Spain | Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Helga de Alvear, Cáceres - Museums Association

Spain | Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Helga de Alvear, Cáceres

Eleanor Mills talks to the pioneering collector immortalised in a gallery of artworks she has donated
Art Collecting Philanthropy
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Eleanor Mills
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Exterior of the new museum in Cáceres

Gallerist and art collector Helga de Alvear was born in Germany in 1936, but she has lived in Spain since 1957. Now in her 80s, De Alvear has generously donated her collection of contemporary art to the city of Cáceres.

This gift will be a turning point in the city’s fortune, but De Alvear’s own turning point came in the late 1960s when she met the Spanish art dealer Juana Mordó. It was then that De Alvear became inspired to start collecting art herself.

De Alvear began working for Mordó’s gallery in 1980, and the gallerist introduced her to many of the leading artists of the day including Eduardo Chillida, José Guerrero, and the Cuenca and El Paso groups, which played a major role in the Spanish postwar avant-garde. 

Helga de Alvear in front of Descending Light, 2007, by Ai Wei Wei

Over the course of her art career De Alvear has championed less popular artforms, such as photography, video and installation art, at a time when they were less well-known in Spain, and she helped to set up Arco in Madrid, one of the most important international contemporary art fairs. She also established the Fundación Helga de Alvear in 2006, with support from the Extremadura regional government and the City Council of Cáceres, to support, promote and research contemporary art.

But the foundation never had enough space to house her 3,000-strong collection, plus the building was becoming unfit for purpose in the 1913 art nouveau Casa Grande building.

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The €10m extension designed by award-winning Spanish architects Tuñón Arquitectos Studio gives her collection a home, and also gifts an extraordinary art resource to the people that is free to visit.

What was your inspiration in founding the museum?

Helga de Alvear: I have been a gallerist and collector for more than 50 years and I have always wanted to bring contemporary art closer to society. Now, this dream has come true. I will donate to Extremadura more than 3,000 artworks that I have acquired, and this collection has a new home that is tailor-made for it. I hope that this space helps others to feel the same passion that I feel towards contemporary art.

What was your role in setting up the Reina Sofia in Madrid?

When I started working in the contemporary art field with gallerist Juana Mordó back in 1967, a museum of contemporary art in Madrid sounded like a utopia but I always supported the idea that contemporary art is essential to understand the world we live in. I was one of the founding members of Reina Sofia Museum Foundation and I have been part of its board since it opened its doors in 1992. The museum in Cáceres is different to the Reina in many ways, but there are certain things and good practices that they carry that serve us as an example. 

Faux Roxks, 2006, by Katharina Gross
Can you tell us about the new museum’s architecture?

There was no doubt that the architects Emilio Tuñón and Luis Mansilla were the perfect fit for the project. When I was about to buy Descending Light (2007) by the contemporary Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, which has become one of the most iconic pieces that the museum holds, I asked them to visit it. I wanted them to create a space that was tailor-made for it. Everybody can see that the museum is not a collection put into a building, but a building created for the collection, therefore architecture and art are perfectly balanced and connected. I am 100% happy with the result, and so are the experts and critics.

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What is the contemporary art and museum scene like in southern Spain?

The art scene in southern Spain is vibrant and interesting. There are places like Málaga, in Andalucía, that have a big number of museums, but there are also more secluded institutions such as NMAC Foundation. Here in Extremadura, we find the Vostell Museum, for example, and people are surprised to know that the 1950s fluxus art movement also happened here. Unlike Andalucía, we are very connected to our neighbours from Portugal.

Our museum is about three hours from Lisbon by car, and we are looking forward to creating an artistic route that connects us. The museum is an important addition here because there was nothing like this before, but I like to think that it also contributes to enrich European culture in general. I am German and I do not believe in the importance of frontiers.

I hope that art lovers from all over the world feel that this museum is also for them. The new museum adds to the many other treasures of the city of Cáceres, a Unesco World Heritage site that, in addition to art and culture, offers gastronomy, nature and the opportunity to enjoy the tranquility, time and space that other places do not offer.

A Journey That Wasn’t, 2005, Pierre Huyghe
What would visitors travel to your museum from across the world to see?

I think Goya’s Los Caprichos and Ai Weiwei’s Descending Light. It does not matter where you come from, their artworks will equally mesmerise you and inspire you to think critically. But it is very difficult to choose from 3,000 artworks when there is a reason why I fell in love with each of them. Many renowned artists such as Olafur Eliasson, Wassily Kandinsky, Louise Bourgeois or Pablo Picasso are on display.

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The current exhibition starts with the best preserved first edition of Los Caprichos, by the Spanish painter Francisco Goya, who is thought of as the first contemporary artist. It is full of highlights and surprises. Personally, I was very happy to be able to see an immense installation by Thomas Hirschhorn, which does not leave anyone indifferent.

How is the museum going to change the contemporary art scene?

In a small city like Cáceres, we are already changing people’s minds about how enriching contemporary art can be and we are proud to make it accessible to everyone.

The little children that come to the workshops will be the future art leaders, I am sure. I also hope that the museum can be seen as an example of generosity. I hope this new space helps to stimulate critical thinking and contributes towards democratising access to culture in an inclusive way.

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