In newly-refurbished buildings with shiny facades of “azulejo” tiles there are cafes, design shops and art galleries, sitting side-by-side with traditional bakeries, bookshops and quirky restaurants.
Across the city, the patterned sidewalks and trams bustle with ever increasing numbers of visitors soaking up its relaxed pace and old world charm.
It’s clear everywhere you look that Lisbon is on the up — and part of its appeal is an art and culture scene that has, until relatively recently, been a well-kept secret.
They are part of a new energy in the city, luring foreign creatives from other European capitals and expat Portuguese back home.
An ambitious art scene
In Lisbon’s picturesque Belem district, the MAAT museum sits on the waterfront of the vast Tagus River.
It’s also symbolic of Lisbon’s ambitions for the arts.
Museum director Pedro Gadanho says it’s an interesting time to launch a new museum because of the influx of artists into the city.
“What you’ve been seeing over the last few years is that there are artists looking for spaces here when spaces in Berlin or London have become too expensive.
“More people realize that they have a country that is safe, that has high quality of life, is very well connected to European centers — two hours away by plane — and that already creates a sort of attractiveness to the city, which of course drives artists first,” he said.
“We are really keen on using that opportunity to foster the growth of the art scene here,” he said.
The new Berlin?
If anything, Lisbon is an unlikely new cultural hotspot. The city is still recovering from the brutal financial crisis that struck Portugal in 2010.
But austerity has also created many of the same conditions that attracted artists and creatives to Berlin in the late noughties, such as cheap rent, food and empty buildings, combined with a population that speaks good English and a strong local art scene.
Two or three years ago, all this began to draw in artists from elsewhere. Portugal’s improving economy and way of life also started to attract back Portuguese who fled the country during the recession.
“I feel more inspired by life in general being here … The Lisbon lifestyle doesn’t have the pressure that can make you crazy,” Dos Reis said.
“Nowadays,” he added, “there are a lot of job opportunities in the creative world in Lisbon. I can see a big difference since I left in 2013.”
In part, that’s due to the entrepreneurial spirit that a lack of opportunity ignited in many Portuguese.
Graphic designer Frederico Mancellos co-founded creative hub Todos in 2013 as Portugal grappled with the recession. He was getting “less and less” work, so he and business partner Frederico Miranda decided to build something of their own — and invited other creatives to come and work with them.
They found a giant space in a building in Poco do Bispo in Lisbon’s industrial east and invested every cent they had to renovate it.
Today, Todos is home to 62 independent creatives of all kinds — photographers, film editors, sound engineers, web designers, makeup artists, furniture restorers — all working side-by-side under one roof making all sorts of creative output from music videos to advertising campaigns.
“We are a small economy here (in Todos) and I am proud to say that we work together and we get money from it,” Mancellos said.
In neighboring Xabregas, according to the curator Laia, a similar spirit has catalyzed a gallery district showing Portuguese contemporary art.
Bringing new collectors to the city
This year, the fair had a new section called Opening dedicated to young galleries, often founded by curators who have worked abroad and bring an international network with them.
“Portugal is rather conservative in so many ways and I want to be part of a change,” said Larsson. Part of it, he says, is that there are few collectors in Portugal and they are not always at the cutting edge of what’s happening in the art world internationally.
“ARCO is great for the city and hopefully the market … bringing new collectors in, institution directors and critics … I am confident that things are about to change and younger people [will] start collecting,” he said.
With the number of new visitors coming to Lisbon because of the art scene, ARCO Lisboa’s Urroz thinks he may well be right.
“[It has] brought the international art audience to Lisbon,” he says. “Some people were not that aware of Portugal at all. Not only about the art scene but even about the city.”
It would appear that Lisbon is now well and truly on the map for creatives.