"I don’t want to use my money to buy things for myself," he says. "The healthy part of any person’s life only lasts 50 years. Why die rich or give your money to your children, so they fight? I am building Inhotim for people who have never had access to art and culture. You have to open their minds. That’s the future."
IT SOUNDS LIKE the premise of a surrealist novel: a Brazilian mining magnate sets up a vast garden of art in a remote forest in South America; its sheer strangeness is a public-relations dream. A visit to the Inhotim Institute, as it is now officially called, is not your typical cultural pilgrimage. Nowhere else is the interplay of art and nature so provocative—an experience that seems particularly appropriate in Brazil, which has often been regarded as the last paradise.
But if Inhotim feels like a return to a prelapsarian world, it can also be viewed as an icon of the new Brazil, whose decade-long economic boom has made it flush with wealth. Because of its isolation, Inhotim might sound like the art world equivalent of Brasilia, the artificial capital conjured in the ’60s, but its celebrity is surging. The other guests at my rural inn include a European film crew, from Arte TV. (The presenter is the French actress Amira Casar, a Cannes regular, whose presence causes quite a stir at the inn. The chef enthusiastically shows me sultry portraits and confides that he has downloaded one of Casar’s early films, which involved “un-simulated sex”—using, he regrets to learn, a body double.) Our conversation hinges less on the artworks than the character of Inhotim’s creator. Solitary and enigmatic, Paz is shrouded by legend. Locals love to trade stories of his vast wealth and caprices, how he never finished high school and the details of his six marriages and seven children, who range in age from 37 to a 1-year-old and are scattered from São Paolo to Hawaii. I was warned he can be moody and cantankerous or distracted and terse, chain-smoking Dunhills between abstruse pronouncements and walking out of interviews at a moment’s notice.
But he is also idolized by the populace around Brumadinho, who see him as a savior for creating so many jobs. (There are some 1,200 employees at Inhotim.) When I asked a woman if she had ever seen Paz in the village, she smiled beatifically: “He has created a paradise for himself. Why would God leave his heaven?” Even his staff seem in awe of his passionate devotion to his enclave. “Senhor Paz’s whole life is devoted to Inhotim,” says the former communication officer, Ronald Sclavi. “He drives around the gardens at eight every morning, calling me immediately if something isn’t perfect.”
And Paz has become a figure of fascination far beyond his home state. “In Brazil, Paz is a unique figure,” says Sclavi. “Our superrich spend their money on cars, trips and houses. They don’t understand why Bernardo is doing this.” “It’s a paradigm shift for Brazil,” agrees the Rio-based artist Tunga, who has worked with Paz for 15 years. “It shows the elite that they can use their money so the whole population can participate. Living with art is a great pleasure, but if you can share it, even better.”
The story of how Paz, a high school dropout from a middle-class family in Belo Horizonte, became so wildly successful in two radically divergent fields—mining and art collecting—should be a comfort to every parent of a wayward child. By his own account, his twin passions stem from his father, a stern and practical engineer, and his mother, a poet and artist. While he was a teenager, the contradiction seemed to paralyze him, he recalls now: “I simply couldn’t imagine what I would do with my life. I became very depressed about my future.” At age 13, he became a part-time gas station attendant, then left school altogether to work in a clothing boutique. (“I was a handsome guy, women came to the store just to see me. But I was not happy just being popular; I wanted to build something.”) He tried his hand as a stockbroker, before joining a failing iron ore mine in 1973—which, to everyone’s surprise but his own, he transformed into a viable business. Paz’s progressive management style was shocking in Brazil: He reduced the number of hours in the workday. He hired a doctor, a dentist, chefs and a nutritionist and even set up a social club with a swimming pool.
"When I bought the company, the workers were miserable," he recalls. "I thought, I have to treat these people better." (He may have been influenced by his parents’ leftist sympathies; one of his grandparents, a pro-Communist general, spent six years in prison under a dictatorship in the ’40s.) Productivity tripled. Meanwhile, Paz fed his poetic side by arriving at the mining site every morning at five to watch the sunrise. "I wanted to see the world begin, to see the horizon light up every day. It was very emotional."
In the early ’80s, now the head of the successful Itaminas mining group, Paz became one of the first businessmen to travel to China, winning a contract to build steel plants. It was a time of economic turmoil in Brazil, with annual inflation soon hitting 1,000 percent (in 1990, it topped 30,000 percent), and his companies fell into debt. Then, as China’s need for raw materials exploded, Paz decided to close the plants and concentrate on providing iron ore, reaping enormous profits and becoming one of South America’s wealthiest men. (“Mining is easier. You just dig the ore up and put it on a train.”) But the years of working 18-hour days took its toll on his health. In 1995, he suffered a stroke in Paris. “I realized this was no kind of life,” he says. He decided to let others manage his companies and moved full-time to the small holiday farmhouse he had purchased a decade earlier, Inhotim. (The farm had been named by locals after a former owner, a British engineer known as Senhor Tim—Nhô Tim in Minas Gerais’s dialect.) By then, about 37 acres had been landscaped with the advice of Paz’s friend Roberto Burle Marx, Brazil’s most illustrious landscape designer, who had left his mark on Brasilia and the famous Copacabana boardwalk in Rio, with its swirling black-and-white tiles.
And Paz began collecting. “I loved art,” he says, “but it was an intuitive thing, not because I understood it.” Redirecting his tumultuous energy, he cultivated friendships with artists and curators to expand his knowledge. (“All my life, I have tried to spend time with people more intelligent than myself.”) The most influential was the artist Tunga. “In 1998, Bernardo invited me to Inhotim to see his collection,” Tunga recalls when I meet him in his sprawling studio in Rio de Janeiro. “I was surprised to find he owned mostly Brazilian Modernist art: classic, conservative pieces from the ’20s to ’50s. So I started talking to him about contemporary art, which address the concerns of his own generation. I could feel his enthusiasm growing and growing.”
With typical bravura, Paz decided to sell his whole art collection and start afresh. “I just got rid of it,” he recalls. “I sold it all off.” His first contemporary purchase was Tunga’s True Rouge, a baroque conglomerate of glass beakers, sticks and fishing nets, with a pavilion built to display it to best effect. Paz traveled to New York and Europe to visit contemporary galleries, and he bought more land around Inhotim to protect it from encroaching development. He began to imagine a vast garden of art.
Tunga recalls that he was skeptical of Paz’s grand plans, until Paz took him to visit one of his operational mines elsewhere in Minas Gerais. Gazing into the enormous hole, Tunga saw how Paz reshaped the landscape like a deity. “Bernardo said to me: ‘You see that mountain there? It’s going to be gone tomorrow. You see that expanse of green? It wasn’t green five years ago.’ I thought, This is the sort of guy who can get this project done.” He adds: “Of course, I had no idea then of the dimensions Inhotim would take.”
By 2002, Paz’s collection was spilling out of its home, and he realized the need for a more disciplined and coherent approach. He invited the New York–based art expert Allan Schwartzman, one of the first curators of the New Museum and advisor to some of the world’s top collectors, from Manhattan to his rural abode. Schwartzman remembers that he had barely arrived when Paz bombarded him with visionary ideas and requests for advice. “Bernardo was driving me around the farm, saying, ‘We need this here. We need this there.’ ” Schwartzman says. “I’d just gotten off the plane, I was tired, all I wanted was a bite to eat and to go to bed. But he had such enthusiasm; I began to see the potential. It was an amazing opportunity to articulate something truly unique.”
Schwartzman advised Paz to commission site-specific pieces, and purchase works that suited the remote and verdant setting. “It made no sense to obtain art you could see in any other museum in the world,” Schwartzman says. “We had to do something that made it worthy of the journey.” There was no shortage of takers. “Of course, a lot of artists had fantasies of what they could do if they had the funds and space.”
Very few world institutions can devote their resources to such vast permanent installations. “The biggest limitation to an art collection isn’t the price of the art, it’s the price of housing the art,” says Schwartzman. ”Most museums are the most expensive buildings in the most expensive real estate in the most expensive cities in the world, designed by the most expensive architects. What we had in Brazil was a lot of land, and relatively low construction costs.” And the garden setting could not be further from the white cube aesthetic of most art institutions. “Museums are supposed to be ideal places for viewing art. But about an hour and a half into a visit, you get museum fatigue. They’re like sensory-deprivation tanks! Inhotim incorporates art into a nourishing environment.”
The long voyage to Inhotim adds a level of intensity. “At most museums, you’re in the middle of a big city, you step off the busy street and then you return to your normal life,” says Eungie Joo, who left the New Museum in New York to join the curatorial team here last year. “At Inhotim, you have to remove yourself from your routine, just by getting here. It’s a physical, cultural, artistic and maybe even emotional experience.”
"It’s like listening to a symphony compared to a quartet," agrees Tunga.
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