The São Paulo Museum of Art is one of the city’s most special landmarks. Home of the most important collection of European art in the southern hemisphere, the museum’s building is an artwork in itself. Conceived by Italian-born architect Lina Bo Bardi, it floats over the country’s most emblematic avenue, Avenida Paulista, 8.5 meters above the ground, leaving a 47-square-meter plaza underneath is. MASP has become a symbol of São Paulo’s modernity and cosmopolitan spirit. Today, the building celebrates its 50th anniversary.
MASP is considered to be the most important museum of Western art south of the Equator, with an 8,000-artwork collection spanning paintings, sculptures, artifacts, photographs, and pieces of clothing from every continent. It houses work from masters such as Raphael, Mantegna, Modigliani e Botticelli, from the Italian school, and Delacroix, Renoir, Monet, Cézanne, Toulouse-Lautrec, Matisse, and Chagall, from Paris.
It is impossible to imagine São Paulo, Brazil’s economic center, without MASP. It would be like Paris without the Louvre. And yet, that was a real possibility just a few years ago. In 2013, MASP was close to bankruptcy, immersed in debts and with revenues that barely covered its costs—some bills were months overdue. In 2006, the museum’s electricity was cut, and it needed rescuing by the city’s jet set.
Failing to turn things around would mean closing its doors and having its collection taken over by the government. At the time, then-Superintendent of MASP Alberto Whitaker sought out Alfredo Setubal (one of the leading executives at Brazil’s biggest private bank Itaú) for a loan. Instead, Mr. Setubal decided to take part in a restructuration plan for the museum.
Since then, MASP underwent a process similar to those implemented in failing companies. Between 2013 and 2016, its annual revenue quadrupled and reached close to BRL 40 million. As expenses are estimated in BRL 38 million per year, it means that the museum started to record a surplus. Its debt was slashed from BRL 75 million to BRL 40 million.
The turnover was piloted by a group of hot-shot executives, such as Heitor Martins (from the McKinsey consulting firm) and his wife, Fernanda Feitosa, founder of SP-Arte, an art show that brings around one hundred galleries to São Paulo every year. Mr. Martins presided over the São Paulo Biennale between 2009 and 2012 and is credited with its financial turnaround.
From its foundation in 1947 to the 1968 inauguration of the Avenida Paulista building (which Queen Elizabeth II attended) until very recently, MASP was managed by very personalistic administrations. For over 50 years, Pietro Maria Bardi, Lina Bo Bardi’s husband, called the shots – even if the museum’s directors changed from time to time.
Until 2013, managing the operations and the financial side of things proved to be too much of a challenge for an administration focused almost exclusively on the cultural heritage of the museum. There was no financial monitoring of the institution’s results, either from the revenue generated from tickets, the gift shop, or from leasing the museum’s auditorium.
When Mr. Martins and Mr. Setubal took over, they created a new statute for the museum, similar to that of the New York-based Museum of Modern Art and the Met. It created a board of trustees, who had to donate BRL 150,000 in order to join, and BRL 35,000 per year to remain on the board. Debts were renegotiated and converted into sponsorship deals. Ticket prices were raised and the museum started a better management of its gift shop, which tripled the amount spent per visitor.
But since a well-administrated museum is not necessarily a good museum, artistically speaking, the new management also decided to revamp its team of curators, including Pablo Léon de la Barra (formerly of Guggenheim Museum), historian Lilia Schwarcz, and Rodrigo Moura (formerly of Inhotim).
The challenge now is to make MASP stand without relying on the help of its trustees. It is an uphill struggle, as museums cannot rely on government funding in Brazil – the September fire at the Rio de Janeiro National Museum proves that much.