The Inhotim Institute is one of the biggest open-air art museums in the world. Home to an enormous botanical garden and an equally big contemporary art collection, it is one of the most surprising institutes of contemporary art. Its location in the middle of the Atlantic Forest in Minas Gerais in South-Eastern Brazil and the scandals surrounding its founder make it one of the most fascinating contemporary art spaces. Here are 6 facts about Inhotim that have surprised the global contemporary art scene.
1. The Inhotim Institute was Named After an English Engineer
The name Inhotim may sound unusual, but it is actually derived from a very common English name: Mr. Tim. In the 20th century, the name belonged to Mr. Tim, an English engineer, and agriculturalist. He was the owner of the largest farm in the area of Brumadinho in Minas Gerais. Today, the farm is even larger and forms the basis of the Inhotim Institute’s garden and galleries. In the local dialect of Minas Gerais, he was addressed as Nhô. Even after Tim, the farm kept the name Nhô Tim, which is pronounced inhotim. When the time came to give it a name, the institute’s founder Bernardo Paz chose to keep the one that was already in use.
2. It’s One of the Biggest Open-Air Art Museums
The Inhotim Institute spans over 345 acres that are open to the public. Here you will find its art pavilions, site-specific works of contemporary art, galleries, a botanical garden, and a preservation area. In terms of contemporary art, its closest comparisons are Storm King Art Center in the United States and Yorkshire Sculpture Park in the United Kingdom, both measuring slightly more than 500 acres but with far fewer artworks on display.
The 23 art pavilions and galleries of Inhotim are home to a collection of over 1,300 works of contemporary artworks made by over a hundred artists from 30 different countries. For a contemporary art museum that displays its work amongst the tropical forest that’s very impressive. Some pieces are displayed in specific pavilions while others are scattered around the grounds. About 500 more are on display in the permanent collection gallery.
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The works range across a wide variety of media, from paintings, sculptures, and drawings to audio and video pieces or installation and participatory works. The displayed artists include some of the most famous contemporary artists such as Yayoi Kusama, Hélio Oiticica, Dan Graham, Doris Salcedo, Olafur Eliasson, Robert Irwin, Lygia Pape, Neville d’Almeida, William Kentridge, Matthew Barney, Tunga, Doug Aitken, Chris Burden, David Lamelas, Thomas Hirschhorn, and Caroll Dunham.
The Inhotim is just as impressive in its number of visitors. Despite its remote location in the Atlantic Forest, it has surpassed 3 million visitors since its opening in 2006. On the grounds, you’ll find restaurants and cafés accessible via electric golf carts or by foot. One luxury hotel is built inside the art park, and several more are in the works. No wonder Inhotim is often referred to as Disneyland for contemporary art lovers.
3. The Founder First Collected Modern Art
When the founder of Inhotim Bernardo Paz began collecting art in the 1980s, he was buying modernist and early 20th-century works. This changed in 1998, when Paz invited Tunga, one of the most famous Brazilian artists, to Inhotim to see his collection. I was surprised to find he owned mostly Brazilian Modernist art: classic, conservative pieces from the ’20s and ’50s, Tunga said in an interview. As an artist concerned with building an image of Brazilian contemporary art that speaks to tropicality and modernity, he was of course concerned, but he also saw the potential of Inhotim. Tunga started talking to Paz about the importance of contemporary art.
As a result, Paz sold off his whole collection and started afresh, this time focusing only on contemporary art. His first purchase was a work by Tunga called True Rouge (1997). That’s also when it was decided that the piece would be best placed in a pavilion in the landscaped garden. This paved the way for the Inhotim method of exhibiting art. The pavilions were dispersed throughout the garden. They were designed by architect studios such as Arquitetos Associados, Rordigo Cervifio Lopez/Tacoa Arquitetos, and Rizoma. Out of the 23 in total, 19 hold site-specific works and 4 are home to temporary exhibitions. This gave contemporary artists the space to create gigantic, nature-based pieces in the midst of a tropical forest.
An example is the geodesic dome pavilion designed by Paula Zasnicoff Cardoso of Arquitetos Associados. Located in a eucalyptus forest, it is home to Matthew Barney’s 2009 installation From Mud, a Blade. The work is made up of a vehicle that is uprooting a tree. Another is Yayoi Kusama‘s pavilion showcasing a gigantic 2009 version of Narcissus Garden, the performance piece that the Japanese artist crashed the Venice Biennale with back in 1966.
4. Its Botanical Garden Has More Than 4300 Botanic Species
Bernardo Paz first bought the land around his farmhouse in response to developers threatening to destroy the natural landscape. Having bought 3,000 acres of land around the Inhotim farmhouse, he asked his friend Roberto Bucle Marx to help him design the landscape. Marx is also one of the most iconic Brazilian landscape architects of all time and the designer of the Copacabana boardwalk in Rio de Janeiro.
Paz tried to make the most of the rich biomes of the Atlantic Forest and the tropical Cerrado savanna. Today, there are more than 4,300 rare botanic species here. There are 1,300 types of palm trees and over 400 species of the rare Philodendron, Anthurium, and Calla Lily. In total, it represents over 28% of all botanical families known to humankind. One of its most unique species is the Carrion Flower, the biggest flower in the world known for giving off the stench of a corpse when it blooms. Native to Asia, it is the only known variety in Latin America and has only bloomed twice, once in 2010 and once in 2012.
5. It was founded by one of Latin America’s Richest People
Before becoming an art collector, Bernardo Paz became one of the richest men in South America thanks to his unique enthusiasm and entrepreneurship. Paz was born in a middle-class family in Belo Horizonte in the province of Minas Gerais, 40 miles from what would become Inhotim Institute. When he was a teenager, he dropped out of school and became a shop assistant to a stockbroker. In 1973, he joined a failing iron ore mine. He turned the business around by reforming the working conditions. As he reduced the number of work hours and hired a doctor, a dentist, a nutritionist, and several chefs, he saw his workers’ productivity triple.
While this first iron ore mine made Paz wealthy, the necessary funds for starting something like the Inhotim Institute came in the 1980s when the company was failing due to extreme economic inflation. By this time, he was in charge of the Iltaminas mining group and as its CEO traveled to China at a time when the country had just opened for business. Responding to China’s need for raw materials, Paz refocused his company on providing iron ore rather than working iron and became incredibly wealthy.
Paz began collecting art not long after, but it was after suffering a stroke in 1995 that he decided to cease company management, settle in Inhotim and focus solely on contemporary art. When his collection of art became too big, he recruited Allan Schwartzman, one of the first curators of the New Museum in New York. With Schwartzman’s help and a cohort of 6 international curators, Paz began to create the contemporary art playground of Inhotim. In 2002, the institute was established and by 2006 it opened its doors to the public. When the Inhotim became a foundation in 2008, Paz continued to sit on the board of directors and live on its grounds. He did so until 2018 following accusations of fraud that led him to distance himself from the foundation.
6. The Inhotim Institute Has Faced Scrutiny
In recent years, the Inhotim Institute has faced increasing scrutiny both artistically and financially despite its place as a world wonder of contemporary art. In a series of dramatic trials in 2017, Paz was convicted for using the institute for money laundering and sentenced to 9 years in jail. The allegations considered $98.5 million raised in donations for the Inhotim Institute but used in part for his ltaminas mining group.
Paz’s resulting debt of $150 million to the state of Minas Gerais was, at first, meant to be paid off by artworks on the grounds of Inhotim that are in his private possession, an agreement later deemed illegal as the artworks simply couldn’t be moved. In the end, Paz left the museum board in 2018 while watching the numbers of visitors decrease in response to the scandal. Two years later he was acquitted of any wrongdoing.
The Inhotim has also recently fallen under scrutiny for becoming the host of a temporary Black Art Museum co-created with the Institute for Afro-Brazilian Research and Studies (IPEAFRO). The first of two exhibitions during the four years collaboration titled Quilombo: life, problems and aspirations of the black, opened in November 2022 and was met with mixed feelings by Afro-Brazilian artists.
While some, like Paz’s old friend Tunga, worked closely with the project, others were extremely critical. That included the Brazilian artist Maxwell Alexandre who fought the decision to include his 2021 series Novo Poder (New Power) that is in the Inhotim collection as a centerpiece in the show. Alexandre asked his work to be removed in what turned into a social media scandal, by writing My work and my concept were used without my consent as a central part of the exhibition Quilombo. In December, his work was taken down but the exhibition, running until July 2023, as well as the Inhotim Institute in general continues to be under scrutiny.