The National Museum of Contemporary Art - Museu do Chiado was established by government decree on 26th May 1911. It was born out of the division of the old Museu Nacional de Belas-Artes into the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, which inherited from the former all the works produced prior to 1850 and remained in the Palácio das Janelas Verdes, and the National Museum of Contemporary Art, which included all the works completed after that date and was housed in the Convento de S. Francisco, in an area neighbouring the Academia de Belas Artes. The creation of a network of museums, which spread the length of the country, was the fulfilment of a project based on the 18th century concept of human enlightenment, endowing the country with the necessary tools to safeguard and display the nation’s art. The creation of a museum of contemporary art was, in the international context, new and unprecedented.
The housing, though only on a temporary basis, of the National Museum of Contemporary Art in the Convento de S. Francisco located it symbolically and opportunely in the area frequented by the artists of the periods represented in the museum. It occupied the large old halls, convent annexes, where the exhibitions of the Romantics and the naturalists had been held.
It was the sculptor Diogo Macedo who, as director, after extensive remodelling of the structure and interior, opened the museum daily to the public in 1945, with its own entrance in Rua Serpa Pinto. Having been involved in the modernist movement and then later an art historian, his appointment was expected to usher in a new era at the museum. A programme of temporary exhibitions was implemented, as well as research on artists represented in the collection in the form of short monographs published by the museum. However, no clear definition of a modernist stance was forthcoming, and the pernicious commitment to late-naturalism decontextualised from its time was continued. Some works by artists that emerged in the latter half of the 1940s were acquired, though in an unclear and unplanned fashion.
Thus, up until 1959, the museum was outdated and conservative and had little in common with other museums across Europe. The political appointment of the painter Eduardo Malta in that same year, despite general protests by the art community and critics, nevertheless placed further emphasis on a backward-looking approach that had catastrophic consequences for the collection’s modernist position and its respective and necessary adjustment to the international art scene. A catalogue was produced, but the nazi principles on which the collection’s presentation lay was heavily condemned by the leaders of the very regime that had appointed the director in the first place. In 1970, Maria de Lourdes Bártholo, a conservative by training, was appointed director of the museum, which was in an advanced state of disrepair. Over the following 17 years, the building only underwent some very superficial restoration work. The collection extended up to the contemporary era, but the criteria governing representation of the diverse movements, trends and leading figures in Portuguese art, which from the preceding decade onwards had undergone profound quantitative and qualitative transformations, were not in the least equated and neither did the museum’s acquisitions define a consistent and broad understanding of contemporaneity.
With the Chiado fire in August 1988, and even though the museum escaped unscathed, the works of art were removed as a precautionary measure. It was decided by the then secretary of State for Culture, Teresa Gouveia, that the collection’s home should be rethought. The French government put forward a project to renovate the museum by the architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte, who, with a team led by the art historian Raquel Henriques da Silva, redefined the museum in the form it has exhibited since its re-inauguration on 12th July 1994.
The project sought to integrate the building’s existing historically important spaces into a neo-modern architectural language, enhancing the autonomy of the planes that constitute the suspended walkways, the floor itself and the ceilings and the sudden walls that define great vertical extensions. With an original and economic range of materials and colours, its discreet austerity establishes a full dialogue with the building’s functions.
When the museum reopened, a catalogue entitled Museu do Chiado, Arte Portuguesa 1850-1950, produced by Pedro Lapa, Raquel Henriques da Silva and Maria de Aires Silveira, presented the most consistent and coherent nuclei of its extensive collection, over two thousand items, with individual studies on each work, as well as respective bibliographies and historical backgrounds. Given the collection’s failings with regard to its representation of art from the latter half of the twentieth century, the museum’s acquisitions policy focused on the seminal works of the movements of that period. A systematic programme of temporary exhibitions on Portuguese artists that had emerged during the least well represented decades in the collection was put into place, alongside a strong emphasis on the studies and research presented in the respective catalogues. A programme of contemporary art aimed at emerging artists, whose work was based on interpretations of the museum’s collection, was set up and allowed the acquisition of varied works that initiated an updating of the collection’s body of contemporary art. Since the reopening, the museum’s lack of space, both for the collection and the temporary exhibitions, has become notorious.
At the end of 1998, Pedro Lapa, a member of the museum’s reorganisational team, became director. The programme of temporary exhibitions took on greater importance and the focus moved to four specific areas, directly or indirectly related to the chronological scope of the collection. Thus was begun a series of retrospective exhibitions on 19th century Portuguese artists. Continued were the museum’s large retrospectives on Portuguese modernist movements and artists, with the first catalogue raisoneé on a Portuguese artist, Joaquim Rodrigo. In parallel, large exhibitions on the artists and movements at the historical forefront were co-produced with other prestigious international museums. The Interferências (1998-2002) programme ran parallel to the above exhibitions and presented work specifically produced for it by contemporary Portuguese and international artists. Another aspect to which this programme gave particular importance was the format of the publications that accompanied the exhibitions and that presented in-depth scientific and essayistic analysis.
The acquisitions policy has been developed along two lines in order to mitigate the shortcomings referred to in the collection, and the 1950s and 1960s, as well as the 1990s, are now already significantly well represented. A start was also made at incorporating other artistic genres into the collection, such as photography and video, media which are heavily exploited in contemporary art. Several of the museum’s custodians more actively involved in giving the Museu do Chiado – National Museum of Contemporary Art the resources its title would suggest have greatly contributed to this process.
The lack of space has been one of the factors that has most hampered the implementation of the wide range of activities that the museum has sought to develop. The chance to exhibit its collections in a continuous manner, or to develop temporary exhibitions of the scale desired, or even develop pedagogic activities, all these aspects of a museum’s activity are subject to limitations for which a solution is long overdue.