“I’m certain they all thought I was a moron,” says Francisco "Tito" Rovira Rullán as we sit in his office on the second story of his San Juan gallery Roberto Paradise; his gallery manager chit-chats away loudly on the phone downstairs with her Hungarian assistant slouching behind the front desk in the heat of the unbearably sunny early afternoon. Situated in a historic wooden colonial house in Santurce, Puerto Rico, all the windows are open and a warm breeze permeates everything. The gallery director’s cigarette smoke drifts slowly towards the window and briskly cuts away down the alley towards the street.
I first met Tito last year on one of my trips to Puerto Rico through a mutual friend and artist, Sofia Maldonado. His matter-of-fact-no-bullshit approach was infectious. In a society and art market so often concerned with selling you something, Rovira Rullán is one of the new wave of professionally rendered gallerists and curators with art historical backgrounds on the island who are more concerned with cultural propagation than the bottom line. He’s as excited as his artists and collectors and just as invested. If you aren’t sold, it really doesn’t matter — he already is.
Jesus 'Bubu' Negron, Jackpot Series, installation view; © Roberto Paradise.
His current space is the re-incarnation of his second gallery, Roberto Paradise, a space dedicated to cultivating young Puerto Rican artists from the start of their careers, then assisting and pushing their international profile with global art fairs like Basel, pop-up fairs like the Dependent in NY, and cultivating transnational relationships with gallery exchanges and curatorial collaborations like his current July exhibition with Josh Lilley in London.
Relatively young for the success that his novice gallery has garnered him and his crowd, he crept out of the woodwork after spending some time at the Isabella Stuart in Boston and working with Ronald Lauder in New York. “At the time I worked with Lauder, the collection was at an important crossroads. He was developing a project of early twentieth-century German and Austrian art that became what today is the Neue Gallery on 86th and 5th. There was also his private collection that extended from ancient Chinese art, past the German-Austrian twentieth-century collection and on to contemporary art. It was an absolutely effervescent time for me and it’s there that I learned about the art market, the money — everything I hadn’t already learned from studying the work itself.”
Primed, exhilarated and ready, Rovira Rullán came back to Puerto Rico and began co-directing non-profit space MM Proyectos with curator and Puerto Rico art world staple Michy Marxuach (current co-director of Beta-Local, an experimental art and education project that seeks to transform social, political and economic realities in Puerto Rico), and artist Chemi Rosado. “They gave me the space to select two artists for the project. I chose Jose Lerma and Jesus ‘Bubu’ Negron. These later became the basis of my first gallery, Galeria Commercial, when we opened in 2003.” Both artists boast international careers today, are widely exhibited both on and off the island, and both mingle on the mainland and in Europe.
Although physically long-gone today, Galeria Commercial is a space still referenced in art circles as a project that blazed the trail for a whole world of contemporary and avant-garde art on the island, opening the door and bolstering the reputations of its artists, a generation of talent deemed the “Frescos generation” by curator, proyectress and cultural-chanter Celina Noguera Cuevas. “I opened Galeria Commercial for two primary reasons. One, I looked around and realized that I was the only one of my friends that wasn’t an artist. We spoke the same language, held the same values, cultivated the same ideas and methodologies, but here I was observing. I felt that Puerto Rico needed someone with a background in the Humanities at the forefront — managing and contextualizing. There were two primary galleries at that time, Galeria Viota and Galeria Botello. But neither their outlook nor their programing interested us. We saw mediocre artists lending nothing new to the scene, who were living way better than artists with real ripe talent. At twenty-three years old I wanted to heal that problem.”
Today, two galleries in and backed by his international scope and perspective, Rovira Rullán still works with many of the same artists he started off nurturing. “I’d say I work with waves of artists.” He started with a core group of Lerma and Negron and slowly folded in some of the artists in their circle and some promising studio assistants, such as Jorge Gonzales, Fernando Pintado and the boisterously charming Radames ‘Juni’ Figueroa. “Today I’d say I’m at a third wave but still integrating what I find to be relevant artists like Hector Madera, for example.”
Jose Lerma, The Credentialist, 2012; Courtesy of Roberto Paradise, Andrea Rosen Gallery & Green Gallery.
Business wasn’t always so smooth. When the group first made a splash onto the scene in 2003, it inevitably rocked the boat for the more established traditional spaces that were used to tailoring exhibitions to clientele and selling a product versus an artist’s career. “I’m certain they all thought I was a moron. We invited all the gallerists to the launch but it was clear that we didn’t have the same falsifications about the market that they had. The collector Cesar Reyes still tells me today ‘You were able to talk about the work of Jesus ‘Bubu’ Negron as if it were Picasso. You believed in him and communicated it well.’”
Roberto Paradise is not only nestled into the topography of privately held galleries in Puerto Rico but also on the map for collectors such as Reyes. “If [Cesar] wouldn’t have paid attention to me in 2004 I would have a totally different outlook than the one I hold today. I had some things down and clear, and good intuition; but he opened my eyes to many things, among them his sensibility and keen eye.” The Cesar & Mima Reyes collection in San Juan and Naguabo is quite possibly one of the best national and international collections on the island containing works by Martin Creed, Enoc Perez, Jose Lerma, Chris Ofili, and Peter Doig among them. “His collection is a personal one. Walking you through is almost like narrating the story of his life. The Berezdivin collection at Espacio 1414 is something else entirely. A tremendous collection, it was the first on the island to open to the public and collaborate with curators both foreign and domestic to curate its exhibitions. It’s this type of programming that has lent to the maturing of the Puerto Rican contemporary art scene — access, dialog, and education — a product which you see at art fairs and abroad.”
(Image on top: Jesus 'Bubu' Negron, Piano Bar, 2012; Courtesy of the artist and Roberto Paradise)