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Flush with works by Botero, Medellín museum opens its doors
Seis Continentes / Summer 2001

By Larry Luxner

Medellín's pride and joy, the new Museo de Antioquia, has landed a place on the world cultural map with the recent donation of $60 million in paintings and sculptures by Colombian artist Fernando Botero.

In January, museum director Pilar Velilla led Seis Continentes on a tour of this huge building in downtown Medellín. Along the way, she talked about her museum, which was founded in 1881 when the Department of Antioquia -- of which Medellín is the capital city -- was still known as Estados Soberanos de Antioquia.

"At first, this was a historical museum, then a library-museum," she said. "In 1955, it was moved to a small house. Botero began donating works in 1976. In 1987, the museum was moved for the sixth time, as a response to the city's growing population."

But in the early 1990s, Colombia's economy began sliding, in response to growing violence and social problems. Medellín acquired a reputation as the world's cocaine capital, due to the presence of powerful drug cartels, and tourism to Colombia ground to a halt.

Nevertheless, the city continued to grow, and its people never lost interest in the arts. Velilla, a freelance journalist for many years, took over as the museum's director in April 1997.

"That year, we decided that the museum wasn't serving our needs, and had to be moved again," she said. "Botero told us that if we grew in size, he would donate more works. We began a campaign to raise money, but it wasn't easy. At the time, the museum was bankrupt, and the employees hadn't been paid for six months. We didn't have one cent to survive on; we were living from donations only. How can a museum survive without money?"

It can't, of course, so Velilla began the difficult task of getting the Colombian government and the private sector to help fund the project.

"We knocked on all doors in the country," she said. "For the government, cultural affairs weren't that important. In the middle of a general crisis, someone began talking about the museum. I love my country, but I have to say the truth: it seemed an absurdity to talk about a museum in a country where we needed hospitals, schools, roads and infrastructure."

Velilla, 50, said she and her staff persuaded the Department of Antioquía, of which Medellín is the capital city, to donate a piece of land where the impressive Plaza Botero is being built. Already, 23 Botero sculptures -- worth $400,000 to $2 million each -- are scattered throughout the spacious plaza. In addition, Colombia's Ministry of Culture paid about $500,000 to restore the museum building, and the Municipality of Medellín spent $25 million to buy the structure from its previous private owners. Total investment in the project is around $100 million.

Besdies the sculptures, Botero -- who left Medellín in 1951 and now lives in Monaco -- donated 105 of his own paintings and drawings, as well as 21 works by other artists. These include "Man Singing" by Vincent Desiderios (1998); "Nature in Silence" by Thomas Orhan (1999) and "Journey to the End of the World" by Dieter Hader (1987).

The newly reborn museum was finally inaugurated on Oct. 15, 2000, by Botero and many dignitaries. It has proven popular with foreign tourists as well as local schoolchildren.

"Since the opening, we have had over 300,000 visitors," says Velilla. "Before, the museum got 30,000 visitors a year."

To commemorate the museum's inauguration, Botero's paintings have appeared on everything from a colorful set of stamps released by the Colombian post office to a series of telephone cards issued by mobile phone provider Comcel.

The 68-year-old artist was also honored by the Hotel Inter-Continental Medellín, which hosted a lavish dinner in his honor; in fact, Botero stayed at the hotel for the duration of the week-long festivities.

Asked why she thought Botero decided to give the museum such a big donation, Vilella said: "He didn't need more fame. He had everything. Besides, he's very generous."

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