She worked tirelessly from her office on the first floor of the Modern Art Museum of Bogotá (Mambo) for almost a half-century as its director to keep the dream of having a contemporary art space for the city financially solvent, while sharing another of her great passions – opera – with Colombian audiences.
Widely regarded as the country’s grand dame of culture, Gloria Zea passed away Monday in a Bogotá hospital age 84, after suffering from respiratory complications and heart failure.
Born 1935 in Medellín, the daughter of Liberal politician Germán Zea, Gloria Zea studied Philosophy at University of the Andes, before moving to the United States to study art. Upon her return to Colombia, and taking up Fine Art at her Alma Mater, she met, during a painting lesson, her future husband, a 23-year old artist, also from Medellín, called Fernando Botero. The young couple moved to Mexico, where Botero wanted to paint inspired by the country’s great muralists. The stint was short-lived and after two years in the Mexican capital, Gloria and Fernando returned to Colombia.
Her five-year marriage to Botero dissolved in 1960, the same year the artist decided to move to New York where he won the Guggenheim International Award for his painting The Battle of the Arch-Devil. A mother to three children, Fernando, a politician who served as Minister of Defense during the presidential term of Ernesto Samper (1994-1998), Juan Carlos, author and recipient of the Juan Rulfo literary prize, and Lina, a successful television producer, in 1969, Gloria Zea assumed direction of the country’s first contemporary art space after a meeting with the Argentine art critic Marta Traba.
Expanding Mambo’s art collection from less than one hundred works in the early 1970s to more than 3,600 when she retired in 2016, is just one of Zea’s many cultural achievements. She also had the vision of moving the entire collection into the museum’s current home, a building designed by the Bogotá architect Rogelio Salmona and inaugurated in 1985. Among more than 240 exhibitions Gloria Zea presented within the red brick walls of Mambo, were the first-ever showings of Picasso and Chagall in Colombia, as well as solo exhibitions by Colombian artists Andrés de Santamaría, Alejandro Obregón and Edgar Negret.
But, Zea wasn’t just an influential lobbyist for Bogotá to be recognized as a cultural capital, she also loved theatre and music, helping other venues, especially some of the city’s most iconic (Colón Theatre, Colonial Art Museum of Bogotá and National Library) get public funding for large-scale renovations.
When Gloria Zea wasn’t sitting behind her desk fund raising for Mambo or greeting guests at the door of the latest exhibition, she enjoyed hosting fire-side soirées with international opera singers, invited to Colombia to perform with her Ópera de Colombia. Having founded the country’s first opera company in 1978, Zea personally oversaw every aspect of a production, from the choice in lead singers to stage design and lighting. Among the close confidants of Zea in her ambitious operatic undertakings is the Argentine stage director Alejandro Chacón, baritone Valeriano Lanchas and Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel.
An admirer of the operas of Mozart, Wagner and Strauss, Gloria Zea redefined Colombia’s cultural landscape, and her legacy will be remembered as someone who took creative risks in the name of art.
In the picture: Gloria Zea by Fernando Botero during the recent exhibition at the National Museum “Botero: The artist as a young man.”