Political correctness has never been a part of Florencia Urbina’s character.
She’s painted caricatures of both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, as well as various Russian heads of state. And years ago, while living in Jakarta – where her husband was teaching English to Indonesian oil-company workers – Urbina did a whimsical painting of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega in a bathrobe, making backroom deals with Panama’s strongman at the time, Gen. Manuel Noriega.
“That made people angry,” she recalled with a smile. “The people who backed Noriega thought it was very disrespectful. And the Sandinistas thought I was making fun of Ortega, which I was. But look what history has shown us. The guy’s a buffoon. I was right!”
That kind of irreverence made Urbina famous in the art world, and more recently helped land her a job as director of San José’s newly revived Costa Rican Art Museum, known affectionately by its Spanish acronym, MAC.
“My cédula says I’m an artist, and essentially I’m a painter. That’s my passion; I’ve been painting for as long as I can remember,” Urbina told The Tico Times during a recent visit to the museum. “My great-great-uncle, Fadrique Gutiérrez, is officially the first fine artist in Costa Rican history. He was a sculptor, a politician, a bit of a revolutionary and a painter.”
Urbina, 46, grew up all over the map. She attended Bradley Elementary School in Bethesda, Maryland, while her diplomat father, Oscar Urbina, worked for the World Bank in Washington, D.C. In addition to Indonesia, the artist has also lived in Honduras, Spain, Italy and Great Britain, and in between got her degree in fine arts from the University of Florida in Gainesville.
Urbina has been exhibiting professionally for 25 years and even has her own nine-room boutique hotel, the FUMA (which stands for Florencia Urbina Museum of Art).
She and her British husband, Stephen Longrigg, have been married for 25 years; they have a 13-year-old daughter, Nina.
“I believe in the goodness of people, though sometimes I paint things that are ironic and I’ve always questioned authority,” she said. “This has given me a lot of positive exposure, and because of that, the current government has given me a chance to make a difference.”
Both of her bosses – Culture Minister Manuel Obregón and his vice minister, Iván Rodríguez – are musicians. But it was a former culture minister, Guido Sáenz, who hit upon the idea of turning San José’s no-longer-used international airport terminal into a repository for Costa Rica’s most prized works of art.
“This is a very special museum. We are now in what used to be the old airport,” Urbina explained as she guided The Tico Times around the 10,800-square-meter property in La Sabana Park, at the west end of Paseo Colón.
The neoclassical building was designed in 1937 by architect José María Barrantes. Construction began the following year, and the terminal was opened to air traffic in April 1940.
“Until 1955, international flights landed at La Sabana, and passengers would disembark in what is now the sculpture garden,” Urbina said. “People would take out their handkerchiefs and wave very elegantly to their loved ones getting off the planes.”
During the 1950s, a new international airport was built in Alajuela, northwest of San José, and in 1978 the art museum was inaugurated in La Sabana Park. But almost from the beginning, the building fell into disrepair.
“Things started deteriorating, and there were leaks,” Urbina recalled. “The electricity system wasn’t updated at all. This building was a fire hazard, so much so that they had to close it down before there was a major accident. Every director from 1978 to 2008 tried to make ends meet, but nobody did a deep-down renovation like we did. They just plastered things over.”
Urbina said the current renovation started two and a half years ago, during which time the museum was closed. The new government of President Laura Chinchilla reopened it last May at a cost of ₡600 million (just over $1 million), though the official inauguration ceremony took place Oct. 14.
“After two years, we have restored this building to its original splendor,” Urbina said. “And as the leading institution of visual arts in Costa Rica, we hope to make sure all the art in public places is well-preserved.”
As if that’s not enough of a challenge, Urbina also wants to make the museum carbon-neutral so it doesn’t contribute to global warming any more than it has to. “Two NGOs are helping us fulfill that dream,” she said enthusiastically, “using green waste-management techniques and diesel fuel. We want to creatively mitigate our carbon footprint.”
But art is of course the main focus here, and the MAC now has more than 6,400 works of art in its collection. However, because of limited space, only 150 can be displayed permanently.
The works are organized chronologically by room, so visitors can view them according to their preferences and interests, examining a single room or a group of rooms from the 19th century up to modern times.
Among the MAC’s most cherished works is Lucio Ranucci’s giant mural commemorating Costa Rica’s 1948 revolution. At one time, this national treasure hung in the new airport, but has since been brought back to the museum. In the same room hangs Francisco Amighetti’s mural “La Agricultura,” painted in collaboration with Margarita Bertheau to adorn the Casa Presidencial during the administration of President José “Pepe” Figueres. Also on display are works by abstract painter Lola Fernández and sculptor Juan Manuel Chacón.
One of the highlights of this museum is a visit to the second-floor Salón Dorado conference room, whose four walls are covered with a bas-relief wood carving overlaid in gold. The painstakingly detailed mural by Louis Ferón chronicles the history of Costa Rica from pre-Columbian times to the present.
The museum is 100 percent government-financed, and its 60 employees all have salaries and benefits. However, it does accept donations, and has recently signed partnerships with some of Costa Rica’s leading institutions, including Sintercafé (the national coffee growers’ guild), Meditech (a company formed by doctors) and the government’s Supreme Elections Tribunal.
Since last May, approximately 8,000 people have visited the MAC.
“For the first time in its history, we’ve been able to open it for free,” Urbina said, noting that in the past, the museum charged foreign tourists $5 and locals ₡1,500 (about $3).
“It was impossible for lower-income families to enjoy the museum. That made art elitist, and that has always bothered me,” Urbina said. “I have always thought museums should be free.”
To that end, the museum sponsors the Escuela Casa del Artista, an art school for 3,000 students in Guadalupe, a low-income suburb northeast of San José.
Urbina said her institution is special because it promotes art as a way of preventing social ills such as drug addiction and prostitution.
“The MAC has adopted a responsibility that is quite unique in the world: to fulfill a specific need through art. We are a poor country, even if our standard of living is higher than in other countries in the region. We have a fantastic system of museums, but we need to make them more inclusive,” she said. “This is education for the masses, not just for the elites to wine and dine and give prizes to each other, which is the way it was in the past.”
Urbina added: “We don’t want to be the pudding in the big buffet; we want to be the main dish. But this is the Third World, so in order to be the main dish, we have to be involved in making art a healing tool. We really do believe art can be a tool to fight violence and drug abuse.”
The Costa Rican Art Museum is on the east side of San José’s La Sabana Park. Hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday to Sunday; closed Mondays. Admission is free. For information, call 2296-4503 or visit www.musarco.go.cr.