Brazil is a bit of a hotspot for modern art and architecture. You only have to take one glance at the proliferation of buildings by the likes of Oscar Niemeyer across Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro to see that. But where are the very best Brazil contemporary art museums to get stuck into during your travels to the country this year?
Cue this guide. It runs through a handful of galleries that every lover of the modern art world simply shouldn’t miss during their time in the home of the carnival. It’s got prestigious art halls on the shores of Rio, cutting-edge galleries with priceless canvasses in Sao Paulo, and even open-air galleries set amid the tropical rainforests.
Of course, there are plenty more options besides this list of the finest Brazil contemporary art museums out there. Almost all of the larger cities have stacks of smaller, locally owned spaces to boot, while regional towns and capitals also have their own modern art scene to get through.
Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janiero (MAM)
Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janiero – or the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro in English – has established itself as arguably the leading space for contemporary works in the whole nation of Brazil. It sits on the edges of Flamengo Park in the heart of the big city, just one block back from the marinas on the ever-busy Av. Infante Dom Henrique.
The building itself is enough to draw the eye. It’s hailed by many to be the pinnacle of Brazilian Rationalist building work, sporting flying pillars made of steel and concrete to support a flat-topped roof that’s flanked by glistening panels of glass. It’s all the work of renowned – and Rio-born – architect Affonso Eduardo Reidy, apart from the surrounding grounds and sculpture gardens, which are the brainchild of award-winning Brazilian landscaper Roberto Burle Marx.
The Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janiero grew out of temporary exhibitions that were initially hosted in the city’s Palace of Culture back in the early 1950s. Later, the institution was granted its own building but that tragically burned down in the 70s, an incident that now lives in infamy in the art world since it also saw the loss of great works by Dali, René Magritte, and Miro among others.
Fast forward to today and MAM Rio, as it’s known for short, hosts arguably the most prestigious array of modern pieces in the whole of South America. Much of it comes from an initial gift from the Brazilian collector Gilberto Chateaubriand, including paintings by Cavalcanti and Tarsila do Amaral. Guests should also be sure to explore the palm-lined Jardins do MAM that range outside, and visit the on-site cinema, which showcases some of the finest art-house and avant-garde pictorial work of the moment.
The Inhotim Museum is all about one thing: The union between the great outdoors and modern art. As such, it’s a surreal and amazing journey through the boundary-breaking world of sculpture, painting, and architecture, all set amid the lush green spaces of the tropical state of Minas Gerais, some 40 miles from the big city of Belo Horizonte.
Unlike many of the out-and-out civil projects on this list, the Inhotim Museum started life as a space for housing the wholly private collection of Bernardo Paz, a onetime mining tycoon come art philanthropic. He bought up huge tracts of land with the aim to convert the lot into a sprawling art garden designed by Roberto Burle Marx. Soon after, he opened the whole thing to a generation of working Brazilian and international artists and the results are now there for the public to enjoy.
Walk around to find thought-provoking works in the ilk of the Beam Drop by Chris Burden, a sort of industrial cataclysm that’s constructed from over 50 steel girders set in a pit of frozen concrete. There’s also the Vegetation Room, a perfectly reflective cube of mirrors that seems to sit in almost idyllic suspension in the emerald hues of the rainforests.
By 2008, the Inhotim had been officially converted to public art institution. Plans are afoot to completely transform the place again, with the addition of on-site art hotels, more sculpture gardens, theatre spaces, and even glamping pods for art lovers who want to sleep in the company of priceless sculpture works.
Niterói Contemporary Art Museum (MAC)
You’ll surely gasp with awe when you first lay eyes on the incredible Niterói Contemporary Art Museum. Looking more like some cosmic UFO that’s touched down on the jungled cliffs that ring around Rio de Janeiro than a pick of the top Brazil contemporary art museums, it’s a truly amazing space. The building is actually the work of one of the country’s most celebrated modern architects, Oscar Ribeiro de Almeida Niemeyer Soares Filho, better known as just Oscar Niemeyer.
Inside, the space isn’t so much about the art on the walls as it is about the art out of the window. The curved glass openings peer perfectly onto some of the city’s most iconic monuments and sites. Look one way and you can see the Sugarloaf Mountain lurching overhead, a bulbous rock tufted with grass and jungle that spikes the Rio skies. Look another and you can spot the isles of Guanabara Bay, dotting a landscape with barrios and buildings before the agate Atlantic forests take over in the distance.
The outside areas can be just as impressive. The whole building is reached on a snaking ramp that’s deftly colored in blood red to contrast with the marble whites of the walls. Below, reflective pools of water help to maximize the field of vision and blur the boundary between building and horizon. It’s the sort of place you’ll want to hang out at for ages, so long as the camera battery lasts, that is. Oh, and there’s a beach just down below for when it’s time to cool off!
São Paulo Museum of Modern Art (MAM)
No list of the very best Brazil contemporary art museums could possibly be complete without at least a mention of the São Paulo Museum of Modern Art. Called MAM for short, this is the premier contemporary art gallery in the most populous city in the country. The space rises above Ibirapuera Park on the southern side of the Sao Paulo downtown core, just one part of a swirling, organically shaped construction built from gleaming glass windows and concrete.
The collection within now boasts a whopping 5,000 individual pieces. The focus is largely on newer, homegrown Brazilian works and creators currently working in the field. That means there’s a constant turnover of temporary shows, ranging from kitschy installation art to edgy cultural works and more. You’ll have to check ahead to see what’s on when you’re in town.
Visitors should also be sure to spend some time in the surrounding green spaces. They are rich in attractions, including the Oca events space, a big auditorium that’s designed to mimic the indigenous homes of Brazil’s native people. To the north, the Museu Afro Brasil is also certainly worth a drop in. It’s in a building created by the aforementioned architect Oscar Niemeyer and chronicles the cultures of the African diaspora in Brazil and beyond.
Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP)
The Museu de Arte de São Paulo isn’t strictly a modern art museum, but the collections are simply so vast and so eclectic that there’s no getting around the fact that the place needs a mention on this list. The institution has pride of location in the metropolis, being sat right alongside the heart of the Avenue Paulista, one of the main thoroughfares here and the beating heart of the town’s cultural scene.
You can’t miss it – look for the huge glass cube that’s lofted entirely above street level by its trio of concrete legs, each of which is colored a deep scarlet red. The whole thing faces the unfolding green spaces and jungles of the Parque Tenente Siqueira Campos on one side and the Mirante 9 de Julho tunnel, a big cultural events space on the other.
The collection within was accumulated over several decades starting in the late 1940s. For some time, the curators here were known as some of the most skilled buyers of modern and classical art in the world. Expect to find works by greats from all across Europe, including early-modern and Romantic-era painters like Francisco Goya and Peter Paul Rubens.
Brazil contemporary art museums – our conclusion
There’s certainly no shortage of pretty enthralling Brazil contemporary art museums to get through during your travels to the home of the snaking Amazon and the roaring surf breaks of Florianopolis. This guide outlines five of the biggest names on the scene, from the Sao Paulo Museum of Modern to the Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janiero. Some of them are known for their striking architecture, others for the rich array of works housed within.