Rescued from a dilapidated building in the relatively rundown neighborhood of San Felipe, FLORA ars+natura is a project and space at the convergence of contemporary art and nature, and has grown hand in hand with the reputation of this unlikely neighborhood as a nest for contemporary art.
The initiative of well-known curator José Roca and his wife Adriana Hurtado, since opening its doors in 2013, has made significant advances in its ambition to support homegrown and international talent, creating a platform for the exploration of art and its relationship to nature, and establishing a strong and loyal community of volunteers.
”There’s a very direct relationship between botany and art”
The building is notable for its understated yet unique aesthetic, thanks to the input of a number of talented artists, and hosts four individual artist studios, a library, various exhibition rooms, a soon-to-be-opened cafe, a roof garden, and shop.
Artist residencies are held both at this building and at a second location in Honda, where those who have successfully and competitively been selected as the winner of a scholarship may focus on their work with very few distractions.
In conjunction with a variety of sponsors such as the British Council, Acción Cultural Española, and a number of art collectors, FLORA ars+natura has worked consistently over the last few years to help develop one of their most important initiatives, artist residencies.
Not only are artists given a studio space and a basic stipend for a number of months, they are also given the chance to benefit from the regular direct input and guidance of established artists and curators a part of a program entitled “Escuela Flora.”
However, artist residencies are just one of a number of projects and events that the space continues to develop. They regularly hold talks for both the resident artists and the general public, exhibit permanent and temporary works of art, organise hikes to places such as Chingaza National Park, and have published their own magazine.
So why exactly did the established curator and co-founder decide to embark on the risky endeavor of opening an independent art space?
José has followed a notable career trajectory as a curator with institutions at home and abroad, the Museo del Banco de La República and the Tate Modern in London being just some of many.
But the couple were looking for a way to establish a more stable life in Colombia. “We wanted to create a space where we could develop and see the results of a strong audience over time … something which isn’t always possible as an independent curator because you move around a lot,” they said.
José and Adriana set about looking for a suitable building, and in 2013, after discovering property prices in their local area of Nogal meant buying there was out of the question, the couple turned to San Felipe.
Both José and Adriana profess to a love of nature, and with José’s longtime interest and curatorial experience in related themes, the concept seemed almost a natural step forward.
“For a long time I’ve been interested in the connection between colonialism and botany … many of the first artists in this region learned their skill through the work of colonial expeditions. There’s a very direct relationship between botany and art,” says José.
This interest is strongly reflected in the space’s “cabinet,” a somewhat ironic nod to the wonder chambers of the 16th and 17th century. The “gabinete” stands in the front window of the building and usually exhibits the work of the artist residents.
However, artist Ana María Devis recently went a step further and displayed herself drawing for three days of the week, not something most passersby are apt to come across in the local vicinity. These exhibits help the space gain visibility within the local community.
As José explained, “if you’re not in the habit of visiting galleries or exhibitions etc., it’s unlikely you’ll take the step to do so, so this project really has worked well as a way to create a point of contact with the neighborhood.”
Community is a very important foundation of Arte+Flora, both in terms of the art community that has evolved with it and the larger community of San Felipe. Many of those who have been instrumental in the creation and growth of the project remain loyal participants, and José speaks affectionately of the many university volunteers who have helped drive their success.
“The happiest day for us is the day they arrive, and they day they leave. When we see them go we know they are moving on to other opportunities, possibilities and projects.”
Through a number of a projects such as “chocolate con los vecinos” and “echando lápizes,” local residents have been invited to engage with artists and each other at Flora and benefit from the transformative element of gatherings where art in some shape or form is central.
These kinds of initiatives bear witness to an awareness of the importance of inclusion. In many working class city neighborhoods, the arrival of artists has eventually led to gentrification and exclusion of the local population from their own community.
If artists, collectors and curators wish to maintain some of the original character of the area and curtail the negative consequences of gentrification then inclusion is vital.
Eventual gentrification may or may not be in the cards for San Felipe, but José notes that before the artists arrived, the main residential population had long begun to move elsewhere giving way to numerous small business. Those who remained have expressed their gratitude for the revitalizing effect of the arriving artist community.
While for now it would be naive to compare San Felipe to other bohemian and hip art enclaves in other major cities across the world, it seems about time Bogotá nurtured its own art neighborhood, especially with rising international interest in Colombian art.