By Matías Helbig, corresponsal en Europa

People carry boxes in and out of the space. The white walls are empty. The only thing that catches the eye is a kind of monolith in the centre of the gallery. Above it is a catalogue by Hreinn Fridfinnsson (Iceland, 1943). Elba Benítez, director of the gallery of the same name, tells me that after the exhibition of Ernesto Neto (Rio de Janeiro, 1964)  o segredo e o encontro they are opening, on Saturday (27/02), One Thing and Another, and Then Some More, a solo exhibition by the Icelandic artist. The exhibition is currently being assembled 

Galería Elba Benítez was founded in 1990. Located on the ground floor of a 19th century building the space is already an emblem of the Madrid art circuit. On the way to its 31st anniversary it is one of the must-see venues for contemporary art collectors. An illustrative example of this is the recent acquisition of one of Neto's artworks by the collector and gallery owner Helga de Alvear, who has just inaugurated a contemporary art museum in the city of Cáceres. "Helga de Alvear is an exception in this country: she is a true patron and collector," says Elba Benítez. "In a healthy market we should have this kind of people who love art, who can acquire it and who have good choices." 

Elba Benítez. Ph: Juan Daniel Caro, cortesía de la galería.

Likewise, the gallery run by Elba Benítez has enjoyed a lot of visibility for two of its artists whose work has been highlighted in 2019 and 2020. On the one hand, the recent mention of Ignasi Aballí (Barcelona, 1958) as the selected artist for the MAS/ Meadows Arco Artist Spotlight programme, as well as being the artist who will represent Spain at the 59th Venice Biennale. On the other hand, Carlos Bunga (Oporto, 1976), an artist that the gallery has been accompanying since his first international appearance at Manifesta 2004 and whose artwork has long been circulating in worldwide institutions, most recently, in the Whitechapell in London, where he exhibited in 2020, or at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt and at the Reina Sofía Museum, where he has exhibitions programmed for next year, has attracted the attention of the gallery.

"The case of these two artists," explains Benítez, "represents a way of working". Both Bunga's and Aballí's work, as well as that of some other artists represented by Galería Elba Benítez, are inscribed in a language that often requires an intellectual approach on the part of the public, says the gallery owner, and whose presence on the market is directly linked to a process of training and informing the public and the subsequent legitimisation of the large institutions. This work is the responsibility of the gallery in collaboration with the artist.

However, with the pandemic context in between, the ways in which galleries operate are not the same as in 2019. Like any critical moment, both risks and opportunities present themselves in the industry.


. Which ways of working have ceased to exist, and which have emerged?

The fact that there were no face-to-face artfairs has had an influence. Especially last year. In the particular case of Spain, the pandemic began days after ARCOmadrid. Our experience was that many of the private collectors panicked and the market contracted. As a consequence, many projects and sales made, even invoiced, were frozen. Many others were cancelled.

In return we had the support of the institutions. In 2020, much of our income has come from the public administration. Reina Sofía Museum, the Community of Madrid, the Botín Centre, the MACBA and the Ministry of Culture have all made contributions to different agents of the Spanish cultural offer. It didn't get us out of the impact of the pandemic, but it helped a lot. The private market was frozen.

. Has it been reactivated this year?

We are making sales again. Mainly artworks that we had begun to negotiate at ARCO with collectors who had shown interest and with whom we had conversations throughout the lockdown. These are very long processes, but they are the ones that are now allowing us to move forward.

. Does the collecting that is beginning to reactivate correspond to the local or international market?

It is not Spanish. Sales in Spain or to Spaniards have not been significant…

. Is that a trend?

I prefer not to generalise. I speak on behalf of our gallery: with a few exceptions, they are foreigners living in Spain or directly foreigners. Spanish buyers are timidly starting to wake up. Modest acquisitions, which are always welcome. 

Latin American collecting has indeed vanished, that is a novelty. The Latin American market was an important part of the gallery, both in the art fairs as in our direct relations. But it has fallen off a lot, it doesn't get going.



As the director explains, most of these clients are the result of the gallery's direct work. "Our sales are not due to participation in online fairs. We have participated in a few of them, but with no interesting results," she says. In an industry that, since the beginning of the century, has focused on fairs as the preferred place for sales, the adaptation towards digital platforms has been beneficial for some, but not so much for others; and, in spite of this, Elba Benítez assures that "you can't just disappear from the scene. From the gallery we are participating in online platforms at least as a tool for visibility, you have to be in the most important ones". And she adds: "Even so, I don't see online fairs as an alternative for the future.”


. Which ones are? How do you think the market will develop from now on?

Digital has arrived and it will stay. But it has to be seen as just another tool, as complementary thing. There has always been, especially when the artist was unknown, a moment when the collector needed to confront the artwork personally. I think that this will continue to be the case. Let's take museums for example, I don't think they will start buying online. They are institutions that have a great social commitment and that use public money.

In the case of art fairs, I don't think they will have the importance they had from the 2000s onwards. For me, the pandemic has made me think seriously about our participation in fairs. And we've greatly reduced our presence: we've learned to select where we want to be, and then work from the gallery with the very tools that the space and the dialogue with artists and collectors offers us. Doing eight or nine fairs a year, as we did before... It's true that fairs give us a lot of visibility, but they also imply a lot of economic effort.

. What kind of projects and initiatives does this rethinking of the way of working involve?

In our specific case, we have always given importance to productions outside the gallery space. The gallery's own programme reflects this in the exhibitions and in its links with artists whose work has architecture as a reference. The direction we have to take, I'm convinced, is that: when the circumstances arise, or as long as they can be generated, to take on projects in public spaces. Now we have more time again. In the beginnings of the gallery, this type of project was fundamental. And they have to continue to be so, because the gallery space is not the only space where artists can be given opportunities for exhibition and production. These projects that were done from the gallery were abandoned because we were out of Spain all day and at fairs, opening there and here, how can you have the head and the time to think?

So that's the new step. To select few fairs and reorient ourselves to a fundamental mission of the gallery: study, research and specific projects for the artists. We are working on it.


Elba Benítez gives as an example the editorial project Revisitar Canarias. In 2002 the gallery, in collaboration with the government of the Canary Islands, the gallery owner's place of origin, invited seven artists Augusto Alves da Silva, Miriam Bäckström, Oladélé Ajiboyé Bamgboyé, Olafur Eliasson, Craigie Horsfield, Miguel Rio Branco and Montserrat Soto. The aim of the project was to reflect on the identity and cultural particularities of the islands, to show their complexity and to break with the stereotypes that the tourism iconography imposed on the archipelago. "Twenty years later it turns out that the ICO Foundation is going to hold an exhibition of photographic projects in Spain," says Benítez. "The only one that exists in the Canary Islands is the one we did. And it is going to be exhibited.



Throughout its history, Galería Elba Benítez has been one of the most important galleries in terms of exhibiting Latin American artists in Spain. Among the artists represented by the space are Carlos Garaicoa (Havana, 1967), Vik Muniz (São Paulo, 1961), Ernesto Neto (Rio de Janeiro, 1964), Nicolás Paris (Bogotá, 1977) and Armando Andrade Tudela (Lima, 1975), among others.


. What is the gallery's vision and interest in Latin American art?

When I began to work with a focus on Latin American artists it was because I understood that in Spain there was not enough offer. I thought I could fill that gap within the framework Madrid’s scene. But I never wanted to categorise it as a group of 'Latin American artists'. They are artists whose work is postionated on an international level and that dialogues with other artworks made in other parts of the world. For the same reason I have never participated in art fairs that define themselves as 'Latin American Art Fairs', a vision that always seemed reductionist to me.

‘Latin American Art' came into its own as a label when its collectors from Latin America began to occupy North American and British museums board, mainly. And that's fantastic, I wish we had that kind of commitment in Spain. I wish we had patrons who supported Spanish art in that way. But at the gallery we conceive of artists as belonging to a specific period in the history of art, which is this one, and not under regional labels.

However, it is clear that the localty, that is to say, the place from which the artist draws his or her inspiration, is a primordial factor in understanding his or her artwork. Carlos Garaicoa and Cristina Iglesias, for example. Both work with architecture, but the source from which each one's work draws, their interests and concerns, end up shaping different oeuvres.

. Are there still market boundaries within these labels?

No, because those who have stood out have had a lot of visibility both in Spain and in Europe. And this is the great job that certain Latin American countries have done. Job that was also promoted by fairs such as ARCO, which has paid a lot of attention to Latin American art. Latin American collectors represent an important group for the fair.

. Finally, what is the gallery looking for when representing an artist?

Artists with interesting proposals and who speak a contemporary language. Often there is an attraction that is intuitive and that, with the passage of time, when you continue working, it consolidates. The fundamental thing is that they are artists with solid discourses, not that they are producers of objects... And that their discourse and their language is aligned with the times in which we live.