January 30, 2023

On the Departure of Manuel Borja-Villel as Director of the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía

Manuel Borja-Villel

A letter of support for Manuel Borja-Villel and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía has currently garnered over one thousand signatures, denouncing accusations in right-wing Spanish media about the politicization of the museum and administrative mismanagement, including irregularities in two of Borja-Villel’s previous contract extensions (in 2013 and 2018). The letter states: “The success and notoriety of the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in latter years has placed it in the midst of a hurried and manipulated ‘cultural war,’ surreptitiously unleashed by the outbreak of the extreme right in the Spanish political and media landscape … The extreme violence of the attacks perpetrated against Manuel Borja-Villel and those around him are proof that there is something more at stake than his tenure. These attacks are part of a defamatory campaign directed at the model the Museum represents.” Borja-Villel, who has served as the director for the last fifteen years, announced that he would not add his name to the list of candidates in the current public competition, which opens on February 1.


Founded in 1985, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia (MNCARS) has positioned itself over the last fifteen years as one of the most relevant and influential museum institutions worldwide with a marked identity that has been established by focusing on precise lines of work. During this time, the permanent collection has been reorganized in depth and was presented in an innovative and inclusive way in 2022 by means of a narrative of heritage that promotes historiographic reflection and is conducive of discussions on justice, correction, restitution, and understanding. Likewise, over two hundred temporary exhibitions have been programmed and produced along with a significant scheme of travelling exhibitions and coproductions with other museums. The Collection has been greatly expanded with numerous acquisitions, donations, and long-term loans, including the Archivo Lafuente. Thus, it has become an international reference in terms of museum repositories.

At the administrative level, a specific law governing the Museum was passed—an essential part of MNCARS management. Likewise, two foundations have been established: the Fundación de Amigos and the Fundación Museo Reina Sofía. Similarly, the Department of Public Activities, the Study Center, and the Museo Situado have been created and developed along with several other programming lines. Furthermore, the Museum’s publications, library, and documentation center—key tools for researchers and the general public—have been bolstered, while improvements have been made to the Museum website and its presence on social media. Additionally, relationships with Latin America, Africa, and Asia have been strengthened and have become a platform for the projection and dissemination of art and artists from abroad. In sum, having overcome the traditional institutional model centered on the custody and preservation of art, the MNCARS exemplifies the consolidation of the social dimension of the museum, becoming a true multidisciplinary forum for experimentation, knowledge generation, and public debate.

The milestones reached in past years are a product of a transformative model executed by a team led by Manuel Borja-Villel who have understood the needs of contemporary society and have allowed for the redefinition of the museum institution and the reformulation of its relationship with the many different audiences that exist today. This model has generated a new narrative of art history that questions established hegemonies, and has opened a new cartography for artistic production and its dissemination. It has achieved a radical and complete connection between avant-garde art and popular culture, one in which a new form of social education in tune with artistic practice is supported by a significant increase in visitors, to the point of becoming one of the world’s ten most visited museums.

Precisely—and paradoxically—the success and notoriety of the MNCARS in latter years has placed it in the midst of a hurried and manipulated “cultural war,” surreptitiously unleashed by the outbreak of the extreme right in the Spanish political and media landscape. This has turned the institution’s director and the institution itself into the prize and bounty of this political marketing conflict that is being played out in the media. The extreme violence of the attacks perpetrated against Manuel Borja-Villel and those around him are proof that there is something more at stake than his tenure. These attacks are part of a defamatory campaign directed at the model the Museum represents—a campaign that began long before the process of electing a new director was initiated. The aggression mainly originates from reactionary media outlets and their contexts—as well as from professionals in the art world—and follows a consistent pattern of disseminating flagrant and unfounded lies with the assurance that, despite any rebuttals, the damage will have already been done. It is crucial to respond to these attacks with resolve and clarity.

The assault being perpetrated against one of the most solid, edifying, innovative, and acclaimed cultural proposals in recent years is not backed by arguments and does not account for the institutional design that would have to be implemented. These stale calls to “order” have decimated public debate on important matters relative to the museum model that we hope to achieve when a given period is over and the ways in which we face the institution’s present and future. Likewise, no consideration is being placed on what should be expected from future candidate proposals and designs for institutional management once the call for tender is open. The bar has been set very high, but we are treading on muddy grounds.

It is important to remember that the success of the MNCARS has been achieved through arduous daily collective work, the creation of a marked and transformative institutional identity, and a definitive process of heritage construction that we are not willing to renounce. During this time when we are bidding Director Manuel Borja-Villel farewell, we come together in gratitude for the important task he has developed and appreciate his dedication and efforts toward improving our public cultural heritage. Above all else, we want to highlight his ethical commitment and honesty throughout. We are grateful for the mark he has left beyond the space of art. We must note the notorious and unusual recognition of his work by part of collectives and neighbors who live and carry out their activities near the MNCARS as well as numerous recognized professionals from other fields. A fact that strikingly contrasts with the slander being spread—not only as a result of ideological differences, but also out of envy brought about by personal aspirations. It is paramount that we defend the institution’s stability and help to further develop the legacy that is being handed down by continuing to enrich our public heritage and take care of the Museum. It is the community’s job to confront the blunt attacks that have taken place in order to safeguard the continuity of the work that has been carried out and its future development.

1. Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Professor, Harvard University
2. Bernard Blistène, Honorary director of Musée national d’art moderne, Centre Pompidou
3. Ute Meta Bauer, Professor and Founding Director, NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore
4. Yve-Alain Bois. Professor emeritus, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton University
5. Rosalind Krauss, Professor, Columbia University
6. María Willis, Directora Artes, Museos de Arte Banco de la Republica, Bogotá
7. Adam Szymczyk, curator, Zurich. Former artistic director of documenta 14, Athens and Kassel
8. Frances Morris, Director, Tate Modern, London
9. Hal Foster, Professor of Art History, Princeton
10. Vicente Todoli, director artístico, Pirelli Hangar Bicocca
11. Hans D. Christ, director, WKV, Stuttgart
12. Iris Dressler, directora, WKV, Stuttgart
13. Denise Ferreira da Silva, Professor, Vancouver, New York, and Paris
14. Rogelio López Cuenca, artista, Málaga
15. Imma Prieto, directora, Museo Es Baluard Art Contemporani, Palma de Mallorca
16. Daniel García Andújar, artista, Barcelona
17. Elvira Dyangani Ose, directora, MACBA, Barcelona
18. Jean-François Chevrier, art historian, curator, professor emeritus/Ecole nationale supérieure des beaux-arts de Paris
19. Jochen Volz, diretor geral, Pinacoteca de São Paulo
20. Dirk Snauwaert, director, WIELS Brussels

For the complete list of signatories, see the online letter.

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