The Armenian Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian was born in Turkey 150 years ago. When in 1955 he died in Lisbon, was the richest man in the world thanks to oil. He left the largest fortune foreign ever received in Portugal, to create “a particular institution, and Portuguese, perpetual, charitable, artistic, educational and scientific”. That desire is reflected in the Gulbenkian Foundation, whose museum is now celebrating its 50 years, paradoxically, by stripping the asset which he was born.


The Gulbenkian Foundation announces the closing of his ballet The legacy of Mister 5%

“on Monday we sold our last investment oil in a handful of countries, from Angola to Kazakhstan,” explains its president, Isabel Mota. Enter 627 million euros into the coffers of the foundation, which lives on what they pay him 3,000 billion in financial assets. “The sale coincided with the need to make strong investments in deposits, that we could not allow for high-risk, and, on the other hand, with the growing concern of what to divest in fossil fuels by the commitment to sustainability that has taken over the foundation”.

The gesture is part of a general tendency of cultural institutions to separate themselves from the money, of controversial origin (oil, pharmaceutical…). Lisbon already, cannot be understood without this sophisticated institution, with its wonderful garden next to the plaza of Spain, the auditorium, with 200 concerts a year, the scientific institute, the museum of contemporary art, directed by the british Penelope Curtis (the front of the Tate Modern in London between 2010 and 2015) and, above all, the museum of the private collection of the founder.

In his constant travels in the East, Gulbenkian was collecting pieces of ancient civilizations. Mister 5% (for the percentage that was in the privatization of the company Turkish Petroleum) already met in 1938, more than 6,000 pieces of egyptian art, greco-roman, islamic, in addition to paintings and decorative arts european, they charge to experts of the National Gallery.

Scattered in the works by London, Paris and New York, their biggest concern was where to put them together without frieran to taxes. In England he had been declared during the Second World War the “technical enemy”, and not spare; in France ruled the law that forced them to leave all the fortune to the children, and in the united States were too many questions. In 1942, he came to Lisbon for two weeks and stayed for 13 years, until his death. The dictator Salazar assured him that his inheritance will not suffice to support in taxes and Gulbenkian passed in favour of Portugal.

Isabel Mota, president of the Gulbenkian Foundation. joao s. henriques

In remembrance of the half century of the museum, opens tomorrow the exhibition Art on Display,on the art of exhibiting art, from World War II until 1969, with the example of the museum’s founder, designed by the architect Alberto Pessoa. The anniversary brings more news. “A new public garden after the purchase of the neighboring estate and the gift to the city of a work of Cristina Iglesias, who will preside over the new plaza of Spain,” Mota says.

Close to a million people visit annually the foundation, mainly for the musical program, with a budget of 26 million. The rest, to exceed 100, is split between the institute of science, (62) and the programs of social cohesion (20). “We are not the Ministry of Culture and Education,” recalls Mota; “our mission is another, even though we need their involvement. The new stage is going to deepen its internationalization”.

The anniversary also coincides with a remodeling of the museum of contemporary art: it will be transformed and expanded. “The japanese architect Kengo Kuma [author of the olympic stadium in Tokyo] is in charge of the project.” The ugly duckling of the foundation will change its face, although it will remain without a budget seriously for the purchase of contemporary art. “The demand estate of perpetuity,” recalls her chair, “it makes different our foundation from the rest. Our first concern is the performance of our assets because they will depend on the budget. If we spend more a year, the following is clipped because we have some financial rules five-year”.

The next June 20, the day of the death of the founder, the foundation awarded the first international prize for a project on climate change, endowed with one million euros. “The money is given, but monitoring the results and its economic and social impact. I’m sure that Calouste would agree with this line and even with the sale of its assets of oil. He was a philanthropist visionary”.


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