Dark clouds over Brazil tycoon's garden of art

Part botanical garden, part gallery, Inhotim covers some 300 football pitches, an oasis of tropical rainforest in the heart of Brazil's mining region, Minas Gerais. It features works by some 200 international artists.
Part botanical garden, part gallery, Inhotim covers some 300 football pitches, an oasis of tropical rainforest in the heart of Brazil's mining region, Minas Gerais. It features works by some 200 international artists.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Mr Bernardo Paz, Inhotim's founder, has lived within the park for years.
Mr Bernardo Paz, Inhotim's founder, has lived within the park for years.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Economic woes making it harder for him to expand his dream project at current pace

BRUMADINHO (Brazil) • Brazilian tycoon Bernardo Paz has dedicated his life to turning a vast outdoor park of tropical rainforest studded with contemporary art works into one of the most original museums in the world.

Part botanical garden, part gallery, Inhotim is the expression of Mr Paz's unstoppable dream - and of the fortune he amassed in iron ore mining when Chinese demand for raw materials was booming.

But today, while the tycoon's dream is intact, Brazil's economic crisis and the drop in China's appetite mean his fortune can no longer keep up.

Inhotim covers an area of about 300 football pitches, an oasis of tropical rainforest in the heart of Brazil's mining region, Minas Gerais. Dotted through the foliage are hundreds of works of art produced by some 200 international artists.

And despite being far from the main cities of Rio or Sao Paulo, almost half a million people make the journey here every year. It is a place "where people want to stay", said Mr Paz.

A PLACE OF TRANQUILLITY

You arrive at Inhotim stressed and tired from the journey, then 40 minutes later you've turned into a child and don't want to leave.

BRAZILIAN TYCOON BERNARDO PAZ, on the Inhotim park that he founded

He has lived within the park for years, now with his sixth wife and two of his seven children. But even in this paradise, where toucans and monkeys roam freely, there is no way to escape the economic gloom growing in Brazil.

He directly finances a third of Inhotim's budget and because iron ore prices halved last year, the 64-year-old is reluctantly having to tame his wild dreams.

"I was going to keep growing Inhotim at the same speed, but my industries, which give me the resources to keep the process going, are complicated," he said.

The 1,000ha area contains 140ha of gardens open to the public and 100ha of protected Atlantic rainforest and tropical savannah.

There are 4,200 different plants, including over 330 species of orchids. There are emerald and turquoise lagoons, an ancient tree which seems to touch the sky and thickets of giant palms.

"You arrive at Inhotim stressed and tired from the journey, then 40 minutes later you've turned into a child and don't want to leave," Mr Paz said.

His friend, well-known landscaper Burle Marx, gave him advice, but Inhotim is basically spontaneous, he said. "It was all created intuitively, it was not planned."

Visitors can simply enjoy nature's genius in places such as the 25,000 sq m educational nursery or spend time in the libraries and classrooms. Or they can contemplate human creativity.

Inhotim is like Mr Paz's kingdom and although he employs 800 staff, he keeps close personal tabs on operations.

Despite the tranquillity, there are places within the park, some 60km from the city of Belo Horizonte, from which the tractors and excavators of the surrounding iron ore mines can be heard and seen.

These days the reminders of industrial activity are not quite so comforting for Mr Paz.

With Brazil on the cusp of recession, commodity prices slipping and inflation close to double digits, he is having to look for corporate sponsors to share some of the US$2.5 million (S$3.6 million) he personally spends on Inhotim each year. The rest of the US$11.7 million budget is financed through donations, tax breaks, event facilities and sales of tickets at between US$7 and US$11 each.

He is working further on the business side of things at the park, with plans for its first boutique hotel to open next year and eventually 28 new galleries, more hotels, an amphitheatre and luxury villas.

Mr Paz, the son of a communist arts lover and an engineer, said his vision is not easy to achieve.

"Working to build a place of pleasure for others is a sacrifice, a nightmare," he said.

But even if he is cramped financially, he is still thinking big.

"Think of this place in a thousand years," he said.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 06, 2015, with the headline 'Dark clouds over Brazil tycoon's garden of art'. Print Edition | Subscribe