By Rachel Vancelette
Roberto Polo, Cuban American collector, philanthropist and art historian has been busily planning the huge debut of two new museums in 2019. They will reside in Spain and become home to his in-depth art collection and shown for the first time to an international public. The process to launch the venture has been complex and engaging to accomplish transformation of two important buildings into museums hoping to fascinate and educate spectators for generations to come. Audiences will get a rare glimpse into the mind of one of the most colorful and ambitious art collectors of our time.
The flamboyant collector, known for his noteworthy life collecting artworks from around the world, will loan more than seven thousand works of modern and contemporary art to Spanish institutions for the duration of fifteen years. The charismatic Polo has long had ambitions to leave an important legacy and has worked to position himself as an important patron of the arts since the early age of nineteen. His collection consists of works from the nineteenth century to present day, and while Polo continues to work closely among some of the top experts in the field to organize, write and archive the great collection, he has also taken on most of the work himself. Polo’s discerning eyes for beauty and rarity is a gift requiring devoted investigation and research to pursue and acquire only top international artists.
Traditional notions of patronage of the arts and connoisseurship during a time where international Art Fairs and the art market have dominated the conversation definitely make this a unique venture. The holdings consist of over three-hundred masterpieces which will make their home in Spain for the duration. The book titled Roberto Polo: The Eye, authored by top museums curators and professionals provides readers a small glimpse into the passion and knowledge of this collecting eye. This quintessential gift for any art lover is a concentrated passion and extremely keen foresight during the process of securing high value enduring art work. Polo plans to build a cultural bridge connecting new and historical artists which will deepen critical dialogue mostly missing today.
The collection consists of four centuries of artwork mostly focusing on regions of central, eastern, and northern Europe and the United States. The MRP collection can now be studied by the public, local and international universities and institutions. Many of the works that will be on view for the first time will make this a must-see tourist destination. Included artists are Max Ernst, Juan Garaizabal, Kurt Schwitters, László Moholy-Nagy, Larry Poons, Martin Kline, Maria Roosen and Karen Gunderson and many more which will be on display. Selected artists have been assigned special commissions for parts of the museum including unique vaulted rooms, historical pathways and garden areas open to visitors. The curatorial program organized for Toledo, together with artistic director Rafael Sierra, will present two contemporary exhibitions per year. A few rare private viewings of the museums have been presented to insiders by invitation only by Polo and the Spanish government. An army of experts to work alongside the famous Spanish architect Pablo Rodríguez Frade, is to complete the museums in time for opening this coming 2019.
The refurbishing of Toledo’s thirteenth-century Convento de Santa Fe which stands at the central gates of the city opens an important cultural gateway to visitors to Toledo who will find a straight path to it just off the train. It is one of the first things visitors see coming into the city gates. Toledo is an important destination which already enjoys nearly over 800,000 visitors a year to the multiple museums residing within the city walls and continues to be a very important European cultural destination. The Convento de Santa Fe amazingly also houses some of the most famous Diego Velázquez artworks in the world right around the corner entry way – and is certainly worth the ticket. Mr. Polo can be sometimes spotted on the grounds with his architect bringing artists, art collectors and friends to appreciate the beauty of the city and the new museum. If you are lucky and get a quick glimpse of the refined collector, he may carry you onward for some great manchego cheese, a great expresso, marzipan (well known in the region) and a glass of the finest wine. With a hello from Mr. Polo and the locals who have embraced this newfound home for Polo’s art collection you will be quickly inducted into this magical kingdom which hopes to entertain and enlighten generations to come.
The former public-records building in Cuenca, which was once a headquarters of the dreaded Spanish Inquisition, is to house the work from the early modern works. It will also include earlier works from the collection, some on permanent installation and some on rotation. Polo who had announced plans to gift Spain part of his famous library has been generous enough to invite local universities and institutions to participate in the study and care of the library. The library encompasses tens of thousands of art-history books, including many rare and valuable first editions. This surprising and complicated collector and philanthropist who is gracing the public with rare views of his impressive collections for the first time is cementing his valuable legacy for generations of art enthusiasts and international aficionados of great art.
Q. Can you speak to what you hope the general public will discover while visiting both museums MPR in Toledo and Cuenca?
Most museums of modern and contemporary art opened in recent decades follow a formula. We can predict what we will see before even entering them. Those museums exhibit art products from a limited, socially and commercially approved list of branded artists, which are sold by equally branded galleries that operate like chain boutiques of branded fashion throughout the world. Oscar Wilde’s following quotation from ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ (1890) is more relevant today than ever before: “Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Within that context, the state Roberto Polo Museum. Centre for Modern and Contemporary Art of Castile-La Mancha in Toledo and Cuenca (Spain) (both cities are World Heritage Sites) will sing a new song. Most people seem to ignore or forget that when The Phillips Collection in Washington DC and The Museum of Modern Art in New York opened in 1921 and 1929 respectively, the artists whose work was represented in the permanent collections were virtually or totally unknown and unbranded. We could add the Folkwang Museum founded in 1922, originally in Hagen and now in Essen, described in 1932 by Paul J. Sachs, American art historian and co-founder of The Museum of Modern Art as “The most beautiful museum in the world”, as well as the Sztuki Museum founded in 1930 in Łod by the painter and art theoretician Władysław Strzemiski, actively supported by his wife Katarzyna Kobro—it was the first museum of abstract art in history—whose mission was to show art that no other museum would. A museum’s mission is pedagogical. For decades now, the wealthy members of many museums’ boards of trustees place undue pressures on curators to buy art products that will therefore value those in their own commercially speculative collections. Those circumstances are deplorable.
The permanent collection of the Roberto Polo Museum. Centre for Modern and Contemporary Art of Castile-La Mancha and its temporary exhibitions will reflect my vision in art, which is tantamount to saying that I have always acquired art with knowledge more than money. My approach has been scientific, not speculative. I have acquired art, not signatures, except when I was able to discover, identify, works of art by famous artists to which others were blind. My acquisitions have sprung not only from passion, but also from a profound knowledge of art history and theory. Having been formed as a visual artist, art historian and philosopher helped greatly. That is not to say that the museum’s permanent collection will not feature extraordinary and unique masterpieces by celebrated nineteenth and twentieth century masters, such as Henri Edmond Cross, Honoré Daumier, Eugène Delacroix, Max Ernst, Wassily Kandinsky, László Moholy-Nagy, Hermann Max Pechstein, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Oskar Schlemmer, Gustave Miklos and many others, but also by those who are equally important, but had fallen into oblivion until I came along, identified their relevance in the history of art and began acquiring their work. Among the latter category are masterpieces by the Belgian artists Marthe Donas, Marc Eemans, Pierre-Louis Flouquet, Paul Joostens, Karel Maes, Xavier Mellery, Victor Servranckx, Léon Spilliaert and Georges Vantongerloo.
RV: With your architect Pablo Rodríguez Frade, how much influence do you have in the finalized design of both museums?
The Founding and Artistic Director of the Roberto Polo Museum. Centre for Modern and Contemporary Art of Castile-La Mancha, Rafael Sierra, and I, are privileged to collaborate with the excellent Spanish architect, Juan Pablo Rodríguez Frade, not only on the design of the museum’s permanent collection installation, but also on decisions pertaining to the temporary exhibition spaces and the buildings’ exteriors.
RV: Are there any special architectural elements you wish to discuss pre-opening that you can share with us?
Given that the Roberto Polo Museum. Centre for Modern and Contemporary Art of Castile- La Mancha in both Toledo and Cuenca will be contained in buildings that are sublime works of ancient art, the installation of the permanent collection and the temporary exhibitions is a challenge. The museum’s buildings are in Flemish and Mozarabic styles dating from the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries. They house important architectural ruins, elements and frescos that date even earlier, must be respected and put in dialogue with modern and contemporary art mostly from northern, central and Eastern Europe, as well as the USA. The Roberto Polo Museum. Centre for Modern and Contemporary Art of Castile-La Mancha will be one of the most beautiful and original museums in the world.
RV: What is your benchmark for acquiring a work of art?
I only acquire art that was revolutionary in its time or embodies an original artistic expression. Each acquisition must be a lesson. Whenever I have not been able to continue acquiring masterpieces by a certain artist or artistic movement, I have evolved towards others. I am a curious and impatient man who bores easily. However, given my age of 67, I have now decided that the collection must remain as it is and continue evolving in the same direction. Of course, that does not mean that I will cease making discoveries, identifying works of art that others did not see.
RV: You have stated this cultural work is very important to you. What would you say to the younger generations about collecting art? What advice would you give?
I advise forthcoming generations of collectors that art and the art market are two very different matters that rarely coincide. New collectors must learn art history and theory to enable them to read a work of art. Visual art is a language like any other. Great art that deserves to remain in museums for centuries is one that demands a long and extended look. It is “slow art”, an art that incessantly speaks to us, not a “fast art” product made for immediate commercial consumption.
RV: Could you speak to your relationships with living artists that are part of your collection?
Because I was formed as a visual artist, my relationship with other artists is often that of a colleague and a sounding board. However, it is a well known fact that great artists are not necessarily great persons. Although I value many artists as persons and artists, and thus I am motivated to support them and their work, others are dishonest, disloyal and ungrateful. Unfortunately, I sometimes learn what kind of a person an artist is after he or she betrays or cheats me. That has been part of the obscure and bitter life stories of many art collectors and dealers, including Paul Durand-Ruel, Gertrude Stein, Helwarth Walden (Georg Lewin), Hélène de Mandrot, Katherine Dreier, Leo Castelli, Ernst Bayeler and many others.
RV: Do you have, and/or have you had particular close relationships with some of the artists in your collection?
In my opinion, one of the greatest living painters is the Belgian Werner Mannaers. I am not alone in opining that. Werner Mannaers is the first painter who has successfully reconciled two opposing concepts of space that characterise the first half of the twentieth century: Miró’s cosmic space and Picasso’s concrete. However, Werner Mannaers’ paintings reach far beyond that achievement. That is one of the reasons why I proposed him for the first temporary exhibition of the Roberto Polo Museum. Centre for Modern and Contemporary Art of Castile-La Mancha. The solo exhibition, ‘Werner Mannaers. Convulsive Beauty’—tittle derived from an eponymous 2009 painting by Werner Mannaers—will be curated by the Berlin-based British art critic, Martin Herbert.
Painting was really born in Spain as a result of its occupation of Flanders and The Low Countries. The first paintings from those Northern European regions arrived in Toledo, the Imperial Capital of the Spanish Empire, the vastest empire in history. Toledo and Jerusalem are the only cities where Christians, Jews and Muslims lived in peace for centuries thus creating a rich and fertile culture. Spain imported a huge number of Old Master paintings from Flanders and The Low Countries, as well as Italy. However, Spain is virtually devoid of twentieth and twenty-first century masterpieces from those same regions. The Roberto Polo Museum. Centre for Modern and Contemporary Art of Castile-La Mancha will fill that gap. Being Flemish, Werner Mannaers’ exhibition at the Roberto Polo Museum. Centre for Modern and Contemporary Art of Castile-La Mancha will close a circle in Spanish museography.
RV: Where do you get your inspiration, drive and continued ambition to build a both modern and contemporary fine art collection over all of these many years?
I was born an artist, a collector and scholar. I cannot help creating, collecting and learning. Unlike Peggy Guggenheim, I do not auto-baptise myself an “art addict”, because I reject the connotations of that nomenclature. I am simply fortunate enough to have been born with a vocation in art.
RV: What do you envision for the future of Museo Roberto Polo Centro de Arte Moderno y Contemporáneo de Castilla-La Mancha?
I envision that visitors to the Roberto Polo Museum. Centre for Modern and Contemporary Art of Castile-La Mancha will be surprised by what they shall discover. It is my mission and vocation to open others’ eyes to what I know and see. For example, they shall discover the revolutionary work of Paul Joostens, which contrary to what we have been taught in school, is the first Dada artist in history. Whereas Kurt Schwitters’ earliest Dada collages date to 1919, Joostens’ date to 1916. I do not wish to diminish the importance of Kurt Schwitters’ work, which I love and own, but for me it is nevertheless important that Paul Joostens did it first and that the world must know that. Another example is the work of the great Belgian Avant-Guard painter Marthe Donas, who as of 1917, created the first shaped paintings in the history of western art.
RV: Can you or your curator speak to the curatorial programming, projects or planning?
The Roberto Polo Museum Centre for Modern and Contemporary Art of Castile-La Mancha is governed by the state Roberto Polo Collection Foundation. All proposed exhibitions must be approved by the foundation’s Board of Trustees, which is—by Spanish law—formed by a majority of members appointed by the government, which in our case is 6, and myself as Vice-President, with four members appointed by me, thus totalling 11 members. Neither the museum’s Founding and Artistic Director (Rafael Sierra) nor its Administrative Director (Óscar Carrascosa) are members of the Board of Trustees. However, both of the aforementioned Directors can sit at the meetings of the Board of Trustees.
RV: Can you speak about some of the upcoming exhibitions for 2019?
Aside from the inaugural temporary exhibition ‘Werner Mannaers. Convulsive Beauty’, other exhibitions will soon be proposed to the museum’s Board of Trustees.
RV: Will there be any outdoor public artworks on site of the museums? If so, can you speak to the artists selected?
Yes. The Italian artists, Roberto Pietrosanti and Roberto Caracciolo, will both create permanent installations for one of the monumental patios of the museum, whose main building in Toledo is the Convent of Santa Fe, constructed from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century. Monumental sculptures by the Spanish artist, Miquel Navarro, and the Italian artist, Gianni Dessì, are also on the program.
RV: Will the museum rotate the permanent collection?
The museum will rotate only part of the permanent collection, given that we do not want to disappoint visitors who wish to see many key artworks. However, the museum will have an active and regular program of temporary exhibitions.
RV: You are also donating a vast amount of art books for a library, some first editions. How does the museum plan to activate the library for use and education? Is there a name selected for the library and focus? Will universities and scholars be able to use the library?
I have also promised to cede my extensive and rare library to the Roberto Polo Collection Foundation. The library will be situated in one of the museum’s three buildings usually denominated as ‘El Miradero’, which is slated to inaugurate by the end of 2023. Of course, the library will be accessible to scholars and students. In the meantime, the library will be housed at the foundation’s seat, which is ‘El Armiño’ in Toledo, former property of El Greco and his family. That property shall contain the foundation’s offices, residences for artists and scholars, studios for artists and my residence. We plan a center for advanced studies in art history in affiliation with the University of Castile-La Mancha in Toledo.
RV: Do you want to speak on Toledo or Cuenca and the history?
The historic city of Cuenca—around 200 kilometres from Valencia and Toledo, the capital of Castile-La Mancha—is known for abstract art, rock climbing and fast water rafting on its stunning Huecar River. Its jewel of a Museum of Spanish Abstract Art was founded in 1966 and was the first of its kind in the kingdom. Cuenca’s dramatic landscape of cliffs, canyons, gorges and hanging houses make it one of the most magical places that I have ever seen.
The permanent building of the Roberto Polo Museum Centre for Modern and Contemporary Art in Cuenca will be housed in an impressive tenth century castle, which became the tribunal and prison of the Inquisition from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, and the Historical Provincial Archives in the twentieth century. That building will inaugurated by the year 2023.
In the meantime, the Roberto Polo Museum. Centre for Modern and Contemporary Art in Cuenca will be housed in the Casa Zavala, formerly the Antonio Saura Foundation.
The museum’s inauguration in both Toledo and Cuenca is scheduled for February 2019.