CARACAS, Venezuela — In a decaying housing complex filled with garbage-strewn hallways, shuttered shops and barren gardens lies one of Latin America’s greatest art treasures.
The vaults above inundated basements contain the region’s largest public collection of Pablo Picasso’s works, as well as hundreds of millions of dollars worth of paintings and drawings by masters such as Joan Miró, Marc Chagall and Lucian Freud.
Nearby, 700 sculptures by iconic artists, including Salvador Dalí and Fernando Botero, are crammed in a large room to protect them against encroaching humidity.
This is Venezuela’s Caracas Museum of Modern Art, or MACC, once a regional reference for cultural education, that has fallen victim to economic collapse and authoritarianism.
Buoyed by Venezuelan oil wealth, the museum hosted exhibitions by internationally renowned artists, bought masterpieces and fostered groundbreaking local artists, projecting an image of a confident nation speeding toward modernity and prosperity. Now, the museum’s underpaid workers and cultural officials are working to preserve and exhibit the collection after years of deterioration, technical closures and official indifference.
The museum’s decline illustrates the long-lasting effect of political polarization on national culture. A “cultural revolution” launched by Venezuela’s Socialist Government in 2001 turned every institution into a political battleground and divided citizens along ideological lines, tearing apart the shared cultural heritage over the last two decades.
“The culture, like everything else, became divided,” said Álvaro González, a Venezuelan art conservation expert working in the museum. “We have lost the moorings of who we are as a nation.”
Thanks to the work of Mr. González’s team and the Culture Ministry, as well as pressure from Venezuela’s civil society and local media, the museum partially reopened in February to the public after a two-year closure, reflecting the country’s recent modest, uneven economic recovery.
Workers have repainted five of the museum’s showrooms, sealed the leaking ceiling and replaced burned light bulbs with modern fixtures. Museum officials says repairs are underway in the remaining eight rooms.
The renovated space showcases 86 selected masterpieces from the museum’s 4,500 collected works. A visit by The New York Times to the main storage vault in February found the museum’s most important works in apparently good condition.
Some officials believe MACC’s partial reopening will presage a wider recovery of the art scene, as the authoritarian government of President Nicolás Maduro abandons radical socialist economic and social policies in favor of a more moderate approach designed to attract private investment.
“The collection of our museums is the heritage of all of Venezuelan people, and that’s why it’s so important that the spaces are in optimal condition for its preservation,” said Clemente Martínez, president of the National Museums Foundation, which oversees Venezuela’s public museums.
However, several prominent Venezuelan art experts say the museum’s partial renovation masks deeper problems that continue to threaten its collection. They warn that the museum will not recover without major new investments and a profound change in how the Venezuelan state views culture.
Most of the museum remains shut. The experienced technical staff is mostly gone, having fallen victim to the political purges of the former Socialist leader, Hugo Chávez, or having escaped the economic downfall under his successor, Mr. Maduro.
Years of hyperinflation gutted the institution’s budgets, forcing most of the staff to emigrate or move to the private sector, which pays in U.S. dollars. Top MACC officials last year earned an equivalent of $12 a month and the museum received a daily budget of $1.50 to maintain its 100,000 square feet of facilities, according to a former employee who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
The Ministry of Culture and MACC’s director, Robert Cárdenas, both declined to comment.
“People can’t work indefinitely just for the love of art,” said María Rengifo, a former director of Venezuela’s Fine Arts Museum, MACC’s sister institution. “It’s very hard seeing everyone who had dedicated their lives to the museums leave.”
The economic hardships have pushed some employees to theft.
In November 2020, Venezuelan police officials detained MACC’s head of security and a curator for participating in the theft of two works by the renowned Venezuelan artists Gertrud Goldschmidt and Carlos Cruz-Diez from the vaults.
Art experts say the collection will remain at risk until the state starts paying living wages, installs basic security systems and buys an insurance policy.
The museum’s main works were worth a combined $61 million in 1991, the last time it carried out an evaluation. Today, art dealers say parts of its collection, such as the 190 paintings and engravings by Picasso and 29 paintings by Miró, are worth around 30 times more, putting the combined value at hundreds of millions of dollars and making it a target for crime.
The economic crisis has also devastated the museum’s building, which forms part of a social housing project called Central Park. Built during Venezuela’s oil boom in the early 1970s, Central Park adopted the slogan “a new way of living” to symbolize the country’s rapid modernization.
The 25-acre complex included schools, swimming pools, restaurants, office blocks, a metro station, a church and a theater, along with hundreds of luxury apartments in what were the tallest buildings in Latin America until 2003. Many of the apartments were offered to working-class residents under heavily subsidized mortgages.
Today, Central Park’s hallways and passages are spattered with garbage, leaking water, used condoms and the remains of dead animals. The once lush gardens are barren grounds punctuated with mosquito-riddled puddles. The underground parking has been abandoned to the rising groundwaters.
Central Park’s decline has affected the MACC, which relied on the complex’s central air conditioning and maintenance budget to protect its collection from humidity.
Yet, art experts believe the greatest blow to the museum came not from the economic downturn but the Socialist Party’s policies.
After winning the presidency in 1998, Mr. Chávez, a former paratrooper born into a poor provincial family, sought a radical break from the discredited traditional parties, who had alternated power since the 1950s.
Mirroring the slogans of his mentor, Fidel Castro, the Cuban leader, Mr. Chávez proclaimed a “cultural revolution,” seeking to elevate Venezuela’s traditional music, dance and painting styles at the expense of what he called the elitist culture of his predecessors.
One of his first targets was the MACC, which was founded and managed since its inception by the seminal Venezuelan art patron Sofía Ímber. To Mr. Chávez, Ms. Ímber represented everything that was wrong with the country: a member of a closed elite circle who had monopolized Venezuelan oil wealth.
Two years after taking power, Mr. Chávez fired Ms. Ímber from the MACC on live television.
It was the first time in 42 years that a Venezuelan president had intervened in the cultural centers, presaging Mr. Chávez’s wider dismantling of democratic institutions.
“The museum represented a vision of the country, a space where artistic excellence reinforced democracy and the free exchange of ideas,” said María Luz Cárdenas, who was the MACC’s chief curator under Ms. Ímber. “It clashed with Chávez’s government project.”
Mr. Chávez’s “cultural inclusion” policies ended abruptly after oil prices and the country’s economy collapsed soon after his death in 2013. His successor, Mr. Maduro showed little interest in high culture, focusing his shrinking economic resources on keeping power by force amid mass protests and American sanctions.
“When crude prices fell, the entire economic system that supported cultural policy had collapsed,” said Jacques Leenhardt, an art expert at the School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences in Paris. “The Maduro populist government, now penniless, did nothing to protect this cultural heritage.”
Mr. Maduro’s crisis management differed greatly from that of his allies, Cuba and Russia, who have largely shielded their artistic treasures during the worst years of their downturns.
Today, the neat premises of Havana’s Fine Arts Museum contrast with the MACC’s dilapidation. Havana itself has become an international art destination, as Cuba’s Communist government mounts exhibitions and festivals to earn hard currency and boost its reputation.
In contrast, Mr. Maduro never followed Cuba’s cultural example.
Yet, paradoxically, Venezuela’s economic collapse could now help revive the country’s cultural institutions, said Oscar Sotillo, who directed the MACC last year.
To survive the sanctions, Mr. Maduro has over the last two years quietly started courting private investors and returned some expropriated businesses to their previous owners.
The forced moderation is spreading into the art world. Adriana Meneses, the daughter of Ms. Ímber, said the government had recently contacted her about collecting financing support for cultural projects from Venezuela’s traditionally anti-government diaspora, a development that was unthinkable a few years ago.
The government also recently began repairing Caracas’s iconic Teresa Carreño Theater and the Central University of Venezuela, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Venezuela’s lauded state-run network of children’s orchestras is negotiating private sponsorships.
Caracas’s private galleries are booming, as oligarchs and Western-educated officials invest wealth in art, mimicking the lifestyles of Venezuela’s traditional moneyed elites.
“Art has this possibility to transcend politics,” Mr. Sotillo said. “And what is a country if not its culture? Heritage doesn’t have a price.”
Ed Augustin contributed reporting from Havana, and Robin Pogrebin from New York.