<iframe src="//www.googletagmanager.com/ns.html?id=GTM-PWMWG4" height="0" width="0" style="display:none;visibility:hidden">

The Castilian ruin that is now a haven for contemporary art

3 June 2024

From the June 2024 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

A journey to Arévalo is a return to Old Castile. Only an hour or so by road from Madrid or Valladolid, this gem of a medieval town perches high on a promontory between the confluence of two rivers in the vast green plain of La Moraña. Its castle and ramparts offer a panorama that have hardly changed in centuries, and the cleaned facades of its buildings are a rich palimpsest of local stone and Mudéjar brickwork. Until recently, it was a place lost in its past, the houses in the old town long abandoned for those with mod cons built outside its ancient walls. Families are now restoring their properties and gradually returning, yet even Arévalo’s heart, the arcaded, postcard-perfect Plaza de la Villa, has the feel of a de Chirico painting – empty and eerily silent, save for the birdsong. It is like a stage set awaiting its actors and audience. Among those hard at work in its wings to welcome both are the collectors Lorena Pérez-Jácome and Javier Lumbreras.

As we walk around the old town, it soon becomes apparent that the couple’s Collegium art project is at once hugely ambitious and disarmingly humble. ‘I have a very romantic, utopian vision,’ says Lumbreras, a slight furrowing of the brow an indication of his commitment to a collection and project that, Pérez-Jácome assures me, have evolved from a passion into a mission. In short, with the support of the Autonomous Community of Castilla y León and the town authorities, the Lumbreras Foundation– Adrastus Collection has taken on the site of the sprawling ruins of a late 16th-century Jesuit school, one of the earliest in Spain and particularly resonant for the community since the founder of this missionary and teaching order, Ignatius of Loyola, lived in Arévalo for a time – as did the future Isabella I of Castile. Not only the school but also its grounds and the adjacent church of San Nicolás – its nave and aisles long open to the elements – are to be consolidated and repurposed as a new kind of cultural institution. Unintimidating, free of charge, it is intended to nourish, stimulate and build community through a programme of provocative, cutting-edge international contemporary art exhibitions which will also draw visitors to the town.

Javier Lumbreras and Lorena Pérez-Jácome, photographed in April 2024. Photo: Juan Naharro

For their architect, Pérez-Jácome and Lumbreras chose Tatiana Bilbao, who creates what she calls ‘the architecture of others’ – projects sensitive to place and its traditions. The Mexican architect has envisioned a cluster of compressed sand buildings on six levels to add to the old. The apparently random arrangement is intended to open a dialogue between the historic site – which now includes recently excavated Templar remains – and the various exhibition, education and research spaces, artists’ residencies and craft and conservation workshops. It is a place to meander and to be surprised.

While ground has yet to be broken, the project is already underway – in another religious building nearby. The Church of San Martín, striking for its two Romanesque-Mudéjar towers, once served as a mosque, and its baroque interiors are currently hosting the third Collegium exhibition curated by a leading international figure. ‘Rituals of the Everyday’, conceived by Clara Kim, chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, brings to this place of historic cultural and religious diversity a group of work by ten artists from across the globe, many of them part of a diaspora. Their work reflects on the interconnectedness of place, time and memory.

The Church of San Martín, founded in the 12th century and with distinctive Mudéjar towers, is already being used as a project space by Collegium. Photo: Roberto Ruiz; courtesy Collegium

Upstairs in the gallery, the artist in residence Ulises Mazzucca is busily at work. Organised by Collegium’s adjunct curator Aldones Nino in partnership with the Brazilian Instituto Inclusartiz and others, these residences for Ibero-American artists encourage research into themes related to the history, culture and traditions of the region. Mazzucca’s library panels tell the story of Ignatius Loyola through wood from unwanted local furniture, a reference to the town’s now lost furniture trade. One of the Adrastus Collection works on show below, Leonor Antunes’s A secluded and pleasant land. In this land I wish to dwell (2014), which resembles a leather ladder, similarly has resonance in a place once known for its artisanal leatherwork.

All the professionals involved with Collegium are – unusually – given complete autonomy. ‘It is just a case of finding the right person,’ Lumbreras says, with characteristic understatement – the project already takes the lion’s share of the couple’s time and resources, and will demand even more. He believes this curatorial free rein explains why ‘a little project in Old Castile’ has been able to attract expertise of the calibre of Bilbao, Kim, Patrick Charpenel of the Museo del Barrio in New York, Chus Martínez of the Institut Kunst Gender Natur in Basel, and the ethnologist, philosopher and Jesuit Alfonso Alfaro, who has helped formulate the values and identity of Collegium. ‘They have become like family. I think they really care about the project,’ Lumbreras adds, almost with surprise, ‘as do the artists we work with.’

Interior of the Church of San Martín with the exhibition ‘Rituals of the Everyday’, featuring Mariana Castillo Deball’s Nuremberg Map of Tenochtitlan and No acabarán mis flores (both 2013). Photo: Roberto Ruiz; courtesy Collegium

Curators, similarly, are not obliged to use the foundation’s vast Adrastus Collection, which comprises more than a thousand works of art by some 150 artists from 40 countries. ‘It is there as a tool for them to use, if they wish,’ says Lumbreras. (They are generous lenders to the projects of others.) Collegium is emphatically not intended to be a museum of the couple’s collection – their family name is absent from the titles of both institution and collection. This is a project about collaboration, not ego. It has already benefited from the input of countless professionals, and Lumbreras is busy developing institutional partnerships. Rather than be prescriptive, he and Pérez-Jácome expect Collegium to evolve organically over the decades as its function requires.

For Lumbreras, his Mexican-born wife is ‘the heart and soul’ of the project. ‘When I met Lorena, it all suddenly made sense. It was no longer about me, myself and I, which is often the case with collectors,’ he says with a rueful smile. ‘It was time to do something positive and useful with my life.’ He likes a quotation attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson: ‘The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honourable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.’

Taking up the story, Pérez-Jácome continues: ‘We talked about all sorts of philanthropic projects in various countries, but one day Javier came to the conclusion that what he knew best was art and that we should put that to good purpose.’ To understand that purpose, it is necessary to appreciate something of their relationship to works of art.

Back in their art-filled modernist house on the outskirts of Madrid, Lumbreras outlines the evolution of his collecting, which began when he was a schoolboy and persuaded his grandmother to part with a painting by Ignacio Zuloaga (1870–1945). Although born near Arévalo, the collector was raised in Madrid and his aunt, an artist, often took him to the Prado. What could be described as a moment of revelation came when she showed him Goya’s Saturn Devouring his Son (1819–23). ‘I realised that this was not just a horrific image but that the artist was trying to tell us something,’ he explains. ‘That changed everything.’ He continues, ‘People say that art is more conceptual today, but I don’t agree. It has always been conceptual but now we prize the beauty of the concept over the beauty of the object.’

Hypothetical Structure, 2017, by Alicja Kwade and Untitled (IFFYIFFYEYESEYES), 2015, by Karl Holmqvist, in Pérez-Jácome and Lumbreras’s home. Photo: Juan Naharro

At college in the United States, he studied political science and business administration and became intrigued by revolutions. That led him in the late 1980s to acquire the work of Cuban artists in exile and develop long-standing relationships with some of these artists – not too difficult given that he worked for many years in Miami before moving to New York. ‘It got me close to understanding a famous phrase of Plato’s, that art is not something pleasant, but it shows you the chasms of existence,’ he paraphrases. ‘These were people struggling to survive and to express themselves.’ He was not interested in political art per se but in expression. ‘I had been collecting classic art but I realised that it would be more rewarding for me to be in dialogue with the contemporary.’ When the couple married in 2000, they began to focus on emerging artists of the 21st century. That familiarity with the sweep of art history, together with a visual memory, have, he believes, proved invaluable. ‘I want to see something that has never been in my residual memory,’ he explains, ‘but it is important to know that it is not just the product of an artist trying to be original. The expression must be authentic – it must come from the soul.’ They look to artists who have consistency in that innovation, and they tend to buy in depth.

‘For me, collecting is all about finding the most compelling expressions of our time,’ Lumbreras continues. ‘An artwork also has to express the most – the core, the heart, the soul of things – by the shortest possible means.’ Probably the most succinct work in the house is Wilfredo Prieto’s Infidelity (2009) – a lidless red pen set at 45 degrees to the lid of a blue pen. Another work nearby offers stiff competition. ‘I like the authenticity and the element of self-portraiture in this anthropomorphic head,’ he says of Jean-Luc Moulène’s Tête couronnée, Paris (2013), for which the artist pulled his own teeth and impaled them into a small round knot of wood.

‘This is the kind of work I am really drawn too. Very eloquent, very conceptual,’ he says, striding across the room to Roman Ondák’s Drawer of the Enthusiast (2012). He explains that the artist began to collect what he found in the pockets of his seven-year-old son when he came home from school. He stored those found objects in a drawer and then made an artwork of that drawer. ‘The “enthusiast” is both the father and the son. I find this preservation of his son’s memory very poetic. He is an artist who speaks to me directly, in a distinct and authentic language.’

Drawer of the Enthusiast, 2012, by Roman Ondák, in Pérez-Jácome and Lumbreras’s home. Photo: Juan Naharro

It is probably no coincidence that the piece inhabits the same room – the dining room – as Wade Guyton and Kelley Walker’s Canstripe_Greenredblueyellow_Table (2012). It functions as an artwork, but when it is turned over the piece becomes a functional object. Ondák’s drawer is a functional object transformed into art. No subject is beyond contemplation. Another piece special to Lumbreras is Dove Allouche’s Cladosporium, sphaerospermum CNCA 13 MA #35 (2017), a photolithograph in hand-blown glass of bacteria found in warehouses where art is stored, and in old art itself.

‘What I like about these works is the way they move me when I am confronted with them for the first time. In this case,’ he says of Alicja Kwade’s interconnecting musical instruments, Hypothetical Structure (2017), ‘it is a very beautiful object. It carries a lot of meaning and symbolism, and I let my imagination flow with it. I don’t care about the thought process of the artist,’ he confesses. ‘I must have a connection with a piece. If I did not have the ability to feel through these works, I would be wasting my time.’

Many of the works in the house – very few of them paintings – are not only poetical but literally eloquent, employing language, literature and even voice. There are also words discarded (Jorge Méndez Blake), absent words (Ryan Gander) and words about to be written (Blake again). Dominating the sitting room is Rirkrit Tiravanija’s untitled 2018 (the divine comedy). This ‘wallpaper’ of vinyl letters on gold leaf quotes the last line of George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) – the creatures looking from pig to man and man to pig, ‘but already it was impossible to say which was which’. It was part of a performance piece donated by the artist for a gala dinner and auction at the Fondation Beyeler. The piece alluded to the third circle of hell in the Divine Comedy, where Dante encounters the souls of the gluttons. Another part involved guests walking through the ‘gate of hell’ and writing their name in a book labelled untitled (passport to hell). ‘I was very disturbed by the piece, aroused and upset. I knew the quote, and thought, yes, we are the pigs, the wealthy who sell our souls to the devil. We collectors are so full of ourselves. I had to buy both.’

Lumbreras and Pérez-Jácome in their dining room, with Wade Guyton and Kelley Walker’s Canstripe_Greenredblueyellow_Table (2012) behind them. Photo: Juan Naharro

Nearby is one of Steve McQueen’s Remember Me neon works (2016), inspired by an orphan in Grenada telling him that when he died, there would be no one to remember him. No less heartbreaking is Anri Sala’s Names in the Doldrums (2014), a self-playing drum that not only offers a roll-call for a group of children killed in Gaza whose names were not allowed to be broadcast at the time but also produces a beat that drowns out the recitation. It was a piece Pérez-Jácome found at ARCO, Madrid’s contemporary art fair. ‘It is the going out and looking that I enjoy,’ she says enthusiastically, ‘seeing a piece that we keep talking about for a week, a month, perhaps even two. When we buy, it is because it has changed something about how we see the world or ourselves.’

Pérez-Jácome, a cultural journalist and writer, does not come from an art background, but her mother, an anthropologist, liked to invite, say, a film-maker, a poet and an artist to lunch to discuss ideas from different perspectives. ‘What we do is not so very different. All good art is about human passions.’ Her taste is for the more lyrical and playful. Her favourite room in the house is the family dining room, lined with colourful doodles and sculpture by Edi Rama, Albania’s artist prime minister.

The couple’s sitting room, with walls lined with Rirkrit Tiravanija’s untitled 2018 (the divine comedy). Photo: Juan Naharro

Pérez-Jácome has, she says, become Lumbreras’s eyes and ears. ‘It is true,’ he concedes. ‘I have less interest these days in buying off the shelf from commercial galleries. After buying like crazy for years, I have slowed down, partly because there is a lot of déjà vu and partly because of the project. I think I almost want to start looking back to what we have done over the past 25 years, and go in even deeper with the artists we have already collected.’ He continues: ‘Now, we are more inclined to sponsor artists, give them the resources to create works that add meaning to the project.’ The current show, for instance, includes site-specific pieces by the Brazilian Lais Myrrha and Colombian-born, Los Angeles-based Gala Porras-Kim. The latter’s work repurposes an elder tree found growing in the roof of the Church of San Nicolás, along with the stones that it bought down.

It is fundamental to the project that Collegium should have meaning for the community, and touch or change lives. ‘Art expresses what cannot be said in any other way,’ Lumbreras insists. ‘Learning to decode with emotional intelligence the messages and forms created by artists encourages us to think in more complex and abstract ways, and find answers to our questions.’ He goes on: ‘I believe it gives us the tools to become more tolerant, more empathetic – with our fellow humans and the planet. It has helped me a lot, and we hope it will inspire others to think outside the box.’

Collegium solicits feedback, and learns from it. ‘If we can encourage someone to be more positive through engaging with art – which we know we have done – it is already a gain. Otherwise, we would be wasting our time.’ Lumbreras looks across to his wife. ‘There is a wonderful word in the Mexican Nahuatl language – apapacho. It means a “hug to the soul”. That is our aim.’

From the June 2024 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.