João Carvalho Dias
Deputy Director, Calouste Gulbenkian Museum
The oil tycoon Calouste Gulbenkian (1869-1955) was a British businessman, philanthropist, and art collector of Armenian origin. He lived in a number of cities including Constantinople, London, Paris, and Lisbon, dictated by the unrest in the world at the time.
In 1953, Gulbenkian decided, that his art collection should be kept together after his death, as a foundation and curated and exhibited in Lisbon. Since 1969 it has been housed in a museum designed by Ruy Jervis d’Athoguia, Pedro Cid en Alberto Pessoa in the Parque de Santa Gertrudes, which was designed to complement the building and offers a beautiful natural background with its flora, fauna, and sculptures.
Gulbenkian was involved in the oil business in Baku, Turkey, Cairo, London and Panama and he played an important role in the founding of many companies, such as Royal Dutch Shell, the Turkish Petroleum Company and the Partex Gas and Oil Cooperation. There he was known as Mr 5%, always insisting on taking that percentage from his dealings. Whilst traveling he amassed a huge collection of art totaling 6440 pieces, buying ‘only the best’, from antiquity to the 20th Century. It comprises a large collection from Armenia, together with ancient Egyptian, Greco-Roman, Mesopotamian and Persian pieces. Additionally, he assembled European art from the 15th-19th Century, among which is the famous ‘bubble-blowing boy’ from Manet. His good friend, Sir Kenneth Clark, the then director of the National Gallery, often advised him on these purchases. Gulbenkian crammed a huge number of pieces into his large Paris four-story mansion at the Avenue d’Ièna. He was also a very generous lender from his collection and gave many pieces away to important museums around the world.
After his death, besides the construction of the museum in Lisbon, various activities in the visual arts were set up, awarding scholarships and new acquisitions. The new additions to the collection of existing contemporary Portugese art, as well as donations and purchases (today some 10.500 pieces), required a new museum. This was built in the park and opened in 1983 and named José de Azeredo Perdigão Modern Art Centre, as a homage to Gulbenkian’s trusted lawyer and the first president of the Foundation who undertook the comprehensive work of realization of Gulbenkian’s will. The C.A.M. has the largest collection of twentieth and twenty-first-century Portuguese art, a British Art collection, (including a large collection of (fragile) films, photographs, and drawings) and a group of Armenian works of art.
The two independent satellites in London and Paris currently maintain active programs with exhibitions, theatre, film, and lectures.
An interview with João Carvalho Dias