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16 March 2023

“Whoever censors is always someone who has power and power is in many places”.

An interview with Tatxo Benet

Entrepreneur and cultural patron, Tatxo Benet is a restless and curious person, who has no problem saying what he thinks and has found in contemporary art a way to put the focus on an issue that worries him: freedom of expression. A couple of years ago, the presentation of the exhibition Línies vermelles [Red Lines], curated by Celia del Diego at La Panera Art Center and the Art Museum of Lleida, allowed him to show some of the works in his collection, which includes names such as Leon Ferrari, Abel Azcona, Andrés Serrano, Colectivo Mujeres Públicas, Robert Mapplethorpe, Picasso, Natalia LI, Inés Doujak, Núria Güell and Eugenio Merino. Soon a museum in Barcelona will exhibit them permanently.

Montse Badia: You have been collecting art for many years, but in 2018 something happens that gives a twist to your way of collecting, when you buy Santiago Sierra’s work, Presos políticos en la España Contemporánea, hours before it was taken down from the ARCO stand. How has your trajectory as a collector been before that, what were your interests and what happens from 2018 onwards?

Tatxo Benet: Until 2018 I didn’t consider myself a collector either. It’s a word bestowed on me by galleries or artists. I consider myself a person who bought works of art because I liked them and one day someone told me, “you are a collector”, so you can call me collector, right? But I have been buying works of art for many years, I don’t even remember when I started. Maybe there is a change when you go from buying things for your house and start buying things that you like and not because they fit more in one or another place in the house because of their colors, but you buy them and think that someday “I will put them here and we will do whatever it takes to install them”. But yes, it is true that when it turned around was in 2018. Every year I went to ARCO and other fairs, and I always bought things, what I liked. In 2018 I couldn’t go because I had a trip to Paris, but I read in the newspapers about this piece by Santiago Sierra and I thought it was daring and very topical. It was already “the piece of ARCO” before the fair opened because it was in all the newspapers. On the phone, I spoke to a gallery owner friend of mine and told him to please go to the Helga de Alvear gallery and buy it for me. Meanwhile, I was on a plane going to Paris and when I landed, I found two messages on my cell phone: one said it was bought, and the next one said that the piece had been withdrawn. I thought it was because I had bought it and I thought it was not necessary, but they immediately explained to me that someone came to the booth and removed it. In other words, I bought it before everything happened.

This was a bit of a change. I was a bit annoyed when they started looking for political motivations for my acquisition. In a specific newspaper it was said that I bought it to attack Spain. Something deplorable. Then, to remedy this, I remembered that in Barcelona there also had been some pieces censored and, to ease my conscience, I bought them. Here my curiosity began, and I started to look at what was happening in other places. I found a piece in Paris, by the artist Zoulikha Boauabdellah, which I liked very much. I found it very special and bought it. Little by little it grew as a kind of private hobby, looking through the net and I saw that there was a potential collection with a lot of weight, with contemporary artists, who at some point had suffered censorship. Now we have 160 pieces, and the intention is to show them, not to leave them in a stock.

Amina Benbouchta. “Piege à loup”

MB: In any case, from then on you are clearly a collector, from the moment you find a line that articulates the collection.

TB: Yes, but it wasn’t a strategy to find my place in this art world. I simply found a subject that interests me. This is the truth. I have a special motivation for freedom of expression and freedom of thought. For me, freedom of thought and freedom of expression are absolutely linked to the culture of thought. It is intrinsic to the person. We would agree that we all have the right to think what we want and to be able to express it. If we cannot express it, what is the point of having freedom of thought? This led me to explore further and I saw that there was no other collection in the world dedicated to this subject. On the contrary, the censored works of art were usually back in the artist’s studio.

In the art world, the issue of freedom of expression bothers a lot because in the end, like all things in this life, it’s also a business. And everything that gets in the way of the business, bothers. When ARCO happened, the artists’ reaction was zero. There was only one artist, Pere Llobera, who took down his paintings and took them with him, one of which I bought.

What happens when an artist makes a work? He does it expressing what he means without limitations. And, suddenly, this creates a tremendous boom. There is a huge controversy and, if there are consequences, usually the curator or the director are fired.

MB: And you want to share this defense of freedom of expression through the collection and make it public with the creation of a museum.

TB: Yes, but I have no intention of being an advocate of anything. I have my own opinions that I can express, but I don’t come here to correct anyone. I think that showing these works can be at some point an exercise of tolerance on the part of the people who are going to see them, and that can help. In some cases, the works were accompanied by a lot of scandal, but seen as a whole, the level of scandal goes down.

MB: Each of the works has a history and a specific context of censorship.

TB: We will try to make a very didactic museum, in the sense that it is not only about exhibiting the pieces, but also about explaining very well what has happened to each of these pieces. The piece is important, but also because it is there, to give an exact context to help with this exercise of tolerance.

Fabián Cháirez. “La revolución”

MB: In a collection, the fact that one piece is next to another creates dialogues and generate new readings. Do you think this can reinforce the aspect of awareness or that the pieces can be neutralized?

TB: It’s a complicated debate, because sometimes people think that a museum curator is a person who has no impact with his or her discourse, and that’s not true. We will try to work in the most professional and technical possible way, without any moralizing or censoring intention. We will present things in the most aseptic possible way, giving a lot of context. We want to do it and show it in an honest, well-advised technically and artistically. We know perfectly well that we are on a super dangerous ground and that we will receive criticism from all sides, a lot of debate will be generated. Besides, I’m not a person from the art world, I’m an outsider, I’m just a businessman and patron of the arts.

MB: Do you have an opening date?

TB: We are talking about September of this year, at the Casa Garriga Nogués in Barcelona.

MB: Another of your cultural projects is the Ona Bookstore. Will there be any direct relationship between this future museum and the bookstore?

TB: Actually, they are parallel projects, although it is very possible that we will do some things together or some Cross-marketing at some point. We’ll see.

MB: Because if you talk about censorship and freedom of expression in literature, there are a thousand cases and some of them are current

TB: The Catalan book is not censored, but it has a huge competition with the Spanish book because in Catalonia, Catalan speakers are bilingual and Spanish speakers are not. It is normal for a large bookstore to prioritize the market it has, in Barcelona alone, of 3 or 4 million people and leave a little aside the market of 2 or 1.5 million, which is also counted in the other. In Ona, on the other hand, that doesn’t happen, it is an absolute tribute to the Catalan language.

MB: Bookstores have a very active role right now, culturally speaking

TB: Yes, they have become great cultural centers. At Ona we do 2 or 3 cultural events every day.

MB: It strikes me that, being a journalist and founder of a very powerful audiovisual media group, Mediapro, and with the capacity to reach a lot of people with content, you choose art to talk about freedom of expression. Why do you think that with the collection you can claim freedom of expression better or in a different way?

TB: The collection is a project totally unrelated to Mediapro. It is something particular to me. But I think that when we are in the Mediapro group, the defense of freedom of expression is also present in everything we do. Our creators have absolute freedom to create the content they think they should do. Also, think that we normally work for third parties and we have to adapt to what they ask of us.

MB: I was referring more to what impact do you think artists can have in making us think about freedom of expression?

TB: I think a lot, but again I repeat that it is not part of a strategy, but much more primary. Things have been going like this

MB: That’s exactly how good collections emerge, in a more organic way, from interests that change and evolve with the individual

TB: Yes, I can’t say, in the year 2000 I said, “my contribution to this society will be this, a hymn to freedom of expression and freedom of thought and artistic freedom and that artists can come and express what they want”, but I have been doing, it is clear that if I didn’t have an interest in contemporary art, that would never have happened.

MB: The line of your collection is now very defined, regardless of styles, generations, contexts or media used by the artists. How do you collect? How do you do research? What is your relationship with the artists?

TB: At first it was a simple search that I did on the net. Then, when it became public, people started to tell me about cases that might be of my interest. I have been working with a team and we look for information and research to find artists. There are things that have been discarded, and others that we have not been able to buy

MB: And I’m sure you are often attentive by cases that appear in the press, as for example with documenta

TB: Yes, there are many people who don’t understand the concept and who send me proposals of scandalous things, but this is not the issue. It is a collection of works that have suffered censorship, that have been banned at some point, or that have some relation to censorship.

MB: Muntadas made a work, The File Room, based on a case of censorship that he had suffered, he wanted to make a large Internet archive of cases of censorship, not only against works of art, throughout history and that is being updated. Do you think that polarization and intransigence are increasingly present in our societies?

TB: As I’ve been buying pieces, I’ve seen that all this intolerance, let’s say, progressive, has become more and more prevalent. It is very curious, that those who until now received censorship, now it turns out that as their values begin to be undervalued, they try to censor others. This is food for thought as well. I defend freedom of expression. In the United States they wanted to make Chuck Close invisible, accusing him of sexual abuse and closing an exhibition. Then, we bought a work by him.

MB: Traditionally, it is always the power that censors, but perhaps now censorship is more complex, more structural and more efficient when it does not show itself as such, when it does not even need to act, when it generates self-censorship, preventive mechanisms (in museums, in creation, the “sensitivity readers” in literature), not to offend, not to create tensions with possible sponsors?

TB: Yes, but whoever censors is always someone who has power. Power is in many places. This reminds me of a graffiti in May ’68 that said: “le pouvoir est a les universités, les étudiants les ont pris, le pouvoir est à les usines, les travailleurs les ont pris, le pouvoir est à la rue, les gens l’ont pri, le pouvoir est à le pouvoir, prenez-lui [power is in the universities, the students have taken it, power is in the factories, the workers have taken it, power is in the streets, the people have taken it, power is in power, take it]. Power is in many places, not only in the Ministry or in ARCO. A pressure group has power and an organized pressure group has power and if it can exercise it, it will exercise it. I don’t know, imagine the most benevolent association that you can find in this world, let’s say for the defense of animals or the platform against the mortgage, whatever you want, they are groups that lobby for their own very legitimate interests, but there comes a time when they have power, sometimes they use it to try to silence what they don’t think should be said. The problem is that there are people who now realize that not only do they silence certain “bad” States, but also “the good” ones use this power to silence those who do not think like them, the dissident.

Montse Badia has never liked standing still, so she has always thought about travelling, entering into relation with other contexts, distancing herself, to be able to think more clearly about the world. The critique of art and curating have been a way of putting into practice her conviction about the need for critical thought, for idiosyncrasies and individual stances. How, if not, can we question the standardisation to which we are being subjected?

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"A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world" (John Le Carré)