The Miami Herald
May 8, 2000
Colombia gets $200 million gift of art
Botero makes gesture for homeland


 MEDELLIN, Colombia -- Nostalgic for his homeland, Fernando Botero, the artist of
 rotund figures and hefty sculptures, is making a donation of artwork to two
 Colombian museums that is as grand and impressive as his remarkable subjects.

 In one of the biggest art offerings in modern history in Latin America, Botero is
 giving a collection of paintings and sculptures valued as high as $200 million that
 will transform the city of Medellin, where Botero grew up, and elevate a gallery in
 the capital, Bogota, into an exceptional repository of impressionist and modern

 The gift has startled many Colombians.

 ``This is an act of colossal generosity in a nation where social and cultural
 philanthropy are very limited,'' Diners Magazine wrote recently.

 Botero, one of the most popular living artists in the world, appeared overcome by
 the reaction of Colombians during a five-day visit last month to his homeland -- a
 place so dangerous that he is forced to live mostly abroad.

 ``It is moving when someone stops you on the street and says, `Look, on behalf
 of the Colombian people, I want to thank your for your gift,' '' Botero said. ``. . . It
 is very thrilling when one is driving and stops at a corner and people applaud, just
 regular people.''

 Botero left Medellin for Madrid 48 years ago -- on a journey that would take him to
 the top of the art world. His paintings, filled with roly-poly bulls and horses, plump
 princesses and prostitutes, always instantly recognizable in style and always
 reflecting life in Medellin, have fetched as much as $1.6 million at auction.

 The works being donated to Medellin include The Death of Pablo Escobar, which
 shows the drug kingpin dying amid a hail of bullets on a Medellin rooftop in 1993,
 and The House of Amanda Ramirez, a once-famous city brothel.


 At 68, Botero remains in good health, spending his time in New York City, Paris,
 Monte Carlo and a small Italian town in Tuscany -- Pietrasanta, the site of several
 foundries capable of making his huge sculptures, which weigh about 3,000
 pounds on average.

 But his love for Colombia remains undiminished.

 ``As a youth, he dreamed of Florence. As an adult, he dreams of Medellin,''
 reflected Pilar Velilla Moreno, director of the modest, 119-year-old Antioquia
 Museum in Medellin.

 The gift reflects a profound desire by the now-wealthy Botero to make a grand
 gesture for his homeland. Among the obstacles was a government proposal to
 collect 35 percent in customs duties and taxes on any art that Botero donated
 from abroad. Eventually, the idea was dropped because it would have strangled
 the project at birth.

 A big boost came with a change of government. President Andres Pastrana took
 office in August 1998, and Medellin's new mayor, Juan Gomez Martinez,
 energetically supported the project.


 To seal a deal for Medellin, Gomez offered to donate the former City Hall, a
 three-story Art Deco jewel built in 1929, to house the Botero gift. He offered to
 spend $15 million renovating the building and paying for an adjoining block to be
 razed for a vast sculpture garden.

 ``I took him the blueprints. He said, `This is the site. I accept. I will give you the
 works,' '' Gomez recalled, beaming at the memory.

 On a recent sunny morning, as Botero toured renovation work at the building,
 examining floor tiles and quizzing architects amid the dust, Gomez looked out
 from a third-floor window at the 46 properties soon to be razed.

 ``These buildings will all come down,'' he said, adding that bulldozers would arrive
 within weeks to clear way for the large park.

 By the time the mammoth project is finished by the end of the year, 12 to 14 of
 Botero's most prized large sculptures will decorate the plaza, and 65 new Botero
 paintings and drawings will fill the museum, adding to the 18 paintings and 16
 indoor sculptures he donated in the 1970s and 1980s.


 ``It is going to be something ultramodern, like a great U.S. museum,'' Botero said.
 ``It's going to be fantastic. It will transform Medellin.''

 As Medellin fetes its good fortune, Bogota is doing the same. In monetary and
 artistic terms, the value of Botero's donation to the cultural wing of the capital's
 Banco de la Republica, or state bank, is even broader and grander than that given
 to his birthplace.

 A special 12-room gallery in Bogota is now being prepared for the ``Botero
 Collection.'' It will hold not only 87 of the master's own paintings, but also about
 90 works from his private collection that encompass every major trend in painting
 in the past century.

 The gift includes four Picassos, 14 impressionist paintings (including oils by
 Renoir, Monet, Pissarro and Degas) and works by Chagall, Ernst, Giacometti,
 Miro, Klimt, de Kooning, Calder and Rauschenberg.

 Botero believes he is adding to the artistic cachet of the capital.

 ``There's a national museum and some other museums, but there's never been a
 Picasso here, for example, or a Monet,'' he said.


 Nostalgia for Colombia, mixed with pain at its narco- and guerrilla-related violence
 and turmoil, evokes strong emotions in Botero. He is a voracious reader of
 Colombian newspapers on the Internet, no matter where in the world he is.

 The violence of Colombia has hit the artist personally. For years, he would visit
 several times each year, often spending weeks at his rural studio in the village of
 Cajica, an hour north of Bogota.

 ``One day at 6 in the morning, eight people arrived asking for me, and by some
 miracle I wasn't there that day four or five years ago,'' he said. ``They took
 everything I had. They took 22 paintings that I had there, and two sculptures. If I
 had been there, they would have taken me.''

 At about the same period, Botero received another shock. On June 11, 1995, a
 huge bomb exploded in an open-air park in Medellin. It was hidden at the feet of
 his outdoor sculpture, The Bird, and killed 23 people and wounded 200 others.

 ``This was so completely stupid,'' Botero said. ``When I learned of it, I said leave
 the [damaged sculpture] there, as a monument to stupidity.''

 In January, Botero returned to Medellin to unveil a second sculpture, The Bird of
 Peace, placed a few yards south of the mangled, blast-damaged original

 ``I want this to remain as a monument to violence and the peace,'' he said.

 ``It hurts horribly not to be able to live here peacefully, especially now that the
 years pass,'' Botero said. ``I miss my country. I miss Medellin. I miss all that I
 knew here as a child.''

                     Copyright 2000 Miami Herald