Pedro Gadanho

Art is Alive catches up with Pedro Gadanho, curator, writer and architect. He is currently the Director of MAAT – Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology, in Lisbon but will leave his position later this year.

Previously he was a curator of contemporary architecture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, where he was responsible for the Young Architects Program, and curated exhibitions including 9+1 Ways of Being Political, and A Japanese Constellation. A regular contributor to international publications, he was the editor of BEYOND bookazine and received the FAD Prize for Thought and Criticism in 2012.

How familiar are you with London?

Many years ago, I was doing my Art and Architecture MA in Canterbury, right when the Young British Artists (YBA) were emerging, in 1995. I used to come to London every weekend with my MA tutors who were from London and we would attend all the gallery openings. I met Tracey Emin then, she was very young, working on her first exhibition etc. These trips represented my first immersion into the contemporary art world.

Then you moved to New York to work for MoMA, is that correct?

That was much later, in 2012. When I applied to this position at MoMA, I was teaching in Porto where I graduated, and I was already working as a freelance architecture curator.

It’s really at MoMA that I started looking more closely at the dialogue between art and architecture because although I was in the architecture and design department, of course I had access to the entire collection. This gave me the opportunity to bring artists into architecture exhibitions. For instance, one of the last shows I did, was specifically focusing on this aspect. It was called “Endless House: Intersections of Art and Architecture” and it started with Frederick Kiesler’s Endless House. It was an opportunity to see, compare or contrast how architects and artists look at the concept of home and house. They see completely different things and these differences were great to explore.

In the show, the artists ranged from Louise Bourgeois, Bruce Nauman to Wolfgang Laib, and on the architects’ side there were only models of very famous houses in which the discipline of architecture had made some huge breakthroughs. The architecture was more experimental than the art because the art was looking at the concept of home and Universalism. It was a very interesting contrast because one always tends to think that art is where the real vanguard is and consider architecture as a more pragmatic profession. I think in that case it was fun to show that, sometimes, roles are reversed.

Are you an architect yourself?

Yes, I am an architect.

Are you an artist as well?

No, I was a practising architect but not anymore. During my MA I had a practice where we made this conceptual project as an art collective, with an artist, for 265 days. We did a lot of work. We did our own retrospective by the end of the year. It was like a side project to the MA. That’s the only thing that I did that I can remotely connect to an art practice.

With regards to contemporary artists, who do you follow these days? Who do you love and look at?

I was precisely thinking about that today because the show I co-curated at the Whitechapel Gallery Is This Tomorrow? includes the work of Cecil B Evans.

I followed her work for a while and seeing her here and there. I’m very happy to see her work within the scope of this show. I’ve been lucky to work with a lot of artists I was very interested in, from Tomás Saraceno to Carlos Garaicoa to Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster.

I was following all of these artists when I came to the MAAT which gave me the opportunity to invite them and develop new projects in this context. This is what is  exciting, engaging with artists to make new projects and starting something new in the context of a museum or an urban intervention.

How long have you been at the museum?

I started in 2015 but the museum opened in 2016, so we started the programme exactly a year after I had arrived.

Were you part of the decision to select Amanda Levete as the MAAT’s architect?

No, because I arrived later in the process.

Okay, so are you happy with the architecture?

Yeah, because it was delivered as an iconic attraction which for Lisbon was important at the time. In a moment of change, it was necessary for the architecture to drive people in. Lisbon is very conservative in terms of architecture so building a very contemporary building could have been a motive of rejection from locals. Actually the building proved to be very welcoming, partly thanks to its organic and inviting forms. It elicited a very good response from the public.

At a certain point, curiously the challenge became to drive people inside the museum so they wouldn’t just stay around the building or on its rooftop. The true challenge for me as a director was to convince the public that what we are showing inside the museum is as exciting as its architecture.

Portuguese architects are good though, so in a very nationalistic kind of way, why was a non-Portuguese architect chosen for the project?

Precisely because there aren’t many international architects working in the city of Lisbon. Also, it was a desire from the EDP Foundation (organisation behind the MAAT) to make a difference, and to bring a woman architect as well; to bring someone who could introduce a very different architectural language. I was not involved in this decision, but I suspect that there was also an intention to replicate the “Bilbao effect” in terms of how the building could be a statement within the city.

I think that the link with the industrial power station, which was already a landmark, and this new building worked well and makes sense today.

How did Mr. Berardo react to the museum (his contemporary art collection is located in the same area of the city Belém)?

I have no idea (laughs), but what I do think is that the museum and the programme we started to develop shook things around. The city always had bits of international programming with the Gulbenkian and at the Berardo Museum, in a strong way, particularly when Mr Berardo held the position of artistic director of the collection.

With MAAT, there was an opportunity to take up a little bit of that role of bringing international artists and putting them in dialogue with Portuguese artists. That was the initial mission of the EDP Foundation. I thought that the dialogue between Portuguese artists and the ability to do new projects in the context of an institution could be the path to bringing more international artists.

After a few years are satisfied with the results?

Yes, I mean you tell me, but I have had the feeling, while wondering around, that there was already an acknowledgment of MAAT as an institution.

We only opened two years ago, so I think that is fascinating considering that it is a very tough and competitive environment in terms of the number of contemporary art museums in the world. I think that, in that respect, firstly we succeeded in putting the museum on the map. Secondly because we had the opportunity to develop new large-scale projects in the Oval Gallery. This is a space of almost 1,000 square meters in which artists must compose with specific architectural forms. This makes for a very interesting challenge to them. I think that they love the fact that it is not a “white cube” and they must come up with answers to the complexity of that space.

It’s a beautiful space which reminds me of the Guggenheim Museum in NY. I saw Saraceno’s installation, presented last year, and it was brilliant.

Maybe because it is a peripheral condition outside the attention on central places such as London or Paris, artists feel at ease to experiment and to take new risks.

The presentation of the “Aerocene” project by artist Tomás Saraceno acted as experimention in the Oval space of the MAAT for the first-time. This is an experience he later used for his monumental show at Palais de Tokyo in Paris.

In our dialogue, him and I called this experimentation a “jam session” because he had a plan but then the plan was totally twisted, and we had the flexibility to accommodate other changes. This is only possible in a small-scale museum where you don’t have restricted planning of three to four years. This usually pushes you to act according to precisely-defined plans. That sense of “a jam session”, I think, has sometimes been lost in several places. We were happy to allow it and instigate that kind of feeling.

Is there an EDP Collection?

There is an EDP Collection which is the basis for its activity. It is a Portuguese art collection.  During the last two / three years, we acquired a lot of younger artists and we filled certain gaps in the collection. We also acquired the Collection of Pedro Cabrita Reis who has collected a lot of young upcoming artists in the 90s. It was originally one of our collection shows which are all thematic, except that one which really focuses on the emergence of this 90s generation, a movement which happened just last year.

This approach to the collection as something that is living, producing dialogues and acting as a commentary on current issues is something I brought from MoMA. Each theme was more concerned with current issues than with historical aspects of art history. We brought these works from the collection to provoke something in the viewer.

We also acquired some works to respond to these things and to update the collection in those terms. For instance, the first collection was called “Second Nature” and it was dealing with the desperation of nature and the substitution by perceived nature, a built cultural nature. Artists have been the first to represent nature and to therefore assume that transition from a primeval, original nature to an Anthropocene-driven nature or constructed by men.

Other shows, the first focusing on the 90s generation, included “Germinal” which was about this inception. We also presented shows on themes related to biographical issues and we are now doing one on the idea of space, conceived and produced by artists.

In Portugal, there seems to be a tradition of artists related to architecture, and the reason is maybe because architecture is so strong historically; there are a lot of connections between the work of many artists and the urban environments.

This is one thing that we’ve tried to explore. MAAT is not an architectural and technology museum, but it is a contemporary art museum which is particularly focused on how artists look at the built environment and technology. In fact, sometimes even producing a critique of those aspects rather than just using them as tools. That’s what I think became distinctive about the museum. It is a political project which believes that artists are people who have this privilege to be able to step back and produce the critical reflection on reality that is missing elsewhere. By focusing on the built environment and technology, you do have a lot of artists who work with such topics and make them part of their work. This was also a way to focus within the large contemporary art world which could be polemic. It’s an option, but when you have in fact so much to choose from. Actually, this focus on the built environment and technology help us define the artists we wanted to work with.

Do you have a list of people that you knew you wanted to work with?

Yes, we are now working with Jesper Just and Xavier Veilhan. We had plans with Elmgreen & Dragset; also Pipilotti Rist and so on. 

Did you see the Elmgreen & Dragset exhibition presented at the Whitechapel Gallery?

Yes, I saw it.

Did you like it?

I enjoyed the initial room in which the space of the Whitechapel sort of went back to its origins, almost as a traditional Victorian swimming pool which never existed, but which could exist like a fiction.

What else are you working on right now and which future exhibition ideas are you developing?

One is the collaboration with the Whitechapel Gallery. Another significant exhibition we are opening in March, which for us is very exciting is of Wolfgang Tillmans’ work. It is an exhibition on photography of architecture by artists. It includes Jeff Wall, Thomas Demand, James Casebere, Wolfgang Tillmans, and a younger generation such as Beate Gütschow, Carlos Garaicoa, Gregory Crewdson and so on.

The name of the show is “Fiction and Fabrication” and it defends the idea that we need to film narratives and fictions to tell the truth in images, and shows how images which are apparently documentary are in fact built, and can be fake constructions. Fiction allows us to contrast that aspect. The show is very focused on aspects of fiction and construction within the image, the digital turn and how digital tools allow you to build images rather than taking photographs. It is all about the construction of the image as a metaphor for architecture itself, but also a commentary on how architecture has come to produce these beautiful renderings which are totally fake. Although they seem so realistic, in the end they are used for commercial purposes and they portray a forced reality. I think artists bring back a closer look at how images transmit other realities, other narratives and other political intentions.

One of the strongest works in the show is Doug Aitken’s recent light box. The shape of a house features a photograph of the police beating up protesters, a terrible situation where a young black man was killed. The artist took the house of this man and created this image which deals with rioting and police’s actions. It is a very strong distortion of the image of a home, a very strong political statement which has become a symbol for the whole exhibition.

Later in September, we will present Angela Bulloch’s intervention in the Oval Gallery. After that, we will stage a show called “Play Mode” which is not about videogames, but about the gamification of life seen from the perspective of artists, then belonging to the realms of digital games. It is more a recent history of artists who have looked at games and ways of integrating them into their work through performances and installations. We will look at artists who interact with the digital world and integrate logics originating from videogames and so on.

Have you watched Black Mirror’s Bandersnatch episode?


Did you like it?

I was at the V&A’s Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt show, which has a completely different nature because it is about videogames; how you build videogames and narratives. Our show will have one or two videogames which makes for important references but mostly about artists who have integrated the logic of the game in their own works. There is even the classic, not well known, chess board by Rachel Whiteread, and Gabriel Orozco’s ping pong table for four.

Going back to the Whitechapel partnership, how did the collaboration start? By the way, is it a collaboration or not?

It is. MAAT are co-commissioning the works. I am the co-curator of the show. We’ve been working together for a while because the first show we wanted to bring to MAAT was “Electronic Superhighway” organised by the Whitechapel.

I had just started my programme at MAAT and I thought that it was the perfect show to talk about the impact of technology in art practices. So, we brought that show in, then recently Iwona Blazwick curated on the shows of works by Carlos Bunga’s exhibition held in Lisbon. It was very impactful. Also, since we were in touch, they asked me at some point if I would be interested in collaborating on “Is this Tomorrow?”. I thought it was the perfect opportunity to further explore the dialogue and collaborations between art and architecture.

Do you think you are going to do more of these exhibitions? Or is it just a start?

We are taking the “Eco-Visionaries” show which we initiated in Lisbon to the Royal Academy in November, and several other of our exhibitions have travelled around the world. We did a solo show of Grada Kilomba’s work who has Angolan roots and now lives in Berlin for example. We did her fist show in Portugal and it later travelled to a power station in Canada.

Also, we’ve co-produced this show with the Bildmuseet museum in Sweden. We are trying to put together different co-productions if there’s real interest, although I have my doubts nowadays about travelling shows because I think they should be adapted to each location, not only in terms of special arrangements but in terms of how you respond to context and to a local audience. I prefer to do “versions” i.e collaborations based on versions of the show rather than a straight-forward touring exhibition.

This was the main idea of the “Eco-Visionaries” show which was started between four venues. Each venue had a different take on the same topic. We did the catalogue together but each one had a very different approach. For example us at MAAT we were more focusing on artists and architects dealing with climate change and the ecological crisis. The House of Electronic Arts in Basel was focusing more on media art and how artists use it, were focusing on aspects of big data and how that was also helping them in looking at changing conditions. This was much more interesting because the catalogue became a very dense piece with more than 80 artists in it, but each exhibition was different. So, if you want to see the all of it you had to visit the four different venues. We had maybe two / three artists in common, in between the different venues, but they added up to a much more comprehensive vision of the topic. I think that it was a wonderful model. We were much freer to deal with our own interest as an institution, and then we came together to produce the catalogue with the intent to produce a much wider and broader concept.

What is your main priority: is it bringing people to the museum or buying artworks?

It is interesting because being here in London during the 90s I could feel at times how contemporary art was starting to reach out to a broader audience. This then led to the Education Programme at Tate Modern and so on, until it became one of the tourist’s magnet for London, the fact that London has renowned contemporary art institutions.

In Portugal we still are at the beginning of that process because contemporary art is not what people are after. Tourists coming to Lisbon aren’t coming for contemporary art either. In Lisbon, we have to do similar work as London institutions did in the middle of the 90s in London, which is demonstrating that contemporary art exhibitions are relevant to more people than art historians, artists or experts.

The artworks that we are showing can tell you something about your life and about the current time. This is an approach that has required close contacts with the media, and putting materials forward with journalists and writers who don’t necessarily cover contemporary art.

I think that the building works as a sort of magnet to attract people and confront them with something they would not usually see. I think that it is successful because most of our audience is still 75% Portuguese. For instance, the Guggenheim has 90% tourists. We still have an opportunity to attract visitors from the city.

I think that first, people were attracted to see the museum, then they engaged with the themes of the exhibitions, for example “Eco-Visionaries” had 120 000 visitors. For a city that counts 600 000 people, it is amazing. It is like one-fifth of the city’s population; that would be 1,500,000 in London.

Lisbon has changed a lot in the last two / three years; would you agree?

Even five or six years. When I left for New York in 2012 there was an austerity crisis. Soon after, the city started to change. Some places were closing, and others, such as restaurants, soon after, opened everywhere. Suddenly, every time I came back, there were new places in town and a lot of emerging places, from younger communities and creative culture. That led to a much more massive tourist effect now, which is changing the city. This is a problem that other cities have had in the past, gentrification I mean, but I think that at this point it is still positive for the city because Lisbon was very run down and derelict. Now at least the city is much young and livelier.

I have always lived in the centre of Lisbon, and now I see the hordes of tourists, and everybody complains, but I prefer this rather than an empty town like I used to feel eight years ago. In the past, I could walk and see nobody on the street after 6pm, and now it is lively. Of course, there is an economical pressure on people.

Have you seen artists come to Lisbon to have a studio?

You know, it is a sort of cliché, but people talk about Berlin and they move to Lisbon instead for the weather and get nice studios, nice spaces and cheaper rents.

Lisbon is open, friendly and it is very well connected because you are two hours away from many other cities in Europe. That means that Lisbon has become an attractive location.

Also, there was an increased dynamism in the art world itself, particularly with the arrival of ARCO Lisboa that has coincided with the opening of MAAT and other independent galleries. This movement drove collectors, artists, and people interested in art in general to the city.

I think that Lisbon is that sort of place where also people are looking for a pied-à-terre in a moment of political instability just like in the World War II. In fact, that drags an attention to the city which is interesting, and I am curious to see how that will change the creative culture and communities because more opportunities are arising as well. There is another level of consumption, if you have collectors etc. people are showing an interest on other levels.

So, do you work with ARCO? Do you organise events?

For me it was evident that we should be partnering immediately with ARCO, and so we became partners from the first edition. It’s very close to MAAT too. We are always organising the opening party for ARCO, and we align our programme so we can do several openings during the week. This year, we will open five shows during ARCO on 15th May. For us, it is also an opportunity to show the museum to a crowd that ARCO can bring to Lisbon. In the past there was never an entity that was able to bring so many people from the art world in one go to the city.

So, you said 15th of May…

Yeah, that when we open Jesper Just and Xavier Veilhan, and for the first time we will use the rooftop of the building. We will also award a prize for emerging Portuguese artists. This is a way to introduce six new artists from Portugal to an international audience. We will also have two important Portuguese artists, Carla Filipe and Pedro Fundao presenting site-specific interventions. There’s a lot to see during that time.

Where do you go when you come to London? Do you choose to see everything both private galleries and museums?

That is one thing that is not easy, identifying everything happening in London.

There’s a project at the Camden Arts Centre that I wanted to see. I went to the South London Gallery and the Hayward Gallery, I am very disciplined (laughs). When I am here, I try to see at least 80% of what I think is important to me. I arrived yesterday and I saw the Serpentine and I went to the Design Museum because I wanted to see the David Adjaye show. After that, I went to the video games’ show at the V&A, and today I am going to see galleries around Mayfair including the Bill Viola show at the Royal Academy of Arts. Tomorrow I am going to South London.

Have you been to Gasworks?

Not recently. Do they have good projects now?

I don’t know what they have now, but it is a kind of space and spirit which are very interesting.

I’ve heard of the new Goldsmith’s Gallery which I am curious to see, I don’t know if they have anything on. I also have a lot of friends here so the first night is to delineate what is happening in town, and you start to reorganise your programme then. This time I took I few days more than I needed just to make sure I’d see a lot of shows.

Were you born in Lisbon or outside?

I was born in a small city in the centre of Portugal, Covilhã. We are from the same area you and me. My parents moved to Porto first, when I was three years old, and then they always moved around in Portugal. My life was always between Porto and Lisbon. I feel more like a Lisboeta now because I have spent more time in Lisbon and I feel more connected to that city. I did my Architecture education in Porto, and I taught there at the university. Then I started to move back to Lisbon because of the cultural activities, so the number of years has been very balanced.

Do you still practice architecture and design?

I stopped in 2012. Actually, I remember I was very early on presenting a proposal to Chris Fairway set in Rotterdam at the Netherlands Architecture Institute. It was a project that I did with the British Council here in London called “Space Invaders” on young British architects, and I was proposing this idea and she asked me about my life, and she said: “if you want to be a curator you have to do it full time”. This was in 2001 and I managed to keep these careers in parallel until 2012, so twelve years of three different activities, and finally when I came to MoMA, I decided to dedicate my time to curating.

Now I am considering coming back to my architectural practice, I want to go into more consulting, advising that may include architecture aspects, especially because there are collectors who are arriving to Lisbon and they want to start new spaces and foundations. There are new opportunities to explore.

Can you quote any big collector coming to the city?

No, maybe I shouldn’t. There is a big Swedish collector who has just refurnished his house and moved part of his collection to Lisbon, and he has a little space in his backyard which can became public. He wants to transform it into a sort of public house in which he can show his artists but also others, interacting more with the city.

I think that it is logic, people don’t want just to have these touristic relationships to the city. If they are committed to having a second life in another place, then they also want to invest and be part of its cultural life.

Do you see any other opportunities in the area where MAAT is, such as new initiatives or new museums?

Not yet. I think it will come, but the fact was that before MAAT, existing galleries started to go in other directions, so these areas became the new centres for galleries. I think it will take a while before they will recognise that in between Berardo and MAAT there is an attraction for a new hot spots for contemporary art.

Did you attend the BoCA Biennial or will you attend it?

Yeah, we are partners, we offer our space and co-organise events and performances. Since the beginning of BoCA I was one of the first to welcome the concept itself of the Biennale. We did several projects together. One of these was the “Actors Amor? Performance” which we presented in the Oval Gallery. This year, we will be using the Oval Gallery to welcome performers.


Fiction and Fabrication_Courtesy of EDP Foundation©Bruno Lopes (4)

Fiction and Fabrication_Courtesy of EDP Foundation©Bruno Lopes (5)

Fiction and Fabrication_Courtesy of EDP Foundation©Bruno Lopes (6)

Fiction and Fabrication_Courtesy of EDP Foundation©Bruno Lopes (7)

Fiction and Fabrication_Courtesy of EDP Foundation©Bruno Lopes (1)

Fiction and Fabrication_Courtesy of EDP Foundation©Bruno Lopes (2)

Fiction and Fabrication_Courtesy of EDP Foundation©Bruno Lopes (3)

Images: Fiction and Fabrication, Courtesy of EDP Foundation © Bruno Lopes.

Thank you Carolina Pastore for your help.