The Botero Museum has to be one of the most extraordinary museums I have visited. Located in the heart of Bogotá, it houses an amazing collection of late 19th and early to mid-20th century artists, including Picasso, Renoir, Dali, Matisse, Monet, Degas, Chagall Pissarro, Braque and, of course, works by Colombia’s national treasure, Fernando Botero. Now as if the collection weren’t the equal of anything one might find in the U.S. or Europe, what is truly astounding is the openness and informality of the museum itself. Housed in a Colonial-era structure, there are no turnstiles, no glass, no obvious security and no one hushedly shooing one away from the art. Standing on the street on Calle 11, I could look through the entrance straight at a priceless Pissarro unobstructed by even so much as a piece of glass. And once inside, I could wander up to within a foot of the pictures, close enough to see the individual brushstrokes, undisturbed by security or jostling visitors. the intimacy of the experience was breathtaking.
The Botero is everything I hope for in a museum — and unfortunately utterly unlike the chaos and fuss and confusion of major museums in the U.S. with their obsessive security, absurd fees and much ado about collections patently inferior to the treasures on view at the tranquil and unassuming Museo Botero. This is the kind of place that any artist would wish their art to be exhibited, and it is all the more amazing given the unfortunate stereotypes about Colombia and its long battle against drug trafficking. And because it is free, this is an exhibit accessible to all the people, no matter how poor.
Say “Colombia”, and parochial, naive Americans think of cocaine, Pablo Escobar and lurid Tom Clancy novels. The reality of course is quite different. Bogotá is safer and vastly more civil than New York or Washington — and by the way, the US is now a larger producer of illegal drugs than Colombia by virtue of its control of global opium producer, Afghanistan. Located on a high plateau and nestled up against the Eastern cordillera of the Andes, Bogotá has an intimacy and accessibility that belies it’s population of 8 million. It is a place where unlike even Norway, museums can open their doors to the city and dispense with the trappings of obnoxious security, confident that their treasures are safe in a place where the citizens prize both their openness and their artistic patrimony.