Modern Musings

A Local Museum Director Sets His Sights On The Catalan Capital
Ferran Barenblit returned to Barcelona from Madrid to become the director of the Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona, or MACBA.
Ferran Barenblit
Director, Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona

Like Antoni Gaudí’s unfinished Sagrada Familia, Ferran Barenblit believes Barcelona is a city that will never be complete. And that's a good thing.

"Barcelona is always reinventing itself. Nothing is ever 'set.' It is in a constant state of change," is how Barenblit, director of the Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA), describes it. "It is a city that feels the need to evolve."

Barenblit has experienced Barcelona through different stages of his own life. When he was a child, his parents moved there from Buenos Aires.

"Barcelona is always reinventing itself,” says Barenblit. “It’s a city in a constant state of change.” And that’s a good thing.
Evolving Sophistication
Art In A Complex World

The beginnings of Barenblit's own interests started when he was assisting a photographer taking pictures to be placed in artists' catalogues, but he's hard pressed to recall a precise "aha" moment that forged his path.

A series of career moves took him to New York then back to Barcelona, and then to Madrid as the first director of the Centro de Arte Dos de Mayo (CA2M) in 2008. When asked if he noticed changes when he returned from Madrid after seven years to join MACBA, he says: "As the rest of the world, Barcelona had become more complex, and somewhat sophisticated."

Barenblit joined a museum that is just over 20 years old.
What Is Art?
Breaking Expectations At MACBA

When Barenblit was appointed to the role of director at MACBA, he knew he was inheriting not only a museum, but one in a place where art is taken seriously. Quite surprisingly, before 1995 when MACBA opened its doors in the Raval district, the city had no central contemporary art museum to speak of. MACBA would become a one-stop shop for Spanish and international artists.

Barenblit understands the responsibility. "On one side, MACBA has to bring international art to the city–a role that it has played in a very intelligent way. On the other side, the museum must generate a context and a narrative to explain local art to both a local and global audience. Probably the most important thing we have to do is break people's expectations of what art should be."

Barenblit has hand-picked his team. One of those choices is Tanya Barson, formerly of London's Tate Modern, who was named MACBA's chief curator in 2016.
On A Mission
A Lesson In Contemporary Art

Historically, contemporary art has been approached by viewers with a sense of puzzlement, so what does he say to those who may find new work confusing? "My best hint would be: appreciate the complexity! There is nothing to understand. Who said that art needs to be 'understood'? Do we demand the same level of 'understanding' for other cultural–or even natural–productions? In contrast, there is a lot to enjoy!"

He relays an anecdote to prove the point. "I recently heard from one of Latin America’s most prominent art collectors: 'I only buy the works I do not understand. Those that are easy to understand just do not interest me.'"

Local Recommendations

Explore The City With Ferran Barenblit, Director Of Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona, MACBA

Seeing the world with an eye towards curiosity is essential for someone who deals in artistic expression, and Barenblit is more than happy to embrace the spirit of inquiry. He's lived in modern cities at the apex of artistic expression, and approached each as if they were a blank canvas. Here, he shares his top spots for visual and performing arts, off-the-radar cocktail bars, and the city's best bakeries.

For Art's Sake

Where Great Works Live

Of course, the museum director encourages a visit to MACBA, but visitors should be sure not to miss Barcelona's other visual art gems: The Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya (MNAC) (Palau Nacional, Parc de Montjuïc; +34-936-220-360) was built in 1929 for the International Exposition, the second World's Fair to be held in the city; its dome was inspired by St. Peter Basilica at the Vatican, and inside it houses the world's largest collection of Roman frescoes.
The Museu de Ciències Naturals de Barcelona (Parc del Fòrum, 4-5 Plaça Leonardo da Vinci; +34-932-566-002), Barcelona's natural history museum, boasts four million specimens; and one of Spain's most important artists, Antoni Tàpies, founded his eponymous foundation (255 Carrer d'Aragó; +34-934-870-315), inside a former publishing house to promote the study and appreciation of modern and contemporary art.

Cultural Heights

Live Performances Emerge From Unexpected Places

Theater flourishes in Barcelona, and in some very interesting halls. The Teatre Grec (Passeig de Santa Madrona; +34 933-161-000) located in a former quarry, opened for the 1929 World's Fair, and in the summer hosts Greek theater and music festivals. At Barcelona Teatre Musical (BTM) in the Ciutat del Teatre performing arts complex, (7 Carrer de la Guàrdia Urbana; +34-934-262-089) everything from comedy acts to Broadway-style musicals entertain inside Palau dels Esports arena, built for the 1955 Mediterranean Games, which was later converted into a proscenium theater in 2001. Mercat de les Flors (59 Carrer de Lleida; +34-932-562-600) presents a performance space for national and international contemporary dance inside a former flower market, hence the name. Take a gander at the great dome, which covers the entrance hall, and is the work of Mallorcan artist, Miquel Barcelo.

When it comes to music, Barenblit's taste is ultra-modern. He encourages like-minded travelers to time their visit to Barcelona to coincide with the electronic music festival, Sonar Barcelona. International in scope, it is where audiophiles come to discover the newest trends in dance and electronic music, with events spanning three days.

Cocktail Bars With Personality

Where The Drinks Pour, So Does History

Barcelona is known for some of the most stylish cocktail bars in the world. It isn't just the mixology that gets them noticed, but their delivery. Seek out a tiny rum bar tucked away in a narrow lane. Caribbean Club (5 Carrer de les Sitges; +34-933-022-182) is undiscoverable if you don't know where to look. Inside a 12th-century building, owner and bartender, Juan Jose Gonzalez Rubiera, is the congenial host who mixes the city's best mojito. In the same El Raval neighborhood is Boadas (1 Carrer dels Tallers; +34-933-189-592), which its owners have proclaimed the oldest cocktail bar in Barcelona. Founder Miguel Boadas learned the craft from a cousin who owned the still famous landmark El Floridita in Cuba. Open since 1933, its tuxedo-wearing bartenders conjure Boadas's special recipes—more than 300 of them—and they continue the tradition with a special of the day.

After work, one might find Barenblit at Negroni Cocktail Bar (46 Carrer de Joaquin Costa; +34-619-429-271), around the corner from the museum. It may have ultra-contemporary decor, but the service is classic Spain. Here, personal drink preferences are taken seriously. Mixologists start a conversation with their guests to assess each individuals' likes and dislikes, then come up with a tailor-made libation. Of course, as the name suggests, one of those may very well be the classic Italian Negroni, but rest assured, your barman will figure out how to make it special for you.

Bakery Bites

Breads And Pastries, Fresh From The Oven

In every neighborhood in the city, there's a bakery or pastry shop to love. Barenblit says some of the best are within walking distance of MACBA. Check out Forn Boix (23 Xucia; +34-933-022-782) for great homemade, rustic breads and baguettes, and lately, their gluten-free offerings. Pastisseria Escribà (83 La Rambla; +34-933-016-027), one of the oldest pastry shops in Barcelona, is a star for a few reasons; first, for its high-end pastries, and secondly, for owner Christian Escriba, who became a reality star after a television network featured the shop in a series,"Madness at the Bakery." For unadulterated Spanish tradition, Forn Mistral (96 Ronda de Sant Antoni; +34-933-018-037) has the best ensaimadas—coiled sweet bread, topped with powdered sugar, whose origins are in Mallorca.

Picturesque Excursions

Where To Escape The City

When Barenblit is searching for a respite from the big-city pace, he doesn't have to go far. The Monastery at Pedralbes (9 Baixada del Monestir; +34-932 563-434) is an oasis of peace, and just a 20-minute drive from the center of town. The monastery's large central courtyard is lush with plants; and inside, a museum of religious art spanning the 14th to 20th centuries is housed in a former nun's dormitory. In the Horta-Guinardó district, visitors will find the city's oldest garden, Parc del Laberint d'Horta (1 Passeig dels Castanyers; +34-666-677-722). There are different parts of the park, but at the lowest terrace is the labyrinth created in 1792, cut out of cypress hedges. For a real dose of nature only 15 minutes beyond the city limits, the magnificent Serra de Collserola (92 Ctra. de l'Església; +34-932-803-552) is the largest green space in the metropolitan area of Barcelona. Among the park's greatest attractions are the Torre de Collerola, an observation tower, and the ruins of a 14th-century castle.