Selections attempts an overview of the Portuguese capital’s thriving art scene through its art institutions, foundations and project spaces

Lisbon, one of Europe’s oldest and southernmost cities, is undergoing a cultural renaissance. Known by locals as the City of the Seven Hills, its staggeringly beautiful art nouveau, baroque, gothic, Romanesque and post-modern architectural sites are scattered across these hills, making it an enchanting place to wander and get lost in.

This at times “forgotten” capital predates London, Paris and Rome by centuries, and in recent years it has become particularly attractive to a younger generation of artists, creatives and entrepreneurs, due to its affordable live-in studios, as well as abundant offerings of nature and easy access to a coastline of jagged cliffs and sandy white beaches.

In light of the current buzz around Lisbon, Selections explores the city’s visual arts offerings through art institutions, foundations and project spaces that spread from east to west and extend to the outer city limits.

From downtown’s Baixa-Chiado to the Western Belém, central Avenidas Novas and across to the eastern São João, Lisbon’s art spaces are an interesting mix of independent, public, private and artist-led initiatives, all of which contribute to a critical engagement with the modern and contemporary art that is presented in the city.

In the Avenidas Novas area, two institutions, the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum and the Centro de Arte Moderna (CAM) are both located on the grounds of Jardim da Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian — a landscaped garden designed to provide an oasis in the centre of the city and a contemplative environment for contact with nature. This area also provides lush grounds that are in contrast to the concrete modernist architecture of these two institutions. CAM and the Gulbenkian Museum focus on showcasing their permanent collections of early 20th century Portuguese and international art, with both organisations set up by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation as cultural centres that include a museum, modern art centre and an art library, alongside an amphitheatre hosting an international music and theatre season.

The Calouste Gulbenkian Museum houses a magnificent collection of fine and decorative arts, arranged chronological and geographical, with highlights including Egyptian, Greco-Roman, Mesopotamian, Eastern Islamic, Armenian and Far Eastern art. This leads to a focus on European art, with sections dedicated to book art, sculpture, painting and the decorative arts, ending with 18th-century French art and the work of René Lalique. The Lalique display of jewels, objects d’art, glassware and drawings, acquired by the collector directly from the artist between 1899 and 1927, provides a comprehensive overview of Lalique’s glass designs and is a must-see of the Gulbenkian collection.

Culturegest, on the other hand, situated in the Caixa Geral de Depósitos (Campo Pequeno) operates a rotating exhibition model and is spearheaded by Miguel Wandschneider, who, in over a decade serving as its curator, has given visibility to lesser recognised contemporary and modern artists. Wandschneider says he seeks to “provide a permanent discovery of artists little-known or even completely unknown in Portugal, and, in many cases, the artist shown here are little or poorly known in the international art scene, or even in their own countries.”

Through bringing these artist’s work to a new audience, being unapologetic and committed to his choices, which are not based on trends or popularity, Wandschneider’s brings a rigorous curatorial approach that has established this institution as one of the city’s most respected venues for visual art, further strengthened by a public programme of events, talks, films and performances. The current exhibition, Guy de Cointet: Who wrote that?, is the most comprehensive showing to date of Los Angeles-based French conceptual auteur Guy de Cointet.

Whether in the form of a drawing, a book or a theatre play, Cointet’s work is deeply rooted in his fascination with language and its uses in different contexts. A highlight of this exhibition is the opportunity for viewers to experience stagings of de Cointet’s plays Going to the Market (1975) and My Father’s Diary (1975), starring Mary Ann Duganne Glicksman.

In downtown Baixa-Chiado, the Museu do Chiado (MNAC) is the museological hub of canonical Portuguese art, with a collection spanning from the second half of the 19th century to the present. From romantic paintings by Cristino da Silva to works by modernist artists Diogo de Macedo and Francisco Franco, this important and vast collection also celebrates important Portuguese artists including Helena Almeida, José Pedro Croft and Julião Sarmento.

Established in 2007, the Museu Coleção Berardo houses a collection of over a thousand modern and contemporary works that are shown regularly alongside temporary curated exhibitions. The museum’s location within the Centro Cultural de Belém provides a multi-faceted setting for art, music and theatre, and is located in close proximity to Jerónimos Monastery and the Tower of Belém, alongside riverside views of the Ponte 25 de Abril, commemorating the Carnation Revolution.

Founded by collector José Manuel Rodrigues, the eclectic Coleção Berardo has been exhibited on rotation since 2007, with over 900 works by artists including Helena Almeida, ART & LANGUAGE, Francis Bacon, Joseph Beuys, Louise Bourgeois, Alexander Calder, Marcel Duchamp, Nan Goldin, Ana Mendieta, Paula Rego and Chris Ofili.

A short distance from Museu Coleção Berardo on the riverside is the newly inaugurated Museu da Electricidade, a private, non-profit-making institution founded in 2006 by Energias de Portugal, S.A. This site has transformed the city’s former Tejo power station into an interpretive site, demonstrating how this old thermoelectric plant worked. Aside from the permanent collection, relating to the history of electricity, the museum also stages temporary curated exhibitions. Notable examples have included collaborations with Doclisboa Festival 2015 on the exhibition Suite Rivolta: Carla Lonzi’s feminism and the art of revolt, curated by Anna Daneri and Giovanna Zapperi, and Elective Affinities: Julião Sarmento, collector, held in partnership with the Carmona e Costa Foundation and curated by Delfim Sardo, which presented major works by Nan Goldin, Cristina Iglesias, Pierre Bonnard, Andy Warhol, Rita McBride, Cindy Sherman, Bruce Nauman, Eduardo Batarda, Fernando Calhau and Pedro Cabrita Reis.

Kunsthalle Lissabon is a project space founded six years ago by Luis Silva and João Mourão and is located in the eastern São João neighbourhood, in close proximity to the magnificent Museu Nacional do Azulejo, housing the city’s decorative Azulejo tiles in a 16th-century monastery with a spectacular chapel. Silva and Mourão set up the organisation as “an intentional alternative to traditional institutional frameworks,” thus creating a space for interrogating the foundations of exhibition making and what this means for the present. A remarkable presentation of exhibitions by Emily Wardill, Melvin Mott, André Guedes, Pilvi Takala, Ahmet Ögüt, Mounira Al Solh and Jonathas de Andrade has proved that quality programming can be achieved on without masses of funding.

Trying to map out the city through its art institutions throws up interesting clusters of private, corporate and independently-led initiatives that present contrasting spaces for engaging with modern and contemporary art. Curator-led space The Barber Shop, founded in 2009 by Margarida Mendes, explores the intersections between cybernetics, philosophy, sciences and experimental film manifested through its residency programme, seminars and artist talks injecting critical conversations about contemporary art to the city. This is further enhanced by Bar Irreal, an informal space for talks, lectures, poetry, experimental music and performance; and The Hangar, an independent space run by artists and curators for experimentation, research and reflection on artistic practices.

Much has been made of the extent to which today’s Lisbon resembles Berlin in the late 1980s and early ’90s, with the city being viewed as a new artistic and technology epicentre in Europe.

With ARCO establishing a parallel art fair, ARCO Lisbon, debuting this May, and Web Summit, billed as “the best technology conference on the planet,” moving to the city in November, there is constant anticipation for Lisbon becoming the Europe’s art and technology centre. This has resulted in bringing creatives and entrepreneurs in their droves to this once sleepy capital. Who can blame them? It is near impossible not to fall for Lisbon’s charm.

A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The Creative Issue #36, pages 112-115.

by Jareh Das