Pepe Serra (Barcelona 1969) is the director of the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya and former director of the Picasso Museum in Barcelona. His long career in the art world gives him a lot of criteria to express his opinion in an assertive and direct way about the future of culture. Despite being a tremendously active person, he is capable of synthesizing, in a few words, very latent problems in today’s society. We are less free without culture.
What does art and culture mean to you?
I think it means everything. It is what distinguishes us from other animal species. The ability to create, to question ourselves, ask ourselves questions … It is what explains what we have done and what we will do. For me it is inseparable from the very fact of living.
Why did you want to dedicate yourself to art?
I was about to finish law. I studied by inertia – for me it was a very boring career – but in the end I finished art history. My great-uncle, Eudald Serra, is who I blame everything to. A well-known artist from the thirties. He was a sculptor who went to Japan and ended up staying for 15 years. He got married, had a daughter, participated in the war, came back …
He is a man who has spent his life traveling around the world. I knew him a lot and worked at his workshop. At one point, I found myself on the verge of working on law matters that were very boring to me. I decided that I wanted to work in what I liked: seeing the world, traveling, enjoying art… I dropped out a career for another one and luckily I did it on time! There is nothing like making a mistake if you later realize that you have made a mistake.
“There is nothing like making a mistake if later you realize that you have made a mistake”
Was it difficult to change?
When you are 21 years old you are not afraid of anything. These are a few years in which I travel a lot. I was traveling 3 or 4 months. Pakistan, India, China, America …
What is the MNAC spirit?
The MNAC has an extraordinary collection and, in some facets, it is a unique museum in the world. The spirit of the museum is above all the idea of service. What we are trying is to make it understood that this is a place for everyone. I like to talk about the museum as a great library. We are a library of images that everyone can use for their own interests. In the end, the idea is to be a great public square where people meet and enjoy content that survives and has universal capacity. It is a critical space and not a kind of paternalistic lecturer in which we tell people what to look at. That is over now, thankfully.
“Museums are a library of images”
And now, do you think we have a public and accessible culture?
It is a process of change that many museums are doing. Understand that communication is not from the museum to the visitor. Rather, it is between the museum and the visitor and even between the visitors themselves. If you come to the museum with 10 questions and leave with 20, we have succeeded. The museum should have the capacity to question us, to move us, to make us enjoy ourselves, to cry, to laugh….
“You don’t need to know about art to go to the museum”
We have to break a social barrier that exists about the fear of going to the museum. People will never say: “I don’t go to the movies because I don’t know about movies.” You don’t have to know about art to go to a museum. You just have to go with a predisposition to evoke your emotions, your interests and to see how the work returns it to you and bounces them back. Raising a slightly more courageous and mature audience will take a while, but that is what the museum has to be.
How do you think the pandemic has affected museums?
It has been a very strong impact. Although the pandemic has not brought anything new, it has simply accelerated debates that already existed. For example, the proximity of museums. For me, cultural spaces that are not related to the local environment will make little sense in the future. We have a 50% local audience. Not bad, considering that there are many museums in Barcelona that have a 3% local audience. Obviously, this is not a museum rooted in the society that works.
Another debate is the need to transform digitally. If, today, we organize a conference from the museum, we find that in person, about 100 people will come and, virtually, 300 more users from different parts of the world will also join. We have a great opportunity to bring valuable content to everyone!
It has undoubtedly also had a huge economic impact. Revenues have disappeared and it has become clear that the financing model of our public museums is very precarious. Perhaps it would be a very interesting moment to define if we are a public service such as schools or hospitals. It is a good time to ask yourself this question.
“I have been saying for a long time that entry to museums should be free”
Do you think we’ll get to that stage?
The debate is here, it is inevitable. I have been saying for a long time that entry to museums should be free. Why do you have to pay to go to the museum if you don’t pay for the library? If we want citizens to feel culture as their own, we have to provide facilities. We, the museums, have to provide service, not deposit money.
Regarding to visitors, do you think that museums have a curative mission?
I had a friend who ran the Prado museum for many years, who said that museums are hospital´s soul. I very much agree with this phrase. Museums are a quiet, relaxed, spacious, orderly space where you can walk, learn … Artworks have an important capacity to abstract you from reality.
I think there is a therapeutic effect in museums. In fact, there are currently hospitals that are already using museums as part of their recovery therapy for their patients. Without indulging in sensitive talk and pseudo-therapies, I believe that museums have a special capacity to restore balance and spirits… I’m sure. It happens to me a lot.
What role do you think museums have in society today and what do you think their role should be in the future?
It should be a site that could answer the questions of its time and that, at the same time, was socially very legitimized. If you close a neighborhood library tomorrow, the neighbors will go out to cut the street. On the other hand, if you close a museum and the neighbors do not go out, it is synonymous with something wrong. The museum has to occupy a place in society like the one now occupied by other public services. If not, we run the risk of ending up becoming a warehouse that stores very beautiful things.
“Museums run the risk of ending up becoming a warehouse that stores very beautiful things”
What role does the administration and governments play?
Do they believe it or not? What we cannot do is say that culture is essential and allocate very little budget… If culture plays an empowering role for people, we must invest in cultural creation. What the administration has to do is work so that the whole of society has access to it. The administration, at the moment, is very incoherent with the symbolic importance that it gives in relation to the real importance it gives it in terms of resources.
“The administration, at the moment, is very incoherent with the culture”
What is the solution to this matter?
Depends on the country. If you go to France, you will see that culture is paramount. I give you a very materialistic example, any payment made in France to a cultural institution deducts from 60% to 90%. In Spain it is 10%. The culture of philanthropy and patronage are not encouraged. In Denmark, at the Louisiana Museum you will see that the entire city participates in the museum.
When you arrive in Copenhagen, the first thing the residents of the area will do is tell you: “Have you seen my museum? Come that I show you my museum, because I am proud of my museum”. These links are created through years and work. To put cultural institutions at the center and provide them with resources to become sites of excellence.
Is it a grant issue?
The idea of cultural subsidy is very perverse. The orange, the pear or the manufacture of cars have more subsidy than culture. The problem is that culture does not make money. But it does produce social wealth. Empowered and discerning people. You have to believe in the culture and protect it. Not to subsidize it, but to give it the means so that it can grow.
Do you think young people go to museums less than before?
Before they went little and now they go less. It’s the museums fault. We need to speak out and spark debate on issues that are relevant today. Young people will be in the museum if the topics that museums are talking about are interesting to them. What we cannot ask of them is that they be interested in an irrelevant subject of the eleventh century. It is not true that young people are not interested in anything. They are interested in millions of things! What they are not interested in is being taught lessons from a kind of academic pulpit.
Is there a relationship between art and wine?
A lot. Wine is an expression of human creation. It has an extraordinary and uncontrollable creation process… Like art! It is closely associated with the cultural fact. In the Mediterranean, for example, without wine there are many things that you could not explain. It is a defining part of us and our landscape. I see it very linked.
What is the best time to have a glass of wine?
I would tell you many. I’d tell you before dinner.
A song to taste wine?
I used to come in the car listening to Leonard Cohen Closing time. Perfect!
A spot where you would get lost?
In what would you reincarnate?
In a tiger. I am fascinated by tigers
What do you like to do in your free time?
I have very little. Reading, cooking, walking… I am very multitasking and I am interested in almost everything. What I don’t have is free time.
A defect and a virtue?
Many defects. I am very impatient and messy. As a virtue, I am very stubborn. I hardly ever get discouraged.
As a child, what did you want to be?
As a child I wanted to remain small. I am very sure. I had never thought about it, but I’m sure.
And when you grow up?
I have a son who as a child said he wanted to be retired. Now, the feeling I have is that what I would like is to be with my glass of wine, a good book and under the shade of a fig tree. I want to be that. I don’t know if retired or decompressed.