed as neither words nor images do justice to its scale and drama. The mining billionaire began the project 15 years ago, and in that time has transformed 5,000 acres of rugged jungle into an open-air museum and botanical garden that is mind-blowing.
“The first billion dollars I spent was easy,” he said, when he joined our Indagare Insider group for lunch at Inhotim. “But to finish I will need sponsors and tourists.” Artists like Anish Kapoor, Janet Cardiff, Doug Aitkens and Matthew Barney have been given permanent pavilions to house some of their most ambitious works, which are nestled amidst jungle or palm groves or set upon hilltops or by reflecting pools. “I have a theory that most artists have brilliant ideas until they are 28 years old and then they start to repeat,” he explained. Anish Kapoor had dreamed up the idea behind his pavilion years before Paz finally gave him the space to create it. “Many artists want to make major interactive works but can only do so in temporary exhibits at places like the Tate or MoMA,” he said of how he has gathered such an impressive roster. At Inhotim, these works have found a permanent home. To highlight the impact of the art with astounding natural beauty, including 1,500 species of palms as well as orchids and birds and bright blue butterflies, was Paz’s point.
Famous Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx consulted on the project in its early stages, and today there are more than 4,000 palm trees as well massive Tamborils with whimsical, organic benches by Hugo Franca made of ancient timber resting beneath them. It is a fantasyland of epic proportions. It was opened to the public in 2006 but really only started to gain attention with Brazilians in 2010 when it was declared a botanical garden. In the past few years, as more and more international collectors make the pilgrimage (it is an hour or more flight from Rio or Sao Paulo to Belo Horizonte and then a two-hour drive on rough roads to Inhotim, where there is not yet a luxury hotel), word is seeping out.
But Paz cares little about the collectors who come to marvel. “They collect their Picassos and put them on their walls. Art is for education and to be shared,” he says. Last year, he brought 100,000 children and 30,000 teachers to Inhotim. “I put no papers on the wall to tell the children what to see. Here you can mix black and white, rich and poor and in two hours, everyone is a child. It is magic,” he exclaimed. The interactive sites invite surprise and wonder not context. The children climb on the massive beams of Chris Burden’s Beam Drop, dance in Valeska Soares’ Folly or plunge in the pool at Helio Oiticica’s Cosmococas. “Engage. Explore. Expand.” Could be the museum motto.
Paz built Inhotim in his home state of Minas Geiras because he hopes it will open the hearts and minds of the local people and raise their quality of life. He employs 1,100 people in jobs ranging from guides and gardeners (400) to chefs (there are three restaurants); all wear color-coded Inhotim t-shirts depending on their role. “I see the kids come here to work, and what they see is how easy it can be to change,” he explains. “Surrounded by beauty you respect humanity, and you can see how interconnected we all are.”
Despite the daily delights of Inhotim—and Paz spends most of his days on site to meet and greet visitors—he believes that he still has much to do to ensure that Inhotim will be self-sustaining. “The second billion dollars is not as easy as the first. I put in millions every month, but I need help,” he said somewhat plaintively. He plans to open a luxury forty-five room boutique hotel by the end of the year and another four hotels at differing price points as well as a regional airport. Tourism and sponsorship dollars are the next step, but not the end of the vision. With the civilizing and bonding power of beauty and art, he hopes for an Inhotim in Asia and Africa. “Culture now is more important than ever,” he concluded before leaving us. “Because it is human."
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