Saturday, May 24, 2008

Fernando Botero's $200 Million Donation To The People Of Medellin

Fernando Botero Sculpture In Plaza Botero in Medellín.

For famed artist Botero, there's joy in giving.

Giving is better than receiving for Colombian artist Fernando Botero, who has forged a philanthropic legacy to rival his status as Latin America's best-known living artist.

Colombian artist Fernando Botero is renowned for rendering rotund figures in his paintings and monumental bronze sculptures. He is lesser known as a guardian of the aged and the hungry, and a benefactor to museums in Colombia, Venezuela and the United States.

Botero's philanthropy, in fact, was often low-profile -- until spring 2000, when the artist donated his personal collection of paintings and sculptures valued as high as $200 million to museums in his hometown of Medellín and the Colombian capital, Bogotá.

In March, the breadth of Botero's beneficence was detailed by the artist's son, Miami resident Juan Carlos Botero, in an address at the PODER Magazine Philanthropy Forum.

From his first donation of 16 oil paintings to the Museum of Antioquia in Medellín in 1976, to his gift of monumental sculptures to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Caracas, Venezuela, in 1985, to his funding of kitchens to feed the hungry and nursing homes to care for the aged, Botero has cut a philanthropic legacy to rival his status as Latin America's best-known living artist.

Speaking in Spanish by phone from his home on the Greek island of Evia, Botero -- whose monumental sculptures are on exhibit at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden through next Saturday -- shared his thoughts on philanthropy, art, and the way he wants to be remembered.

Q: Why do you give?

A: My pleasure, I've found, is to help as much as I can . . . especially my country.

It was not my idea to publicize these things, but I realized that if you don't publicize this, then you don't give somebody the idea to do the same. By participating in the PODER forum, Juan Carlos planted the idea in people's minds to help others. . . . I've been involved for a number of years.

The first thing I did [philanthropically] was because my little son died and I wanted to do something to honor his memory.

When Pedrito died [in 1974], I donated 10 or 12 paintings, and I created a room in the museum in Medellín. And that was very rewarding. Many people now remember Pedrito because they saw this room. That was the beginning of my interest in helping and doing things.

I felt very good to see that people were enjoying this, were remembering Pedrito, and I realized that I got a lot of pleasure by giving, more than receiving.

As a matter of fact, I feel kind of uncomfortable when somebody gives me something. I don't need anything. But when I give, it's pure giving and that gives me pleasure.

Q: The world knows your art. But few know about your philanthropy. Which is more important to you?

A: The truth is that my time is 99 percent dedicated to my work. And I should say that these other things that I do, I do with a minimum of time on my part. That's to say, for example, I created a retirement home [in Colombia], very big, for 300 people. What I did was I told my brother, 'You look for the place.' . . . He put himself in charge of looking for all this. I gave the money to buy the site, construct the building. Then he found a religious order that took charge of all that is in this retirement home.

Time is what I don't have a lot to give. I'm terribly busy, and my time is very precious to me. I don't even have a secretary or even an assistant. . . . I know how to do [philanthropy] without it taking a lot of my time.

For example, somebody told me that there's an institution in Colombia called Nutril that feeds poor children. I saw in the newspaper that some children had died of hunger in Chocó, the poorest part of Colombia. I got in touch with Nutril. These people need only money. I told them, `There's a grave need in Chocó. Open some restaurants for children, and obviously, I'll pay for everything.'

Since they're very good people and were enthused by the idea, then I, with a single telephone call, did something that can help a lot of people. There are 200 children who now eat every day, twice a day. All I had to do was tell the bank to send so much money to Nutril, and they send me a report card of what it costs and pictures of the children.

My work takes so much time, and I'm 76 years old. I can't dedicate myself to anything else. So these things that I do I think look like they take an enormous effort, but they don't.

I gave away my art collection. I paid a company to pick up the pieces in France, Switzerland, New York and send them to Colombia. First I spoke with the Banco de la República . . . to give them my ideas of how I wanted the museum to be, to be restored like a contemporary art museum.

Then I sent all the works. . . . If you look at the result, it's so enormous that one would imagine you spent two or three years on that. But in reality, it was just making a decision.

One day, I was in Mexico, and I thought, `Why don't I give this collection to Colombia? There is no great museum there where people can go see the masterworks.'

I spoke to a friend, asked her how I could do this in reality. She said she would speak to a friend who is president of the bank and tell them your idea. The bank president got in touch with him, and they toured buildings in Bogotá until we found a building that was palatial. I accepted. We spoke to architects. It's tremendously satisfying, but it's all about making the decision. Don't spend all day thinking about it. Just do it.

Q: Why give away your most precious possessions, like your art collection?

A: You can't keep everything for yourself. If you're fortunate enough to make a lot of money, you need to share with others who aren't as lucky. It's OK to help people who have nothing. There are people who with nothing are happy. . . . I see people with grave problems and all they need is $10,000 to take care of it. I give them the $10,000 and their problems are gone. It's fantastic.

When someone has the good luck of making money and they can help people solve problems that seem like mountains with a small effort, that's marvelous.

I feel a great pleasure doing that. . . . With such little effort, you can do a lot. Obviously, the truth is, generosity is when someone gives what they most want. . . . My collection was something I cared about a lot. But at the same time, I feel great pleasure knowing that all these people can see these paintings and at the same time help my country.

I used to wake up every morning and see a Monet by my bed. That gave me great pleasure. But now it is seen by so many people, so many poor people, 1,000 of them a day. It's one pleasure for another.

Q: What keeps you painting every day?

A: Painting is a habit, a passion. I've been a professional artist since I was 17 years old. I've made my life as a painter. I do it first and foremost for pleasure. When I started painting, part of my interest was to make a living as an artist because I had to pay the rent. I didn't come from a family with money.

First you make your living, but now that I don't need it, it's the passion that drives me. Since I see it from the point of view of admiration that I have for the great masters and the history of art, it's something that doesn't have an end to what you can learn about art. Every day, you can learn a little. And that desire to learn more keeps you involved with painting. It's a curiosity to see what you can accomplish.

When I go to the studio in the mornings, I don't know what I'm going to do. I have an idea. But doing it, seeing it in front of me, I see something that I didn't see before. That curiosity to see what you can create is wonderful.

Q: How do you want to be remembered?

A: Obviously, I want people to remember me as a painter and sculptor. Of course, I want my works to endure, that they be appreciated tomorrow and beyond. That's a desire for every artist. And well, yes, that's a natural desire.

Q: Do you want to be remembered as a philanthropist?

A: No, not really as a philanthropist. My interest most of all is in my work.

I should say I'm publicizing this because if you don't tell the story, nobody will tell it. Otherwise, it's easy to be generous. People think being generous is difficult. But it's not. It's about making decisions and making a phone call. You can do so much just by making a decision and picking up the phone. Two phone calls can accomplish a lot of good if I really want to help.

Philanthropy is part of my life today, but my interest is that my works as a painter and sculptor endure beyond my lifetime.

Q: Where did you learn the tradition of giving? Isn't philanthropy uncommon in Latin America?

A: It doesn't exist. Very few people give in Latin America. The country is there to help the person but not for the person to help their country. . . . I don't know if I learned it. I've lived outside Colombia for 50 years. . . . So I have an idea of life that's a bit different than the person who has lived there all his life.

People want to see their dreams realized. They want to see their country have things, and to help its poorest people.

Throughout all the United States, where there is a lot of philanthropy, I guess I learned it here. I don't know. There's no tax deduction. I don't do it for that. I do it because it gives me pleasure. You just tell them what to do. That's an idea of power. I imagine that politicians have it.

Another part of the pleasure of giving is that you can execute your desires. That's important. It's power in a certain way.


The History of Fernando Botero. (Spanish)

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