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Last spring, a group of fifteen art aficionados made a nine-day tour of two of Brazil‘s major cultural cities, Belo Horizonte and São Paulo, and were rewarded with access and insights rare even for luxury cultural travel. The catalyst was the tour’s architect, art advisor and independent curator Simon Watson, who is based in New York and São Paulo and who curated a meticulously planned series of gallery visits, artist studio and collector home visits, cultural excursions, and dinners at Brazil’s hottest art-scene restaurants.
The idea for the tour had been hatched five months earlier, in October, when Watson was visiting Brazil with collectors Zoë and Joel Dictrow, and the three were chatting with founding director of SP-Arte art fair Fernanda Feitosa. Wouldn’t it be great, they all agreed, to create a group tour for early April, to coincide with SP-Arte, which is South America’s largest and most exciting international art fair, held in São Paulo? The goal would be to share their insider intelligence with a small but passionate group of art lovers.
The tour was a lot to organize in such short time, but Watson felt it was important to act now. Brazil’s continued rise and transformation into a world leader has meant that the art scene there and art itself is fast evolving—with the kind of phenomena that collectors enjoy knowing about first. And so on Friday, March 29, 2013 the insider tour launched itself in Belo Horizonte, a city that Watson thought a perfect springboard to both the colonial city of Ouro Preto and the exciting new contemporary art collection and botanical garden, Inhotim, that was opened in 2006 by Brazilian collector and former mining magnate Bernardo Paz.
“This is one of the wonders of the contemporary world,” says Watson, “and it’s clear more culture lovers should know about it and come here.” Guests on the tour included art collectors Ben Sontheimer, George Robertson, and Andrew Ong; collector/professionals Marianne Boesky and Adrian Turner (senior director of the Boesky Gallery); art advisor Jennifer Vorbach; in addition to Zoë and Joel Dictrow, and others. “Belo Horizonte is like a gateway drug,” continues Watson. “It’s so fantastic. It’s Brazil 101. Starting there allows the group to better immerse itself in Brazilian culture in order to appreciate the art they see and the artists they meet.
The tour’s itinerary bears a close look, conceived not merely as a success of stops but a thoughtfully unfolding view of Brazil and its art. On their arrival day the group participated in a cultural orientation with architectural sightseeing that included some of Belo Horizonte’s landmark Modernist and Colonial buildings. First they visited the Pamphula district, which contains many buildings designed by the modernist architect Oscar Niemeyer; also in the area is the Pamphula Art Museum (MAP) whose building, too, was designed by Niemeyer (and was originally a casino). And then it was on to the city’s central square, which is surrounded by fine examples of both Modernist and Colonial architecture.
Day two brought all-day immersion in Inhotim—which founder Paz told the Guardian he envisioned as a “Disneyland of art” (the place is so large that Watson shepherded the group around in chauffeur-driven golf carts)—and day three was a tour of Ouro Preto, the UNESCO World Heritage Center that was capital of Brazil’s 18th-century gold rush. There, Watson and guests were able to inspect three magnificent, Brazilian Baroque churches: Our Lady of Pilar, St. Iphigene, and St. Francis of Assisi.
On the following day the group journeyed to their final destination, São Paulo, a vibrant world capital whose art scene has shown explosive growth in recent years. Fifteen new galleries have opened there in the past year and a half, bringing the total to around 75. (To put this number in perspective, São Paulo now has the same number of galleries as Los Angeles.)
On their first night in São Paulo, the group attended a seated dinner party hosted by Watson’s friend, the artist and cultural activist Denise Milan. Guests included Danilo Miranda, the chief of SESC, which Brazil’s version of the U.S. National Endowment of the Arts (only with four times the budget); gallerists Christopher Canizares and James Lavender of Hauser & Wirth; legendary Brazilian industrialist Roberto Viana Batista and his wife Malu; Carlos Sobral, the head of sponsorship for Itaú Bank, the lead sponsor of SP-Arte, and his wife, the journalist and television personality Maria Helena; noted Brazilan Modernist furniture dealer Graça Bueno; and Vogue Brasil‘s cultural critic Beta Germano. Conversation was lively and the food was a hit, including a cake made by the mother of one of the guests that drew a round of applause.
In São Paulo, Watson took the group to see several private collections and public galleries, including Galeria Millan, which is famous for its work with two generations of painters and two big emerging art stars from the last São Paulo Bienal: Galeria Luisa Strina, which is one of the foremost galleries of contemporary art in the world, and Galeria Vermelho, which Watson described as “the more conceptual, cerebral art gallery.” Boasting a large stable of visual artists, and of performance and video, Vermelho, said Watson, “has wonderful string of exhibition spaces connecting four buildings with flyways and a restaurant, so it’s just like, you know, Vermelho World.”
The core of the group’s São Paulo stay was their attendance at the SP-Arte art fair and their participation in SP-Arte’s excellent VIP program of private collection visits, which included a special open-house for Casa de Vidro, the renowned residential home designed by Lena Bo Bardi (who also designed the Museum of São Paulo, one of most well-known buildings in all the city).
Founded nine years ago by visionary collector and entrepreneur Fernanda Feitosa, SP-Arte is the oldest art fair in Brazil. The fair takes place in Fundação Bienal, an immense three-story building located in the middle of Ibrapuera Park, in the heart of the city. Designed by Niemeyer, the building is the site of many important temporary installations, including the São Paulo Bienal. It is a testament to the Feitosa’s energy, that 2013’s SP-Arte was the biggest and most organized in its history, featuring 122 participating galleries (81 Brazilian and 41 international) and welcoming more than 22,000 visitors over the course of five days.
According to Watson, the insider tour was a success on many levels. Guests came away with a vivid and accurate idea of Brazil’s vibrant art scene. “Thanks to Simon for opening such interesting and posh doors for us,” wrote one, afterward. “What an amazing adventure into the unknown, full of discovery, laughter and inspiration,” wrote another.
And many guests purchased works after illuminating conversations with the artists. “Nearly everyone bought something,” says Watson, even if they were not expecting to do so at the outset. And these moments, in which group members became so excited about Brazilian artists, were the ones that Watson says he found most rewarding. He attributes everyone’s newfound passion for the local art to the rich experience that surrounded it and being able to experience each artist in depth. He remarks, “Seeing just one picture is completely out of context. It’s like looking at one hair from somebody’s head and trying to decide whether you like their haircut. Once you see an artwork’s context—the culture that spawned it, what the artists think, how they live—then you can make a solid decision.”
Watson’s next tour of Brazil will take place in September, 2013 and is a tour of Belo Horizonte and Rio de Janiero, to coincide with another important Brazilian art fair, ArtRio. The tour was conceived in partnership with Whitewall, as part of WW Experience and is booking now. Watson’s typically spirited itinerary and insider events will be amplified, on a luxurious level, by stays in the finest hotels and meals in the hottest restaurants. For further details on what promises to be a memorable trip, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
When asked “Why Rio?” Watson chuckles. “I love Rio de Janeiro,” he says. “Truly it is the marvelous city, where natural wonder and fine living embrace.” Moreover, says Watson, who is an emeritus international advisor to ArtRio, the fair’s founding directors Brenda Valansi and Elisangela Valadares have created a global destination “of profound vision” for cultural travelers, collectors, artists and gallerists. And at the end of the day, “there’s simply nothing like sitting on the roof of the Fasano Hotel and looking out across Ipanema Beach to that magnificent ocean and sipping a caipirinha!”
Simon Watson is an independent curator, critic, and art advisor based in New York City and São Paulo. A member of the Association of Professional Art Advisors (APAA), his clients include some of the most influential contemporary art collectors and galleries in the world. A New York art world veteran with extensive experience in Brazil’s exploding contemporary art scene, Watson has curated hundreds of exhibitions worldwide and advised on art collections for galleries, museums, and other cultural institutions, as well as for private collectors. Found of the Simon Says and Simon Says Brazil guides to contemporary art and culture, Watson has contributed to Whitewall, the magazine of contemporary art and luxury lifestyle; XOP, a new luxury lifestyle publication for Brazilian travelers to New York and Miami; and Dasartes, the leading Portuguese art magazine in Brazil.