Though it wasn’t so long ago that Gabriel García Márquez described Colombia’s plague of right-wing death squads, left-wing guerrillas, and narco-trafficking thugs as a “biblical holocaust,” even a cursory walk around Bogotá these days shows the Nobel laureate’s words to be more Old Testament scripture than contemporary gospel. After the government’s crackdown on terrorism and in the midst of a now booming business environment, visiting the city has gone from intriguing oddity to viable reality. Still, I wasn’t expecting to stroll into the lobby of my hotel one morning and spot the legendary Manhattan literary agent Lynn Nesbit.
As it turned out, Nesbit’s presence was less serendipitous than I’d first imagined—her daughter Claire Gilman is a New York curator, and Nesbit was joining her for some studio visits before heading north for a beach holiday. The draw for both Nesbit and me, though, was the same: Bogotá’s dynamic art scene, fueled by an intergenerational community of locals and émigrés from New York, London, and Berlin that is not only reinventing Colombian art but also transforming the city into a destination on the international art circuit.
Beatriz López, 35, a vivacious dealer who, together with Katy Hernández, opened a new three-story white-cube space called La Central in October, told me that “when the diaspora of Bogotá artists returned from studying and living abroad, they brought new life to the city.” She’d experienced both the flight and the return firsthand. A former literature student who at 20 found herself a successful but unhappy soap opera scriptwriter, López embarked for London to study art and came back to Colombia five years later to embrace the life of a curator-slash-gallerist.
Before the city’s turnaround, “collecting was a social problem,” said Carlos Hurtado, 31, the director of Galería Nueveochenta, which he established five years ago with César Gaviria, who had served as president of Colombia in the early nineties. Many viewed the business of art, in particular, as either a front for money laundering or an excuse to churn out Botero-style knock-offs.
The biggest cheerleader for this newfound art scene is Catalina Casas, Bogotá’s highest-profile dealer, who runs the six-year-old Casas Riegner gallery. Over the past several years, Casas, 39, has commanded a successful campaign to lure a who’s who of international curators—including Klaus Biesenbach, of New York’s MoMA PS1, and Jens Hoffmann, of the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts in San Francisco—to the city. “I knew that they had to see all this fantastic work themselves,” Casas told me when I visited her gallery. Downstairs, one of her artists, Leyla Cárdenas, was scrambling to finish an installation of her photographs. “So I pestered them until they did.”