Interview: Juliana Restrepo, the MAMM’s Director

While I was visiting Medellin, Colombia, I had the opportunity to speak with the Director of the Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín (MAMM), Juliana Restrepo. Over the past four years, Juliana has over come many challenges to position the MAMM as one the most important Colombian cultural institution dedicated to contemporary art, in a country like Colombia, and in a big city known for having many social problems like Medellín.

Art Intake: How did you end up as the MAMM’s Director?

Juliana Restrepo : Everyone asks me this question. This is my first job working in a museum. My background is in technology and web. Before starting at the MAMM, I worked for 10 years in web design and digital content, designing platforms for mobile devices and the Internet. Then in 2002, I became part of the digital team that was mixing art with digital technology in Medellin. For example, we started a festival El Dia del Robot, in the university. In Bogota, I was running one of the first e-magazines in Colombia, Manzana Zeta; every two months we were inviting photographers, artists, graphic designers and writers to think around a theme. I could say it was also cultural management.

My last job before coming to the museum was the online Manager for the main Colombian newspaper El Tiempo. There, I was working with a team of very interesting people, who are related to digital culture. It was then, a woman from the board of the museum called me and told me to send my CV, because they were looking for a new Museum Director, she told me that she thought I had the profile for the position. I immediately said, “‘are you crazy? I have never worked in a museum, I work for digital things,” I told her “I would love that position.” The next day she called me again, and said, “you haven’t sent me your CV, please do so, let the universe conspire,” I said, “Ok, why not.”

One month later, I was talking with my fiancé -  “remember I sent my CV and no one called me? Maybe they realized I didn’t have the right profile for the position.” On that very weekend we were traveling to Medellin from Bogota to visit my family to make our wedding arrangements, coincidentally the President of the MAMM called me on that very day and said they wanted to meet with me. The next day, I had an interview with the board members of the museum. At the end of the interview, they asked me – do you think you can move to Medellin? “I will move to Medellin, if I get this position,” I said. That Wednesday they told me to move to Medellin, I had the position.

I think one of the most interesting things for me and for the artistic scene in Medellin is that I didn’t come from the artistic scene so I didn’t have any biases.

AI: How has the MAMM evolved since you started?

JR: When I arrived four years ago, we were still at the old site, which is a very traditional building. They had already chosen the new museum site, but it was my job to build it, I had to fill some very important missing gaps.

I, immediately, discovered the MAMM had disappeared from the young generation. When I was speaking with university students studying Fine Arts, Design and Architecture, they all kept asking me, “is there a museum of Modern Art in Medellin? I don’t know where it is.”

So, the first challenge for me was to make the MAMM appear in the minds of every young person living in Medellin again. I started activating programs that were interesting for these students and young people; for example, we started hosting an independent event that was already popular with young people, El Suiche. This event was very important during these four years, because it made young people who came to El Suiche at the MAMM think that there is a Modern Museum in Medellin.

What had happened in the old museum’s location is that it was a museum for very select small group of older artists. It was very important for artists, but it wasn’t a museum of the city. In the old building, art openings consisted of the artist, their mother, their children, their aunties, cousins and few close friends, like 15 people. The museum was essentially abandoned. You will see this evening that our art openings are packed wall-to-wall with people. It is no longer a museum just for the select few.

I also livened up the old museum: put flowers in the entrance, painted the walls, changed the logo, made staff uniforms, created MAMM sellable material, new stationary, and revamp the web site. With these few branding elements, the museum appeared again.

AI: Tell me about the MAMM’s new home.

JR: We needed people to know that the MAMM is not a new museum, but it had already existed for 30 years, it was just getting a new home.

Since we moved to the new site, it has been a like new chapter for the museum. The new building has the facility reports (galleries, temperature, humidity, etc) needed to host international exhibitions that we didn’t have at the previous site. We have been steadily improving the caliber of exhibitions and public programming to reach the interests of the broader public, not just those who are already involved in the arts. For example, we started these free programs: Extended Fridays, Outdoor Cinema and a program in the park. The results have been incredible; we have positioned the MAMM as a cultural center for the south of the city.

AI: What has been the MAMM’s most controversial art exhibition? Why?

JR: The first exhibition we had in our new space was by the Belgium interdisciplinary artist Jan Fabre. Many people say he is a bad artist and many other people say he is very good. For us, the Jan Fabre exhibition was very important, because we wanted to show people an exhibition that they were not used to. And, for sure people from Medellin, who have travelled abroad, have most likely seen this kind of exhibition. But most people in Medellin have not seen this kind of exhibition, because normally people haven’t travelled outside the country, so they are used to very traditional exhibitions of paintings or drawings. So we really wanted to show something different. Many people from the public were very disturbed, because the exhibition used dead animals. Colombian traditionalists and critics publicly questioned the MAMM for showing Jan Fabre.

AI: What has been the most successful art exhibition at the MAMM? Why?

Beatriz Gonzalez. She is one of Colombia’s most important living artists. She lives in Bogota. The end of last year we had a retrospective of her work. Over 45,000 people visited the exhibition. The catalogue even completely sold out. It was beautiful! The public loved it. Everyone is still talking about it.

AI: A Sophie Calle exhibition recently closed at the MAMM. How did public perceive this exhibition?
It was very positive. I love Sophie Calle. When the exhibition opened, I told Calle, “now I can leave the museum. This is the exhibition I dreamed of having.”
We were thinking that we were going to have to explain a lot about Calle’s art, because her work can be very abstract for some people. But, overall, people felt very close to the art, it was beautiful to see.

AI: The art world’s attention hasn’t been on Colombia’s art scene for a long time. It seems to be changing right now. What do you think makes Colombia’s current scene different?

JR: I think people around the world are not only paying attention to Colombian art, but to Colombia itself. I think Latin America is becoming important for the world. And Colombia is becoming of great importance to the world. Art has to do with life, with culture, with the way we communicate, what we are, what we feel about life and about our relationship with the world and people. I think now, Colombian artists aren’t just appearing on the scene: I think Colombia is becoming an important country in the world.
I remember a time when people thought Colombia was in Africa, or only associated it with cocaine.

AI: There are a lot of young exciting artists coming from Colombia, as well as, previous generations. If you could choose any artists working in Colombia that the world should know about, who would they be?

JR: For me, the most important Colombian artist alive is Oscar Muñoz. And then, of course, José Antonio Suárez is a big name, for example, the MOMA has bought some of his drawings.

AI: Is there an emerging art style /genre coming out of Medellin?

JR: This is something I have heard and something you can feel. There was a time not so long ago, when all Colombia artists were talking about was violence, drugs and the terrible times we were living. Right now there is a renaissance of beauty in art. They really want their work to look beautiful. In the universities of Medellin, there is a big influence on the younger generation by figurative artists, Oscar Jaramillo and José Antonio Suárez. You can see that there are a lot of very good artists coming from the universities, whose work is very closely related to form, and that is very aesthetically pleasing.

AI: Do you think that art has a role in repairing Medellin?

JR: Yes. Absolutely.  At the same time everything is happening with form and aesthetics, artists believe that they have a role; we are all part of this social transformation. Artists believe no matter what scale or medium their art is, it needs to be part of a larger social project that this city needs to change. Artists might sell their work, but they will also teach classes in small schools as a part of their artistic project. They all feel that they need to do something for the city.

AI: Does the MAMM have any out reach programs for under privileged kids?

JR: Yes, a lot of different programs on-site and some off-site.

AI: What other art galleries / museums in Medellin are helping change the cultural landscape?

JR: El Museo de Antioquia is very important. For me, the Museo de Antioquia is the most important cultural centre in Colombia. They have earned this position.
Then, some other independent spaces in Medellin are doing a great job. Centre Cultural Moravia,
JR: Have you been there?
AI: No.
JR: That is a must.
It used to be the municipal garbage dump. Very poor people started building houses on top of the garbage dump, after the city stopped using it, and it became a shanty town. For me this is one of the best culture centers in Medellin, because it attends to the very specific needs of this community.
Independent artistic spaces like, Casa Tres Patios in Prado, is a very traditional neighborhood in downtown. It is a residency project; they receive artists from all over the world.
What’s really interesting about Medellin’s art scene is there’s a network that really works. We all want to do our part for social transformation.

AI: Can you tell me about the MAMM’s current exhibition?

JR: It is a regional salon organized by the National Cultural Register. It is part of an open call to the region of Antioquia and the Eje Cafetero (coffee region). It is an exhibition of 22 works by 16 artists from this zone.

AI: What is the weirdest thing that has ever happened at the MAMM?

JR: Let’s talk about when Sophie Calle came here. I am not sure if you are aware that her last name is Calle, which means street in Spanish and it is also a very popular Latino last name. On the second night we were all having an informal dinner —- and someone asked her “do you have Latin roots? Why do you have a Spanish last name?”  “No” she replied, “this is a last name from France.” Then someone else interjected that there was a very popular band Las Hermanitas Calle.

Las Hermanitas Calle are two sisters that were very popular folk singers in the 80’s and Narco times. People still listen to their music. Sophie Calle was very excited to learn about this sister-duet and wanted to listen to their music. When we showed her one of their videos, La Cuchilla on YouTube, Calle went crazy and demanded that they play on the opening night for her exhibition.

On the opening night, Calle surprised everyone and performed La Cuchilla with Las Hermanitas Calle. No one was expecting this. It was the weirdest thing to ever happen at the MAMM. No one will forget this. The audience loved it!
AI: They must be really old.

JR: Yes, they are like old monsters, the one sister who is still alive must be around 75-years old and she has had too many plastic surgeries, nothing is original.

AI : What project are you working on right now?

JR: Every year we have a major retrospective of a Colombian master, the first year was Débora Arango, last year was Beatriz Gonzalez and this year will be Luis Camnitzer.

AI: Do you collect anything?

JR: I am a Collectionista. I collect objects from popular culture. My house is like a museum of popular culture.

AI: What is the last artwork you purchased?

JR: An artwork by Marta Elena Velez. She is a local artist from the 70’s.

AI: What is the best exhibition you have ever seen in the world?

JR: William Kentridge at the MOMA

All photographs © Juan Madrigal


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