Penelope Curtis took over the exhibition programme and curation of the prestigious Lisbon post of the Gulbenkian Foundation in 2015. The Oxford-University and Courtauld graduate previously worked at Tate Gallery Liverpool when it opened in 1988, to later move to Leeds to develop the Henry Moore Institute’s programme of exhibitions, collections development and research. The rest of her CV is also very impressive: a sculpture specialist, she moved to Tate Britain in 2010 where she oversaw the Millbank Project renovation (arch. Caruso St John 2013) alongside the complete rehang of the building with a new chronological installation, which opened in May 2013. At Tate she was also Chair of the Turner Prize, and co-curated the acclaimed Barbara Hepworth exhibition (2015).
An established scholar and author with particular interest in inter-war art and architecture, Penelope Curtis also spent time in Paris to undertake a research project on Monumental Sculpture in France c.1870-1930. A regular Yale lecturer, her publications include Sculpture 1900–1945 in the Oxford History of Art (Oxford 1999) and Patio & Pavilion: the place of sculpture in modern architecture (Ridinghouse/Getty 2007).
She talks to Art is Alive about the fundamental changes she’s implementing at the Gulbenkian Museum, her tastes in modern and contemporary art, the treasures in storage, and the future projects she’s working on. This is an honour to publish this interview.
As Director of the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, what’s your biggest challenge: curating exhibitions, acquiring relevant works or making sure people come and return to the museum?
My biggest challenge is speaking Portuguese. My next biggest challenge is to refresh a building which is a classic of modern museography. And then to work with a difficult building that was never really intended to be a Museum. (We are based in 2 buildings.)
What’s your main priority and what’s the best part of your role? The strategy you’re implementing at the museum?
My chief priority is to give greater significance to our non-European collections, especially those from Turkey, Iran and Syria.
The best part of my role is to work with a collection and a display that inspires near universal praise. It is closely followed by working with a team that wants to see change.
Tell us something we don’t know about the collection of the museum?
Most people don’t know that we have joined the Modern collection to the Founder’s collection. And that both can and do change. Regularly.
Your favourite spots in Lisbon?
My favourite spots in Lisbon: the square of Principe Real, the Estufa Fria, the Cinemateca Portuguesa, the Museu Júlio Pomar.
What are your views about juxtaposing modern and contemporary art with the collection? Do you think that’s a strong way to present art?
We have only put contemporary art into the collection on occasion, and in small amounts. It is such a common way of working now that it needs to be done with caution. We are more inclined to use the relationship as one that gives us licence to do a range of things, including exhibitions.
Why was Gulbenkian so attached to Lisbon and Portugal?
Gulbenkian was not especially attached to Portugal; he came here because the country was neutral during the war and he was worried about his fortune.
Please select a few highlights in the collection and tell us why they are significant works?
I would highlight the 16th-17th century Turkish textiles as representing Gulbenkian’ s taste at its best; confident, luxurious, ample. Then some surprisingly restrained 18th-century portraits, like that by Vincent, which seem almost puritan in contrast to the decorative arts of the same period. We have quite a number of portraits from this period representing people and their talents, trades or skills. In the modern collection we have a very rich body of works by women emerging at the time of the 1974 Revolution: Helena Almeida, Lourdes Castro, Ana Vieira, Tullia Saldanha, Ana Hatherly, and Paula Rego. They all made works in a new language that was absolutely their own.
Any treasures in storage that the public doesn’t have access to?
Most of the works in storage are coins or fragile pieces, like books, works on paper and prints. In the Modern Collection we are rotating regularly; with the Founder’s Collection we are showing what is best, and what we can. The other works are largely more of the same, or less good.
Tell us about the architecture of the museum and what it evokes?
The architecture of the Founder’s Collection evokes an idea of democracy, even before Portugal was democratic. It is open, horizontal, with more than one entrance, and little grandeur of the old-fashioned kind. The modern collection evokes a multi-purpose functional space of the 1970s.
New acquisitions for the collection?
We are buying lots of works for the modern collection: Portuguese, and also British and from countries with Lusophone links, for example in the last year many drawings by Alvaro Lapa, and works by Willie Doherty, Lúcia Nogueira, António Ole.
Do you have imperatives to show Portuguese artists?
The Modern Collection is principally Portuguese, but we offset that with the Founder’s Collection, which is entirely non-Portuguese, and with our exhibition programme which is very mixed. With new commissions we are aiming to show about half Portuguese artists, and have recently worked with two Swiss artists, Helmut Federle and Marie José Burki, and now with Praneet Soi, from India.
What is the role of each Gulbenkian office: London, Paris and Lisbon?
Lisbon is much, much bigger; it is the home of the foundation and all that that entails. London is an office looking primarily at good practice in philanthropy, while Paris houses a Portuguese language library, and presents cultural events.
Your tastes in modern and contemporary art, who do you look at and like?
I am interested in modern and contemporary art as a whole; I guess now that I have been looking at this area for so long I am especially interested to see less well-known artists, or collections.
Recent exhibitions you’ve seen and liked?
I go on average to four or six exhibitions a week and my tastes are wide ranging. Recently, in Hamburg, I really enjoyed a big retrospective of Alice Neel, and another of Anita Ree. Strong 20th century presences, both with an emphasis on portraiture. I love going to new museums, of all kinds. I am just as keen to see historic art as modern, and in Hamburg too I adored the show of Claude drawings.
Future exhibitions / projects we should be aware of?
We are all thinking about the East- West dialogue. Three smaller exhibitions in 2018 lead up to a bigger project in 2019 exploring our so-called Islamic collections in relation to some wider geo-political questions. I personally am working on two shows for 2019/20: one on casting, and one on the art of display around 1969 when our museum first opened its doors.
Portrait, copyright Hugo Glendinning.
Portrait of Madame Claude Monet. Pierre-Auguste Renoir. France 1872-74 © Ricardo Oliveira Alves.
Calouste Gulbenkian Museum – Modern Collection © Ricardo Oliveira Alves.
Calouste Gulbenkian Museum © JoséManuelCostaAlves.
European Art, Painting and Sculpture, 15th-17th century © Ricardo Oliveira Alves.
Modern Collection (1) © Ricardo Oliveira Alves.