Advocates Defend Former Reina Sofia Director Amid ‘Culture War’ in Open Letter –

An open letter voicing support for Manuel Borja-Villel, the former head of the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, is circulating amid Spain’s election to appoint a new director for the state-backed museum. Borja-Villel abruptly stepped down on January 20 from his post after 15 years with the institution.

In an open letter first published by e-flux, artists, scholars and museum leaders in Belgium, Germany, and Luxembourg published their support of the recently-departed Borja-Villel. The former museum leader has faced criticism in the Spanish press as a result of what the letter contends is a growing right-wing political movement in the country. The signatories called for Borja-Villel’s legacy of bringing progressive arts programming to Madrid to continue even as Spain grapples with a so-called “culture war”.

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The collector, José María Lafuente, on his arrival at the presentation of an exhibition of the Lafuente Archive on his work for the 150th anniversary of the port of Santander, at the Palacete del Embarcadero, on February 15, 2022, in Santander, Cantabria (Spain). On May 10, 2022, it will be 150 years since the enactment of the creation of the successor of the Royal Consulate of Sea and Land of Santander and the Board of Trade as the administrative instrument of the port, which acted as the port's manager for nearly a century. 15 FEBRUARY 2022;PUERTO SANTANDER;EXHIBITION;MARISCAL;150TH ANNIVERSARY Juan Manuel Serrano Arce / Europa Press 02/15/2022 (Europa Press via AP)

The letter’s stakeholders voice concern over the museum’s uncertain future and call for the preservation of the “inclusive” model that Borja-Villel established during his tenure at the institution. They also condemned the “attacks” that Borja-Ville has received from far-right media pundits, including a Spanish media outlet that labeled the museum’s exhibitions under his leadership “political propaganda”. The same news organization alleged the Reina Sofia violated codes when it renewed Borja-Villel’s contracts in 2013 and 2018. (Borja-Villel has denied the accusations.)

The letter, which has drawn 1,700 signatories, says that Borja-Villel made the museum into a place that “allows us to talk about justice and correction,” and described it as a center for “historiographical reflection”.

After taking up the position in 2008, Borja-Villel drew acclaim from Madrid’s art community for expanding the once modern-focused Reina Sofia into a contemporary art hub. Under his direction, the museum revamped its permanent collections and tripled its visitor foot traffic, reaching a milestone high of 4.5 million visitors in 2019.

However, the letter states, the museum’s status as cultural leader is now under threat.

“No consideration is being placed on what should be expected from future candidate proposals and designs for institutional management once the call for tender is open,” it reads. “These attacks are part of a defamatory campaign directed at the model the Museum represents; a campaign that began far before the process of electing a new director was initiated.”

It is not the first time Borja-Villel, who is currently co-curating the upcoming 2023 São Paulo Biennial, has garnered mass support for his programming. In 2014, more than 2,500 signatories voiced support of the museum’s exhibition “Really Useful Knowledge” amid calls from religious groups for it to be censored by the Spanish cultural ministry.

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