Institutionalizing the Lima Museum of Art

Photo courtesy of MALI. 


Give and You Shall Receive 

By Matthew Bird

Juan Carlos Verme’s connection to the Lima Museum of Art (MALI) began in 1988 when, at the age of 23, he returned to his native Peru from Switzerland, where he spent most of his childhood. As an adolescent in Zurich, he discovered the Kunsthaus and went weekly to see the medieval, modern and contemporary art exhibits. But in Lima, then beset by rising hyperinflation and a worsening guerrilla war, cultural outlets were sparse. “It was a horrible year for Peru,” Verme said. “When I came there were few options, but one of the things I did find was this building called the Lima Museum of Art, where they screened classic films.” Twice a week he sought refuge in the works of Kaurismaki, Fellini and others.

A group of Peruvian intellectuals and businessmen founded the museum in 1954, using a model similar to the “daring ladies” who created New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) more than two decades earlier. But instead of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller and her friends, it was the Prados—influential in banking and political circles—and their colleagues who led the organization’s creation. The founding trustees convinced the municipal government to provide a subsidy and cede use of a neo-Renaissance style structure built for an 1872 international exposition, while the initial collection consisted of work by Carlos Baca-Flor, a Peruvian portrait artist whose iconic turn-of-the-century painting of J.P. Morgan already hung in MoMA. A handful of donations trickled in until 1960 when, with Manuel Prado as President for the second time, the family donated nearly 6,000 works representing 3,000 years of history, from pre-Columbian ceramics to colonial silver and Republican-era paintings, thus defining the museum’s panoramic commitment. 

Though the Prado donation defined the museum’s take on the past, its future was uncertain. In 1968, General Juan Velasco Alvarado led a military coup, which sought to restructure Peruvian society through nationalizations and land reforms intended to weaken the country’s richest families, including the emblematic Prados. Many of the museum’s patrons left the country during this period, initiating a three-decade process of general out-migration—of rich and poor. Verme’s family moved to Switzerland, where his mother had roots. 

As an organization supported by an already weak philanthropic culture, the museum lost its biggest supporters and starved for funds during the military’s rule. To cover deficits, it began offering art classes. The democratic transition in 1980 was supposed to augur a period of stability and growth, but it was the opposite. On election day, the Shining Path, until then an unknown Maoist guerrilla group, bombed a ballot box in a remote Andean village. The violence quickly spread. By the time Verme returned to Peru, the insurgency and hyperinflation had entered its worst period. 

Bombs exploded daily, causing power outages and water shortages, but the museum’s collection remained on show and film screenings and art classes continued. By then 50,000 people enrolled annually in the courses, seeking refuge while keeping the institution financially afloat. Even then Verme believed in the museum’s potential. “The museum is a community service, built to nourish,” Verme said. “But people also nurture the museum.” He compared it with the Kunsthaus in Zurich. “Why can’t MALI be like it or better?” he asked at the time. “Not in the sense of having a better collection but using the platform as a place for showing Peruvian culture. Peru has one of the best collections of historic art in South America but not the best art museums. What is lacking is the infrastructure to show the collections.” Others Verme had yet to meet shared his vision.

As a child, Natalia Majluf’s family traveled throughout Peru, visiting archaeological sites and museums. Eager to study abroad, she eventually majored in art history at Boston College. In 1988, while home during a break, she volunteered at the museum—at the same time that Verme attended film screenings, although the two did not meet. In 1995, Majluf returned to Peru for good with a doctorate in art history from the University of Texas, Austin. 

Much like Peru as a whole in the 1990s, the museum began to pull itself out of crisis. Alberto Fujimori had become president, implementing a painful economic shock program and cracking down on the insurgents. In 1992, the Shining Path’s rebel leader, Abimael Guzmán, was captured and Fujimori closed Congress and rewrote the constitution. And in 1993, Walter Piazza, a construction company executive, became the museum’s new president.

Piazza sought to resurrect an institution that had suffered in the late 1980s and early 1990s and began by bringing in new people who could infuse needed energy. In 1995, he interviewed Majluf, then just 28 years old but already tough-minded, and hired her as the chief curator. “I thought I was going to be an academic, but I was here and thought to myself, ‘Well, let’s make the effort to see if we can do something,’” Majluf said. “I always thought this place had potential: beautiful building, well located, private museum.” 

The museum began to flourish under Piazza’s leadership. “People returned to the museum. Before they didn’t even know where it was,” Majluf said. “The truth is we began to do good, intense work and things started to happen.”

The museum launched exhibitions as well as infrastructure and funding initiatives, including an “Amigos del Museo” membership program and an annual art auction. The latter became the “place to be” one day out of the year in Lima. Donations remained of vital importance, yet a philanthropic culture still did not exist. Contributions came mainly from businesses at that point. But Piazza also understood the importance of diversification and reached out to a broad base. “Walter’s strategy was to ask for a little from a lot of people,” Majluf said. “He also began to involve younger people,” like Juan Carlos Verme, Nicolás Kecskemethy and Armando Andrade.

Kecskemethy left his native Peru in the early 1970s for Germany, where he completed a doctorate in biochemistry and started an academic career before entering the private sector and marrying an artist. After returning to Lima in 1994, Piazza asked Kecskemethy to lead the museum’s auction committee, which he did for six years before passing the mantle on to Armando Andrade, president of a Peruvian advertising agency. Andrade’s passion had been in collecting ever since he bought a pre-Columbian Chancay ceramic for the same price as a chocolate bar at the age of 18. At one point, he hoped to study art at the Sorbonne after winning a scholarship, but his father rejected the idea.

The new generation of museum leadership had a lot in common. All were young, loved art and believed in the museum’s institutional importance for society. “There are only ten countries in the world with millennial histories, and one is Peru,” Andrade said. “We are conscious of this debt.” Yet between debt and aspiration lay an institutional abyss, which appeared whenever Peru entered its next crisis. 

Instability returned in the late 1990s and early 2000s with a protracted political and economic crisis. Piazza’s firm suffered, diverting his attention away from the museum, just as its financing sources dried up. The museum’s employees, including Majluf, went for extended periods without paychecks and the most basic utility bills fell into arrears, sparking a debate over the institution’s direction: Should it continue its focus on being a panoramic repository of Peruvian art or should it find ways to build a larger audience and shore up its finances? Should it maintain (what critics considered) its “highbrow” approach or should it lower its standards? Should it continue to organize textile exhibitions that struggled to garner wide interest or should it exhibit items like football uniforms from outside its collection? These questions thrust the museum into an institutional crisis so severe that, at one point, it went through seven managing directors in a single year.

Majluf, frustrated, considered leaving. “In 2002, I went to Walter and told him that I thought the museum was losing its original vision,” she said. Piazza eventually requested a proposal from Jesús Zamora, head of a private investment fund, and Verme, then chairman of a leading real estate company. By heeding their advice to expand the number of trustees and to charge a monthly membership fee, Piazza reaffirmed the museum’s institutional commitments and filled short-term funding gaps. After 12 years as president, he also concluded it was time to pass the torch. In 2005, Verme assumed Piazza’s role. 

Verme proceeded to expand the number of trustees over the next two years by more than in the previous two decades combined, widening the museum’s support networks in the process. Art classes and the auction remained the central sources of financing. First-floor architectural renovations, initiated under Piazza and driven forward by Majluf, enabled the museum to host international exhibitions, from Peru’s Mario Testino to Germany’s Gerhard Richter, though the red tape associated with importing art or repatriating works was another story.

With Verme, a focus on quality prevailed and the museum’s leadership formed two acquisition committees, one for historical and one for contemporary art. “It was clear to us that we had to keep collecting because there were holes to fill in the collection,” Andrade explained. The trustees were aggressive and took risks, becoming one of a handful of Latin American institutions actively acquiring contemporary art, competing head-to-head with international museums and private buyers. “If we don’t buy today, we can’t buy later because the relevant, historic pieces simply disappear. For example, if you want to access materials from César Moro, you have to go to the Getty, who bought almost his entire archive,” Andrade said. “Situations like that cannot happen again.” The trustees created mechanisms allowing members to purchase the items in order to take them off the market and resell them to the museum once funds were raised. In other cases, they took out loans, hoping to find future donors. “We take risks but in the end someone always steps up,” said Osvaldo Sándoval, a trustee. 

The museum has appeared on international exhibition circuits and its brand—rechristened as “MALI” during this period—become synonymous with prestige domestically and quality internationally. Leaders represent MALI in global events and Verme has assumed a position in the international art world, serving as a member of the Tate Modern Latin American acquisitions committee and a founding patron of the Reina Sofía Museum Foundation. MALI’s day-to-day operations have received a boost, too, after museum leadership began to streamline finances and hire managers with marketing backgrounds from leading companies, in order to professionalize the organization. Peru’s decade of unprecedented growth also helped. 

But struggles continue. Despite the best efforts of Majluf, María Teresa Normand and Flavio Calda, the latter two as general managers from 2009 to the present, the museum still has not managed to open its second floor, slated for its permanent collection. Since the government owns the building, renovations were subject to public management and have been mired in years of red tape. Meanwhile, the works sit in warehouses. “We’re a crippled museum,” Majluf said. “We can’t show our main collection. If we could have administered the work ourselves the space would be open.” 

Other institutional barriers persist. Although the country’s philanthropic culture is slowly changing with the creation of new wealth, the tax code still does not give incentives for philanthropic giving by individuals or companies. And despite lobbying efforts, museum leaders couldn’t convince lawmakers to change the laws.

MALI’s cycles of success and crisis have paralleled Peru’s fortunes. But can the museum eventually achieve what the country has struggled to create: an institution—the values, norms, and rules that give meaning to action and provide social stability? While weathering crises, MALI has managed to reaffirm its underlying commitments. But full institutionalization requires creating values, norms, and rules that are deeper and more sacred than the individuals professing or following them. Can MALI become more than its network of committed patrons and fully serve society? Can it become a model of institutionalization for Peru? If it does, then in the end those that gave will have received. “It is a strange feeling,” Verme said. “I never imagined that being so altruistic, seeking to create something more than you, that gives to others, to your country, can in the end become so egotistical because of how gratifying it is to give.”

Matthew Bird is a professor in the Graduate School at the Universidad del Pacífico in Lima, Peru and former Research Director for the Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative. His research explores “the art” of harvesting local cultural solutions to shared social problems. He can be reached at bird_md@up.edu.pe.