The “Grand Dame of Brazilian Art” remains a pioneer in her 80th year


During her decades in the art gallery business, Luisa Strina has earned a reputation for her insight – and clear opinions – about contemporary art. She knows what she likes and the type of art that sells under her brand, and doesn’t waste words on pandering to the egos of artists or clients who don’t understand the mission.

Ms. Strina, 80, is known for being direct — “maybe a little too direct sometimes,” she said — but she is also known for getting things done right. Dozens of collectors have relied on her taste for half a century, making Galeria Luisa Strena one of the most successful and respected art dealers in Brazil. This week she will exhibit a roster of Brazilian artists at Art Basel Miami Beach, and next month she will begin her 50th year as a dealer, a milestone for any gallery, but especially in Latin America, where works of contemporary art are so important. Fashionable galleries and fashionable art galleries formed later than in the United States and Europe.

“In this business, sometimes you have to be tough, of course you do,” she said during an interview at her showroom, which is nestled among upscale retail stores and cafes in São Paulo’s Jardins district. Ms. Strina had returned from an art exhibition in Paris just one day earlier and was preparing for another exhibition in New York a week later. As she spoke, a crew of workers was dismantling a recent exhibit, leaving the gallery space—a single rectangular room with high white walls and a polished concrete floor—feeling empty and full of echoes.

As a mantra for success, being a tough judge of talent might seem a bit heavy-handed — if it weren’t for the fact that the first artist I looked up to and rejected was herself. It happened during her first year in college when she was studying drawing, dreaming of turning it into a career. Ms. Strina did not recognize much talent for manufacturing.

“Sophomore year, I gave it up,” she said. “I saw it wasn’t my piece of cake.”

However, she had an appreciation for the skilled people around her. She began selling the work of her teachers and fellow students, and held pop-up exhibitions throughout São Paulo. It was a side job, nothing serious.

Then one day, a friend suggested she take over the studio he was vacating and turn it into a permanent shop. She said it was modest, but in the heart of the Jardin, at a time when the area was establishing itself as the center of the city’s cultural scene. She accepted the challenge and opened the Galleria Luisa Strena in 1974.

“And that’s how it started,” she said. “I didn’t know much about being a gallery owner at the time. I was self-taught.”

Initially, her gallery showcased artists from Rio de Janeiro and other Brazilian cities before eventually expanding to include artists from different countries. Thinking back to those early days, Brazilian-British artist Alexandre da Cunha remembers that her place had a modern, progressive vibe.

“I used to go to her gallery when I was an art student. It was a hangout for all the most interesting people in São “Paolo.”

He added: “All good artists, at some point, appeared with Louisa. It was one of the first galleries in Brazil to showcase international people.

At the same time, she was bringing Brazil to the world. In the late 1980s, she began having exhibitions at small art galleries in places like New York and Los Angeles. “I stayed at the hotel, rented a room and invited people in,” she said.

In 1991, it received its first booth at a major fair, Art Basel in Switzerland, becoming the first Latin American gallery to join the group.

Ms Strina has supported some winners during her career. She was an early advocate of the artist Sildo Meirelles, who began working at the gallery when he was not widely known, and achieved international success, with works acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York; Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona; And the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Another example is Fernanda Gomez, whom Ms. Strina discovered in Rio early in her career, and who now shows her work in museums and galleries around the world, and has her work in the collections of the Tate Modern, in London, and the Pérez Art Museum in Miami.

Like all of the gallery’s artists, Ms. Gomez makes highly conceptual works, which are not always easy to sell, although “Luisa never cared about that,” said Kiki Mazzucchelli, a veteran curator who joined the gallery as artistic director in February.

Over the years, Ms. Strina’s fame has grown along with that of her performers. Her gallery gained enough clout to bring in famous names, such as Mexican artist Pedro Reyes and Danish-Icelandic star Olafur Eliasson. In 2015, it was selected, along with the Pace Gallery and Thaddeus Roback, to represent the estate of American artist Robert Rauschenberg.

However, Ms. Strina is known as an advocate for artists from her country. José Cori, founder of Mexico City’s famous Corimanzoto Gallery, recently referred to her as “the grand dame of Brazilian art.”

Ms. Strina attributes her success to having consistent standards. She only deals with conceptual artists. She said she was turned off by the beautiful landscape, even though it might be easier to sell. Art should be challenging, to challenge viewers’ understanding over time.

She also sticks to her decisions. Her collaborators tend to stay for a long time.

Artist Marcius Galan met Ms. Strina in 1997 when he was a student in São Paulo. She saw some of his work and invited him to bring his portfolio to the exhibition. “I was very afraid of her at first,” he said.

But she was kind and, unsurprisingly, direct, telling him he wasn’t quite ready to come back in a year. He did, and I made him the offer. They have been together ever since.

Mr. Galan’s work has the kind of conceptual style that characterizes the Galleria Luisa Strena. He often begins with everyday materials such as pins, seeds, or pencil erasers, and arranges them into larger objects that challenge viewers to question their original purpose and consider them as material for art pieces. His work presents mental and visual challenges, and avoids direct talk about politics or social issues.

His relationship with his gallery owner is one of mutual trust. “Normally, I’m very free to produce,” he said. “Sometimes, I put my stuff inside the gallery and she doesn’t see it until the opening.”

Likewise, Mr. da Cunha rarely discusses art with Ms. Strina. He said they were close friends, but she never tried to guide his artistic decisions. Mr. da Cunha, who recently returned to Brazil after several years living in London, is known for his large-scale public projects and small works that reuse common objects. One piece recycles cleaning mops, while another re-saws a large metal cup from the back of a concrete truck.

“She never says whether she likes something or not,” Mr. da Cunha said. “Or she likes this thing more. She doesn’t say anything, which can be scary, too.”

Still, Ms. Strina maintains control over the gallery and its reputation, mainly by making decisions in advance about who will take over, and assembling what Mr. da Cunha calls “a very tight, cohesive group of artists who together make sense.”

Looking at her list, it’s easy to see what he means. Consider one of Galeria Luisa Strena’s current stars, Clarissa Tosin, an artist who grew up in Brasilia and is also known for upcycling ordinary objects. Ms. Tosin has extensively exhibited her series of murals made from Amazon delivery boxes, which she cuts into strips and turns into textiles that explore Brazil’s social and economic history.

Everything comes together under the same keen eye. “Luisa really understands what is important, what is avant-garde,” Ms. Mazzucchelli said.

And what suits the Galleria Luisa Strena. “People get to know the show with her as a person. The two things are really intertwined,” Ms. Mazzucchelli added.

As for the future, Ms. Strina said she does not want to retire. She loves working and traveling and is happy to spend time in her gallery and back office, which she has decorated with works by a group of artists and people she has met. She has one of Ms. Tossin’s tapestries hung on her wall, and there is a wooden chair she admires designed by the Brazilian modernist architect Lina Bo Bardi.

She said she is proud of what she has accomplished, which is more than she expected as the daughter of Italian immigrants who came to Brazil to start a new life. She said her plan is to keep selling artwork until it “falls on the desk.”

“I’ve always been lucky to have a good education,” she said. “I was happy doing what I wanted. I always imagine these people who work in factories and have to do the same thing all day.

This was not her fate: “On the worst days of my life, I always had works of art to share.”

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