One could argue that Manuel Borja-Villel fuses the position of the melancholic museum director, mourning the loss of the emancipatory projects of the recent past, with that of the activist utopian museum director, elaborating, if not enacting, the urgently needed changes necessary for a different future of institutional and cultural practices to be achieved. Since his initial appointment at the Tàpies Foundation in Barcelona in 1990 and continuing on to this January, when he left his directorship of the Reina Sofía, Borja-Villel has advanced, or rather re-embodied, the great tradition of the progressive museum director of the 1920s and ‘30s, from Alexander Dorner in Hannover to Alfred Barr in New York. Theirs was a tradition that defined the functions of the curator as being those of a scholar, cultivating historical memory as a form of collective enlightenment and visionary innovation as the dissemination of current critical thought and oppositional practice. As directors, they had imagined the museum to be an extension of the public sphere, one whose functions were comparable to those of libraries and the various faculties of the university: to collect and organize knowledge and critical and historical reflection in order to satisfy the largest possible public's desire for cultural literacy, beyond the inherited or enforced distinctions of class privileges.
Unlike that of his contemporary American colleagues, Borja-Villel's institutional success was not the result of incessant compromises with the ever-intensifying demand to turn the museum's exhibitions into an expanded field of spectacle culture. Nor did he expand the museum's collections to serve as the affirmative substrate of speculative investment. Borja-Villel—until now protected by the legal principles of a recently restituted liberal-democratic state—could develop and sustain his exemplary practice of organizing truly historical exhibitions and building a formidable collection within the boundaries set by his comparatively limited access to public resources. Not to have yielded to those pressures, to private capital and its property control, is undoubtedly one of the reasons the newly emerging reactionary forces in Spain (as everywhere else) determined that it was time to conclude its support for the aspirations that had emerged from the oppositional practices of Conceptual art and institutional critique that had been formative for Borja-Villel (much more so than for any other museum director known to us in either Europe or the United States). Typically, to mention just a few examples, the first great comprehensive retrospective exhibition of Hans Haacke's work was organized by Borja-Villel, as were the first major European retrospectives of Marcel Broodthaers and James Coleman, of Lygia Clark and Nancy Spero. And another, equally ground-breaking exhibition (among dozens of others), Alice Creischer, Andreas Siekmann, and Max Jorge Hinderer's The Potosí Principle—one of the first comprehensive projects to construct a site-specific mirror for Spain's colonial history—could not have happened anywhere but at the Reina Sofía.