Supporting the Vision of Artists and Honoring Imagination as part of an Interconnected Ecosystem

Jochen Volz - Photography Levi Fanan, Pinacoteca de São Paulo
Jochen Volz, General Director of Pinacoteca de São Paulo.
Photography Levi Fanan, Pinacoteca de São Paulo

One of my earliest art memories is being deeply impressed by Oscar Schlemmer´s figurines for the Triadic Ballet (1922). I grew up in Stuttgart, in Southern Germany, and the school I attended is across the street from the Staatsgalerie, where Schlemmer’s original costumes are held in the museum collection. I appreciate that it was an extraordinary privilege to be able to frequently visit them as a child. 

I went into curating because I love listening to, learning from, and working with artists. From early on, I felt attracted to museums and art galleries, but when I realized that the questions raised, experiments made, and risks taken by artists intrigued me even more than the material condition of the objects, I knew that organizing exhibitions would allow me to be close to a process that constantly challenges certainty.  

I took the position at the Pinacoteca because the invitation came at the right moment from one of the most exciting museums in Latin America. I had been working in Brazil since 2004, and was lucky to participate from the very beginning in the development of a newly founded institution, the Instituto Inhotim in Minas Gerais. Over the years, I had many opportunities to work with a remarkable group of artists from Brazil and abroad, both at Inhotim and independently. Those include Adriana Varejão, Chris Burden, Cildo Meireles, Cinthia Marcelle, Doris Salcedo, Doug Aitken, Ernesto Neto, Goshka Macuga, Haegue Yang, Hector Zamora, Marepe, Marilá Dardot, Marina Abramovic, Matthew Barney, Olafur Eliasson, Renata Lucas, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Tunga, and many others. Then between 2012 and 2015, I took on the position as Head of Programmes at the Serpentine Galleries in London, which at the time represented a great learning opportunity professionally, and was a good move for me and my family. But in early 2016, we returned to Brazil because I had been appointed the curator for the 32nd São Paulo Biennial. This great endeavor demanded my full-time presence in the city. Under the title “Incerteza Viva / Live Uncertainty”, I worked with a wonderful team of co-curators, including Gabi Ngcobo, Júlia Rebouças, Lars Bang Larsen, and Sofía Olascoaga. In retrospect, I believe that our Biennial project kicked off and responded to many urgent discussions within the field of cultural institutions in Brazil. Therefore, when I received the invitation to collaborate with the Pinacoteca as director, it represented—and continues to represent—a great chance to test new ideas, institutional strategies, and forms of collaboration.

2 WE ARE MANY. ART, THE POLITICAL AND MULTIPLE TRUTHS. 2019 Verbier Art Summit, with (from left to right) Latifa Echakhch, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Ernesto Neto, Boaventura de Sousa Santos, Wolf Singer, Grada Kilomba, Maria Balshaw, Tania Brugu
From left to right: Latifa Echakhch, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Ernesto Neto, Boaventura de Sousa Santos, Wolf Singer, Grada Kilomba, Maria Balshaw, Tania Bruguera,
Gabi Ngcobo, Naine Terena, Anneliek Sijbrandij
(also, not included in this picture, Barbara Hendricks and Federico Campagna)
Phototography Frederick Jacobovits. Verbier Art Summit. Verbier, Switzerland. 2019

An emblematic place characteristic of the museum is the Pinacoteca´s Octógono, a central octagonal open space in our main building. Planned and built in the late 19th century, the building which houses the Pinacoteca was never really finished. It never gained a proper façade, nor did the interior courtyards receive the originally planned marble cladding. And the giant cupola, which was to be erected in its center, was also never built. But, the brick stone surfaces have become very important. Paulo Mendes da Rocha renovated the building in the 1990s, and he understood how to enhance this characteristic by reorganizing the exterior and interior spaces, removing windows, and changing the entire circulation throughout the building. The beauty and timelessness of the Pinacoteca lies in the fact that you can never really tell whether the building is unfinished or already in ruins. Since 2002, over one hundred commissioned projects have been presented in the Octógono. In a certain way, it is the engine of the museum, where site-specific ideas are being tested, which continuously injects new energy into the institution.

But my personal favorite spot, and where I take my breaks, is either one of the four balconies on the second floor of the museum. From the two balconies at the front, you can oversee the train station, Estação da Luz, and good parts of downtown São Paulo, with some iconic mural paintings by artists such as Daniel Melim and others. And from the balconies at the back, you look into the giant trees of the Parque da Luz, the oldest public green space in Sâo Paulo. It is very beautiful. From there you can also observe the construction site of the Pinacoteca’s extension, which is scheduled to be inaugurated in December this year. Each balcony allows for a different viewing angle.

The way I meet my personal curatorial practice with the mission of the institution is by being aware of my responsibility within the institution, and by trusting and supporting the team.

The best way to work with a team, I found out, is to communicate widely and early on, and to constantly test ideas with colleagues. I deeply believe that programs and projects only flourish if everyone in the team is convinced of their timeliness, means, scale, and reach. Today, a lot of my efforts at the Pinacoteca go into creating a common sense of urgency for the programs we work on. 

A good advice that I could share with fellow curators is to always take care of relationships. Every contemporary curatorial project depends on relationships, which need to be built and nurtured carefully. Shared enthusiasm, comradeship, and mutual respect are key. Each project is an opportunity to learn, to listen, and to practice empathy. I feel that every encounter has shaped me as a professional and as a person, and I am deeply thankful for that. Some of these relationships have turned into lasting friendships. 

Ernesto Neto, Cura Brá Cura Te (2019), Octógono Pinacoteca de São Paulo (Foto JV)
Ernesto Neto, Cura Brá Cura Te (2019), Octógono Pinacoteca de São Paulo (Foto JV)

To keep sane I try to get out of the city as much as possible. I love the forest, observing the infinite cycles of life, and learning about diversity and scale.

The book that still haunts me is Ailton Krenak’s Ideas to Postpone the End of the World. In this book, the renowned indigenous leader and activist demonstrates how our current environmental crisis is rooted in the inadequate concept that sees humanity as different from nature. Krenak calls for new forms of “dreaming” for us, so we regain our place within nature, and for our participation in the “cosmic dance”, so we don’t remain outside of it. 

I love almost any meal that includes coriander, passion fruit, or black pepper.

If I could change something in the art world with a magic wand, I would have, as Gilbert & George say, “art for all”. It seems more important than ever for art not to stay inside its own bubble. Art dwells on the incapacity of existing means to describe the systems we are part of; in other words, art is obsessed with inventing signs for phenomena or things that we have not named yet. Art often points at disorder, but mostly without judgment and always with joy. It can do this because it naturally joins thinking with doing. Art is grounded in imagination, and it is only through imagination that we will be able to envision other narratives for our past and new ways of being for our future. 

If I wasn’t curating I would look for other ways to be near to creative and collective processes. I would still want to be close to artists, books, ideas, people, experimentation, and learning. Maybe I could be starting an art school?

Jochen Volz

General Director of Pinacoteca

São Paulo, Brazil


Jochen Volz is the General Director of Pinacoteca de São Paulo. He has been the curator of the Brazilian Pavilion at the 57th Biennale di Venezia (2017) and was the chief curator of the 32nd Bienal de São Paulo (2016). Between 2012 and 2015 he was Head of Programmes at the Serpentine Galleries in London. Prior, he was a curator at the Instituto Inhotim, Minas Gerais, since 2004, where he has served as General Director between 2005 and 2007 and Artistic Director between 2007 and 2012. Furthermore, he has contributed to many exhibitions throughout the world, including Terra Comunal – Marina Abramović in sesc Pompeia, São Paulo (2015), Planos de fuga, Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil, São Paulo (2012), Olafur Eliasson – Your Body of Work as part of the 17th International Festival of Contemporary Art – sesc Videobrasil in the Pinacoteca de São Paulo, in sesc Pompeia and sesc Belenzinho, São Paulo (2011), The Spiral and the Square at Bonniers Konsthall, Stockholm, at Gråmølna Kunstmuseum, Trondheim, and at Sørlandets Kunstmuseum, Kristiansand (2011), the 1st Aichi Triennale in Nagoya (2010) and the presentation of Cinthia Marcelle at the Biennale de Lyon (2007). In 2009, he organized Fare Mondi / Making Worlds, the international section of the 53rd International Venice Biennale together with Daniel Birnbaum. In 2006, he was guest curator for the 27th São Paulo Biennial. Between 2001 and 2004, he was curator of Portikus Frankfurt am Main, where he organized individual exhibitions with Cildo Meireles, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Gilbert & George, Janet Cardiff, Jason Rhoades, Pascale Marthine Tayou, Philippe Parreno, Renée Green, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Rivane Neuenschwander and Simon Starling, amongst others. As a critic he is writing for magazines and catalogues.

Art critic and writer.

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