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When I ask Ariel Benzacar, the Buenos Aires entrepreneur behind the recently founded experimental art space called Munar, how long he’s been involved in the artworld, he chuckles and quips, ‘Since I was six or seven.’
He’s not entirely joking. In the mid 1960s, his parents, Samuel and Ruth Benzacar, art aficionados who had amassed a collection of paintings by the likes of Antonio Berni, Juan Batlle Planas and Lino Enea Spilimbergo, fell on hard times during a period of political instability and began hosting art viewings inside their home. ‘Once a week we had all these people over, everyone from philanthropists to diplomats and psychiatrists,’ remembers Ariel. ‘The house was covered in paintings, and it was understood that they were for sale.’
Those improvised showings planted the seeds for what would become one of Buenos Aires’s most distinguished art galleries, Ruth Benzacar Galería de Arte, named after its indomitable leader. ‘My mother realized she had a talent for dealing with artists and buyers, and decided it to make it her life,’ says Ariel.
Just as he did at his childhood home, Ariel found himself surrounded by art at his mother’s vast exhibition space on Calle Florida in downtown Buenos Aires. It was there, as a young industrial engineer in the late ’80s, that he came up with the idea of merging visual arts with industrial design, a project he called Munar. He enlisted important artists like Luis Fernando Benedit and product designers like Alan Neumark, who created a series of furnishings and objects that were exhibited in the gallery’s basement. Alas, not much of it sold, and Munar faded.
‘I don’t have a lot of patience with collectors or even artists, so I did other things,’ says Ariel in his raspy baritone and charmingly off-the-cuff way of speaking. He invested in real estate, purchasing a shuttered canteen from the early 1900s and an adjacent automotive warehouse from the 1960s in La Boca, a colorful working-class neighborhood perched on the docks of the Riachuelo. For a while, he used these somewhat tattered properties to store demolition materials from his manufacturing and construction concerns. But eventually, partly spurred by a city proposal to turn industrial La Boca into an arts district – the area was included in an officially designated Distrito de las Artes in 2012 – Ariel began contemplating a revival of Munar there.
The move made some sense – ever since the 1800s, art seems to have been the saving grace of this neighborhood. In the early days, Italian and Spanish immigrants used leftover paint to preen their homes, which resulted in a tableau of bright facades. Then came the brothels that gave us tango. Lately, the effects of art on the area are more subtle but also more substantial, with edgy galleries like Barro joining institutions like La Usina del Arte and Proa (and its more-experimental analog, PROA21, which opened last April), injecting a jolt of creative energy in this historic district.
Ariel called his sister, Orly Benzacar, who took over the gallery when their mother died in 2000, asking for advice about Munar’s new direction. ‘I wanted to do something unusual and avant-garde that could spark international interest,’ he says. ‘And also something that had to do with materiality.’ Orly suggested connecting with Carlos Herrera, a conceptual and performance artist represented by the gallery.
‘Ariel is a romantic who believes in the spirit of vanguardism and in the possibility of creating a new world through art,’ says Herrera, who is now Munar’s artistic director. ‘Through my conversations with him, I began to think about creating a multifaceted arena where artists, gallerists, critics, and the public could come together.’
After an overhaul by Ariel’s architect daughter Florencia Benzacar that left much of the original warehouse structure untouched, Munar opened its doors in May 2018, with Florencia and her brother Diego as directors of day-to-day operations. Its mission to foster creativity in art takes on both broad and specific meanings. Almost everything that is produced at Munar is three-dimensional, related in some way to craftsmanship and to the space’s own history. Aside from that, there’s a lot of fluidity and freedom. Galleries are sometimes invited to set up temporary exhibitions by established artists; at other times, visitors encounter provocative works by unknown talents.
One constant – and the core of the 3,500-square-meter physical space – is a residency program that hosts nine artists from across Argentina. The artists use Munar’s second floor, an ample span with few subdivisions, to work and exchange ideas. Three of them also live there for several months. For those who are not from Buenos Aires, this is a unique opportunity to focus on creativity while plugging into the region’s cultural hub.
‘This project offers you something very valuable, which is time to really concentrate on your work because you don’t need to pay rent,’ says Benjamín Felice, a 29-year-old multimedia and installation artist from the province of Tucumán, part of Munar’s first generation of residents. ‘You are also in contact with a large number of people who visit the space, yet there’s no pressure to sell anything.’
Indeed, nothing is bought or sold at Munar, which operates as a nonprofit. ‘This is a space for transformation, where artists can engage with their most intimate desires and ideas,’ says Herrera. ‘Part of my job is to find artists in different regions of Argentina, and some of what I’ve seen is really incredible and eccentric, things that are deep and have nothing to do with commerce.’
Felice, for example, has explored the distance between wakefulness and sleep, and between the natural and the unnatural in an all-white installation that includes bits and pieces taken from hospitals, public transportation, and corporate offices. ‘A lot of my work is rooted in scientific investigation,’ he says. ‘I like going to uncomfortable places.’
So far, says Ariel, the local population has regarded Munar’s sometimes-challenging offerings with curiosity, but he is committed to finding ways to engage his neighbors. ‘La Boca was once home to important artists like Benito Quinquela Martín’ – a beloved chronicler of Boquense life in the early 1900s – ‘and to this day there’s a group of artists living here, scraping a living drawing portraits for tourists,’ he says. ‘We want to help the neighborhood find its relevance again.’
Benzacar is not the only one who would like to see art once again become the backbone of La Boca. According to Diego Radivoy, general director for cultural and creative development within the Buenos Aires ministry of culture, ‘The placement of the Distrito de las Artes in the city’s Zona Sur was based on the notable cultural and artistic activities that have historically taken place in these neighborhoods, he says. ‘Its creation has generated a favorable environment for the arrival of numerous galleries, foundations, cultural spaces, and artists’ workshops.’ Alongside the handful of arrivals to the area in recent years, there are many hands at work to make this legendary yet somewhat marginal enclave a vital part of Buenos Aires’s present and future art scene.
Munar is among 24 local arts venues participating in the Semana del Arte organized by the city of Buenos Aires, April 8–14, 2019. For more information on the week's programming, including the Art Basel Cities Talks Program, produced in collaboration with arteBA Fundación, please click here.
Top image: Colorful paintings on tablecloth by Juane Odriozola, shown at Munar in October 2018. Photo by Manuel Fernandez López, courtesy of Munar.