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Urban planning: Sofia Hernandez Chong Cuy reports from Mexico City.

THIS MONTH, MEXICO will commemorate the bicentennial of its independence and the centennial of its revolution with a massive, pull-out-all-the-stops celebration. The extravagant festivities have been preceded by a year of projects and events, ranging from historical exhibitions to television shows to a bicentennial flame traveling around the country a la the Olympic torch. In Mexico City, the Bicentennial Tower will be officially unveiled on the evening of September 15 at the main entrance of Chapultepec Park along the historic avenue Paseo de la Reforma. But the accompanying urban plan designed around this structure--which would have connected neighborhoods via pedestrian walkways and helped alleviate the heavy traffic flow--was indefinitely deferred when funding dried up. The city is left with a mostly symbolic monument, while the functional part of the scheme has evaporated.

The fate of these grand plans points to a general lack of stability underpinning civic structures in Mexico generally and in Mexico City in particular. In the capital, the outlook for political change is so grim, the inequality so entrenched, and the corruption and crime so rampant that the city's twenty million residents live in a permanent state of vulnerability. But precarity tends to heighten awareness of one's circumstances and to encourage resourcefulness--effects visible in the city's art community, where creative forms of micropolitics are emerging as artists take on new models of language and urban research to respond directly to conditions in Mexico. One key instigator of these developments is the itinerant nonprofit organization Pase Usted, run by a small group of young curators, architects, and designers. Since its formation in 2008, Pase Usted (the name means something along the lines of "Welcome") has been organizing public debates in many venues around topics such as education and sustainability. Speakers range from artists to politicians to public intellectuals. The collective's audience is, in the organizers' words, "unsatisfied and ready to build a better country." These vibrant discussions are among a number of examples one could cite to illustrate the fact that much of the strongest and most insightful work (artistic or curatorial) being done in Mexico City directly engages social and political conditions. Consider, for instance, Teresa Margolles's performances, minimal sculptures, and jewelry created with materials drawn from crime scenes (many associated with drug kingpins) and derived from in-depth investigations at forensic labs and public morgues. Evincing similar concerns a bit more obliquely (and a bit less gravely) are Pedro Reyes's Baby Marx, 2008-10, a TV puppet show that introduces children to the ABCs of property and labor, and Claudia Fernandez's social art projects such as, most recently, an exploration of possibilities for alternative trash-collecting and recycling systems.


While such projects and initiatives are creating a dynamism in the city's art community, things are a bit more complicated at the institutional level. Publicly funded institutions, whose acquisition programs have for the most part been halted for decades (although recent federal policy changes may improve matters), are now set in relation to a new kind of art space: museums built by private individuals. (The Museo Tamayo, where I work, is an early prototype of the latter type of institution: It was created in 1981 to house the contemporary art collection of artist Rufino Tamayo, but it was financed by corporate philanthropy and built on land donated by the state.) Fundacion/Coleccion Jumex is the biggest and best known of these private museums: Founded in 2001 by Eugenio Lopez Alonso, it collects and showcases contemporary art through exhibitions guest-curated by notable practitioners in the field, such as Jessica Morgan, Adriano Pedrosa, and Philippe Vergne. The foundation also supports the local art scene, offering project grants and scholarships for graduate study abroad. In addition to its original space--a Jumex fruit-juice factory on Mexico City's outskirts--an outpost within the city limits is scheduled to open in 2012. This is one of several private art institutions open to the public that are being conceived at the moment. Collector and film producer Moises Cosio plans to open his own exhibition and library space soon, and Telmex CEO Carlos Slim (the richest man in the world) is constructing a monumental building for his Museo Soumaya. Some collectors, meanwhile, are opting to make long-term loans to museums such as Museo Universitario de Arte Contemporaneo.


Yet while glossy new buildings full of freshly bought or commissioned art are certainly seductive, the real competitive advantage of private museums is their capacity to work with autonomy, which allows them to, among other things, maintain program continuity. Long-term plans for public museums in Mexico are always provisional, to say the least, since directors (and heads of cultural organizations and agencies in general) have a tendency to change every six years, in tandem with federal elections, or even sooner because of lack of support--or because of the sheer exhaustion that dealing with an unwieldy bureaucracy can cause. The potential for improving cultural policy exists; there are arts professionals in Mexico with the skills to develop and implement such policy. But if the necessary political will is to crystallize, there must be a concerted effort to overcome the mutual suspicion--owing much to Mexico's history of colonialism and dictatorship--between the public and private sectors.

In any case, most people realize that waiting for things to change is not a good game plan and are therefore attempting to carve out a space of action between the old guard and the new. One way of contextualizing organizations like Pase Usted is to view them as inhabitants of this interstitial space, neither public nor private in the classical sense of the terms. The same goes for the much-needed pedagogical structures and residency programs that have recently taken shape. One especially impressive independent educational initiative is SOMA, an art school and residency program founded less than a year ago by artists Eduardo Abaroa and Yoshua Okon. Keeping things running through constant fund-raising (securing grants primarily from private foundations and individuals), the pair engage local artists and practitioners to design and teach courses. To offer an example of soma's innovative pedagogy: Artist Mario Garcia Torres is in the process of remaking the "Projects Class" created and led by David Askevold from 1968 to 1973 at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. Askevold's syllabus consisted of instructional artworks contributed by Robert Barry, Sol LeWitt, and Robert Smithson, among others, which students were asked to carry out. For his revisitation, Garcia Torres has requested a new batch of instructional artworks from his peers. In addition to classroom spaces, SOMA's two-story building (renovated entirely by the founders) includes bedrooms for short-term visitors and an ample studio dedicated to participants in the residency program. There are also several social spaces and a weekly Wednesday-evening program of talks and screenings.

Not to be discounted, either, are new educational alternatives that operate more traditionally, with combinations of public and philanthropic financing. With programming formats that turn art institutions into schools and homes, these organizations seem propelled by a desire to engage intimately and meaningfully with art and audiences, culture and its producers. They include the yearlong independent-study program Arte Actual at the Museo de Arte Carrillo Gil, whose first annual student exhibition last spring presented some of the most interesting young artists in Mexico (such as Diego Berruecos and Jorge Satorre) and made visible the current tendency toward post-studio practices and research-based work. The foundation-backed independent space Casa Vecina has begun a study program for emerging curators, while the Museo Experimental El Eco has inaugurated a residency program for international curators. Sala de Arte Publico Siqueiros--once the muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros's studio, which he bequeathed to "the people of Mexico," and today an art space presenting some of the conceptually tightest group exhibitions in town--is about to open a second venue devoted to residencies for visual artists, curators, and art scholars alike.


All of these programs might be considered crucial instigators for new art communities and critical discourse, as well for emerging collecting practices in Mexico City. Despite the financial crisis, and possibly owing to what is often called the Jumex effect, commercial spaces have been proliferating, with a number of newcomers (House of Gaga, Labor, Proyectos Monclova) putting down roots, and the stalwart Kurimanzutto opening its first permanent venue. These galleries are not only presenting exhibitions of discrete objects for sale, they are commissioning projects and performances. For her first exhibition at House of Gaga, last spring, New York artist Emily Sundblad installed her paintings in a restaurant and performed (in Spanish) a concert of love songs. For its own spring exhibition, Kurimanzutto staged Abraham Cruzvillegas's highly emotive play Autoconstruccion, 2010, created in collaboration with theater director Antonio Castro and composer Antonio Fernandez Ros. Focusing on the Mexico City neighborhood La Colonia Ajusco, largely developed and inhabited by squatters, the play featured props conceived as discrete artworks by a dozen other artists, including Allora & Calzadilla, Minerva Cuevas, and Gabriel Kuri. Labor has commissioned challenging art from Pedro Reyes and from international artists such as Nicolas Paris from Colombia and Etienne Chambaud from France. The especially playful Proyectos Monclova curates performative exhibitions: For this year's edition of Zona Maco, the leading international fair for contemporary art in Mexico City, Proyectos Monclova and the artist collective Tercerunquinto publicly auctioned a booth. A painter won the bid and sold his work at the fair. These commercial spaces seem to have absorbed some of the experimental attitudes of nonprofit galleries such as Petra, a collaboration between artist Pablo Sigg and independent curator Montserrat Albores that opens on weekends for shows, performances, and workshops; the new galleries also show some of the spirit of independent cultural initiatives like those by artists Carlos Amorales, who founded the music label Nuevos Ricos, and Adriana Lara, who runs the curatorial office Perros Negros, which commissions art, organizes exhibitions, and publishes Pazmaker, one of the few art zines in the city.

To take the broadest view, one could say that the trend in Mexico City is toward a beneficial warping of the public-private axis, with the two cross-pollinating and germinating a variety of innovative and entrepreneurial initiatives. Yet without good old-fashioned state support--which for a century was not only the funder of but also the driving force behind the construction of Mexico's cultural identity--this nascent cultural infrastructure will remain as elusive as the bicentennial vision of a new urban plan. Thus the government's recent promise to reinvigorate institutional acquisition programs with a significant fund--reversing the decades-long shrinkage of public institutions' coffers--was welcome, to say the least, (doubly so when one reflects that it could be the first in a series of revisions to cultural policy, hopefully including laws that will prevent excessive turnover in museum administrations). Specifically, the goal of this program, which triggers as many questions as it does hopes, is to fill the gaps, evocatively referred to as "historical lagoons," in museum collections. That process will entail defining what is modern or contemporary, what is nationally or internationally relevant, what is established or emerging. The primary participants in the debate, though not the only beneficiaries of the new fund, will be the Museo de Arte Carrillo Gil, which presents emerging artists from Mexico and abroad; the Museo de Arte Moderno, which has done much to revise the art history of the twentieth century; and the Museo Tamayo, which has focused on international contemporary art. (I should say that while I'm happy for the acquisition opportunities this will create for my own institution, I'm at least as enthused about the impact this program will have on the Mexican art world as a whole.) The biggest lagoon, which may grow bigger still unless dealt with carefully, seems to be the question of how to deal with midcareer artists from Mexico--those who emerged in the 1990s and made the local art scene internationally visible. But however difficult such issues may be to negotiate, the essential fact is that the state's commitment to envisioning a history of modern and contemporary Mexican art constitutes a public claim that governance has an impact on the creation and resignification of social imaginaries--and, by extension, on basic notions that help shape culture, such as tolerance, property, and citizenship.

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Title Annotation:DISPATCH
Author:Cuy, Sofia Hernandez Chong
Publication:Artforum International
Geographic Code:1MEX
Date:Sep 1, 2010
Next Article:Altered Ego: Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer on Stephen Kaltenbach.

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