Art, Galleries, Interviews, News

Interview with Benito Padilla: New president of GAC

6 de July de 2023

Benito Padilla teaches history and art history in Barcelona’s University, he is also an expert in art appraisals. Since 2007 he has undertaken the Imaginart project, a gallery that makes visible those artistic tendencies that rebel against hegemonic norms. Now he is also the new president of the Association of Art Galleries of Catalonia. This week we offer a taste of his personal artistic interests and criteria.

Àlex Salas: Good morning Benito, before starting the interview, I’d like to thank you for giving us a moment of your time. If it’s all right with you, I’d like to start by asking you about the origins of your career as a gallery owner. How did you get into this world?

Benito Padilla: Good morning and thank you. I’ll tell you. As you know, I’ve been a history and art history teacher. That already nurtured in me a specific interest in art. And at some point someone abandoned a studio, I’m talking about almost twenty years ago now, and with friends we decided to undertake a gallery project. We not only wanted to promote an exhibition programme, but also wanted to venture into the market and participate in the world of video installations, which we founded fascinating. Don’t think that it was my idea, to preside over the initiative, it was rather that, for lack of finding someone to take that position, I ended up as gallery director.

À. Salas: From what you tell me it seems that luck and its circumstances have their own wisdom. As a historian, how would you define the role of art in Catalan society?

B. Padilla: How do I see it? Let’s see, I’m going to tell you how I see the case of Catalonia and specifically that of Barcelona. Let’s situate ourselves in the moment before the 1992 Olympics, which was an explosive moment in the city and also in Catalonia. As a teacher, at that time I was able to take advantage of the interest that was spreading, and which has always been present in the city, around design. At that time it was a precious moment for the students, I was able to facilitate and introduce them to the city’s characteristic design. The gallery owners had, at that time, a great possibility to explore different artistic concepts. I’m talking about exhibiting art in a classical format, but also exploring dance, fashion shows, performance, to give you some examples.
But, after 1992, there was an abandonment by the Catalan and Barcelona public administration. This decline is basically due to the lack of intellectual and artistic solvency of the representatives of the political institutions. It should be very clear that the boom context of 1992 was not the result of chance. Rather, it was a reflection of the trajectory and tradition of Barcelona’s links with the plastic arts, architecture and design. All this explains the peak we reached at the end of the 1980s. Then, as I said, by not knowing how to act as a link between Art and society, Catalonia lost its connection with the avant-garde movements that were being cooked up outside Spain’s borders. We should also point out that this was the origin and source of the loss of prestige of the figure of the collector. And it is logical, when curiosity for art is not encouraged by the political forces, neither is the role of a collection shown to be credible or deserving of recognition. As a result, gallery ownership in Catalonia has deteriorated.
Which is a pity. Many people assume that during Francoism there was a standstill in the creation and the art market. Obviously, the conditions of famine and social difficulties were not the most suitable climate. Yes, there was a period (from 1939 to 1945) of decline. But then there were figures like Miró who played a very important role. Even under the dictatorship, museums were opened, such as the Museo de Cuenca and the Picasso Museum in Barcelona. All this, despite the adverse conditions, the collectors were committed to the landscape, and the Gaspar gallery played a very important role in Catalan gallerism.
But then, because of that lack of solvency, as I say, of the political elites, we have world-renowned Catalan artists such as Jaume Plensa or Miquel Barceló, who, if you look at them, have a large part of their work managed by foreign galleries.

À. Salas: What artistic trends are you most sensitive to?

B. Padilla: Following on from what I said, I feel a great interest in stateless tendencies. Artists who, for political or cultural reasons, or even those who have been denied the contextual possibilities, have had to leave, reveal themselves and produce their art outside their native place. So many people have had to adapt their art to their expatriate status. It is also very interesting to see the narratives of their artistic production adapted to this situation. As we have said, this has happened a lot in Catalonia, there is no reproach in what I say, but it does seem relevant to me when it comes to explaining the narrative-artistic leap in which we find ourselves in today’s cultural identity.
Just look at the law offices, the medical practices, the design and architecture firms. In other large urban centres, the territories of prestige are accompanied or nurtured by art and its contemplation. It is interesting because the office is defined according to the interests and artistic tendencies of the person who presides over the company or the centre. The room is dressed with traits of what defines your identity, beyond a university diploma hanging on the wall. Of course, in the end, all this has to do with the fact that the public administration does not consider the importance of art as it does in other countries. Let’s not forget that the law of patronage is still pending in Spain and that we are one of the states with the highest VAT rate.

À. Salas: Who are your favourite contemporary artists?

B. Padilla: That’s a complicated question, since it’s often not about a specific artist, but rather a form of expression that defends and vindicates the themes that interest me. Now, for example, in the gallery we have a series of women. Rada Akbar is a clear example of this struggle against the established order. In the exhibition we find the visibility of the oppression suffered by women, specifically in Afghanistan. Another example is Zoulikha Bouabdellah, who has part of her work exhibited in the collection of the Pompidou Centre in Paris. In the work we did with her in Imaginart, she conglomerated her ideas about limits, the division that is constructed when they are established.

À. Salas: What do you like most about your work?

B. Padilla: [laughs] witnessing and participating in that which is disruptive, breaking censorship. After all, that’s what artists have always done. I often think of that work by Bernini, in which he sculpted Saint Teresa. Visiting his work was banned, because of course, in the end it is a deeply erotic representation of Teresa. With that roguish-faced angel ready to thrust that arrow aimed at the saint’s crotch. That is important at the moment of creation, to transcend the pre-established, the canons of those who censor you have to be broken.
Another canonical work in the history of censored art can be found in the career of Pablo Picasso. Already as a renowned artist, he made what was called “Suite 347”. It is an installation that was exhibited in 1970 at the Galerie Louis Leiris. In it Picasso uses his imagination to portray what Giorgio Vasari wrote in his Life of Raphael. It was said that he had died after 4 days of intense love. Of course, there Picasso made an imaginary recreation, nothing of what was exhibited was strictly true. But that is not the work of artists, truth occupies historians, philosophers, empirical sciences, but not creation.

À. Salas: Of course, those of us who dedicate ourselves to creation know that if we were worried about public censorship, we wouldn’t allow ourselves many of the things we create. That’s why those who accompany the artist have to be people with varied profiles, to embrace as many artistic identities as possible. But, if we could sum it up in three key concepts: what is the most important thing that a person who wants to work in gallery management must have?

B. Padilla: Look, I’m going to answer the first one by negation. What a good gallery owner shouldn’t do is think he has a shop. He has to be sufficiently prepared to attend to art users, both collectors and non-collectors. A person who is a gallery owner has to know what he has in his hands.
The second thing I see as necessary in this profile is audacity, above all because of what we have been talking about before, the situation is not simple and the gallery cannot stay within its four walls. It’s good to look for ways of accompanying society with art.
And lastly, although ideally it shouldn’t be this way, it is very necessary to study and observe the market, the market with capital letters. In this way, the gallery owner can propose fragments of discourse in his exhibitions that accompany the art market, and ensure that economic interests are not at odds with those of creation.

À. Salas: Closing this meeting, the last question: What can we expect in the coming months from the Association of Art Galleries of Catalonia?

B. Padilla: After everything we have talked about, you will understand that, as president of the Association of Art Galleries of Catalonia, I want to reconcile Catalan society with its own artistic traditions. To inform and publicise current artistic production. In short, to recover a fund of twentieth-century art, putting galleries and families in contact with each other and giving them access to works that deserve to be shared and enjoyed.