MEXICO CITY — In the mid ’90s, a small group of project- and artist-run spaces emerged in Mexico, attracting international recognition for the artists involved and kickstarting the boom in contemporary Mexican art.
“Mexico during the 1970s and especially the 1980s when I grew up was hardly participating in the international scene. There was very strong economic protectionism and a totalitarian regime, so it was very hard to have access to culture from abroad,” artist Yoshua Okón told Tony Labat in Distrito Federal Arts Quarterly (DFAQ) recently. “It was also very hard to have access to interesting artists and intellectuals working in your own city since there was a powerful media monopoly (that hasn’t changed all that much) and these were pre-internet days. Public museums were only showing abstract art that didn’t threaten the regime in any way.”
In response to this lack of opportunity, Okón and fellow artist Miguel Calderón founded La Panadería in Mexico City, which became one of the main spaces for exhibiting young Mexican artists (alongside Temistocles 44), but also for bringing the work of foreign artists to Mexico. “We wanted to bring interesting artists and travel abroad to enter into a broader dialogue, to reconnect Mexico City internationally,” Okón told Labat. “So when La Panadería opened we set up a residency space for our guests and we also started to invite people from around the city that needed a place to show and needed a place to interact.”
La Panadería was active from 1994–2002, during which time a number of Mexican artists — including Okón, Calderón, Francis Alÿs, and Gabriel Orozco — rose to prominence, achieving international critical acclaim as well as financial success. Two years after that space closed, Mexico City hosted the first edition of MACO (México Arte Contemporáneo), which is now Latin America’s largest contemporary art fair. Since then, a handful of high-end commercial galleries in Mexico City like OMR and kurimazutto have emerged as major international players. The city’s Fundación Jumex has risen to prominence as the region’s largest private art collection, establishing its own museum in the posh neighborhood of Polanco (next to Carlos Slim’s Soumaya Museum) in 2013.
Despite the success and international recognition achieved by Mexican artists during this period, the need for independent spaces has not diminished. In fact, the past decade has seen a marked effort to introduce these kinds of venues in DF (short for Distrito Federal, Mexico City’s official name). Hyperallergic spoke with a number of people running these spaces to see why there is still such a vital need for them in the Mexican art ecosystem.
“When this neoliberal paradigm that’s incredibly consolidated began popping up in the ’90s here, I think it kind of made a lot of us think that that was the answer, in the sense of: ‘Oh great I’m having galleries and selling, there’s no need for artist-run spaces,’” Okón said when we spoke with him earlier this year at a café in DF’s hip Condesa neighborhood. “It became clear that even though we have greatly benefitted from the market explosion on many levels, it doesn’t really provide everything you need. This fantasy that the market self-regulates and the market provides for all aspects of humanity, it’s really not true. You need to compensate with other kinds of structures that will cater to spiritual needs and other aspects.”
The “other kind of structure” that Okón came up with was SOMA, a non-accredited, independent art school, which he co-founded in 2009. Contrary to most art schools, SOMA is not centered around studio practice, but is focused on fostering dialogue and discourse, which he feels has been overshadowed by the market. “It comes from the same tradition as La Panadería. But the context in which SOMA exists is incredibly different from the one that we found in the 1990s,” he told Labat. “In the early 1990s, the market did not play a role at all. There were very few places exhibiting contemporary art. Now there are many exhibition places. That’s the last thing we need. Deep down the mission has not changed all that much but SOMA is responding to a new cultural paradigm and therefore needs new strategies.”
The founders of the spaces in the ’90s were motivated by the lack of venues to exhibit at, whereas now DF has numerous institutions, from museums to galleries and non-profits. Despite this multiplicity, many people we spoke with mentioned the consolidation of money and power in the hands of only a few galleries and museums, which similarly limits access. “That kind of concentration of power and money creates a very fertile ground for project spaces to thrive because opportunities for artists are so limited as a result of those conditions,” said Brett Schultz via email, who co-founded Yautepec Gallery with Daniela Elbahara in 2008.
Schultz and Elbahara also founded the Material Art Fair in 2013, which provides an alternative to the blue-chip MACO fair, featuring independent spaces alongside more adventurous commercial galleries. Instead of working against the influence of the market, they aim to make it work for them. “We thought that perhaps we could tweak the model a bit to actually enable a fair to help the small to mid-size galleries — as well as the artist-run spaces — to grow and survive and not just languish and die in a market that’s financially stacked against them. Kind of like it’s not the tool, it’s how you use it,” said Schultz.
The founders of Salón Acme, an alternative fair for artists without gallery representation, also aim to provide a platform for artists, and collectors, who have been shut out of the mainstream Mexican art scene. Directly across the street from kurimazutto, in a sprawling, but ramshackle series of rooms, Acme features the work of 45 artists, both from Mexico and abroad. “We wanted this to be a project made for the artist, we don’t want to make money out of this, all the money goes to the artist,” said promoter Alejandro Champion. To make this financially viable, Acme has been sponsored by Spanish brand Bimba Y Lola, who set up a pop-up shop onsite. No piece of artwork costs more than 20,000 pesos (about $1350), making the fair attractive to a younger, emerging collector base.
As with the first project spaces in the ’90s, internationalism is a key component of this current wave. “The current Mexican art scene that we know was built in part by foreigners,” said Chris Sharp, a US-born curator who opened the project space Lulu with Mexican artist Martin Soto Climent after moving to DF from Paris two years ago. “That for me is what makes any valid art scene interesting, that it embraces cosmopolitanism over nationalism.”
Despite the importance of international communication, Sharp stresses his commitment to being engaged with the art community in DF. “A big part of the appeal was anchoring ourselves in a single place and making a specific and sustained contribution, and then participating in a real local way.” Behind an unassuming red gate in Colonia Roma, Sharp and Soto Climent have created a mini-white cube, which they literally inserted into their apartment, including floor and ceiling. Although Lulu has sold some work at art fairs, Sharp considers the space a small kunsthalle, operating more like a non-profit space than a commercial gallery.
Daniel Aguilar Ruvalcaba, a young artist who works at Lulu, and also studied at SOMA, operates Biquini Wax, which is considered one of the most exciting independent spaces in DF. Almost the polar opposite of Lulu’s pristine space, Biquini Wax comprises most of the building where Ruvacalba and his roommates live, with little separation between domestic and artistic space. We attended an opening party there during art fair week in February, which felt a little like a house party at a squat, as dozens of attendees climbed up a rickety metal staircase to the roof for a poetry reading and slideshow. Ruvacalba echoed Okón’s sentiments when he told us via email: “In the ’90s, at least in Mexico, there were no institutions for contemporary art and now what we have is a big and global contemporary art system. This boom is exactly the opposite because in the ’90s there was a scarcity [of venues], and now it is not scarcity of art production or institutions like in the ’90s, but a scarcity of attention.”
This exhibition was not organized by Biquini Wax, however, but was curated by NO Space (short for New Open Space), “an artist-run platform based primarily online and secondarily IRL in Mexico City” founded by Andrew Birk and Débora Delmar in 2013. As told by Birk via email, the web has been an incredibly important tool in the democratization of the arts. “Frankly the internet has everything to do with the big change underfoot … People like us who are web fluent are able to use the internet as a tool to escape any blockages that would be related to insularity and localism/protectionism. All you need is an idea and a camera.”
Despite the easing of restrictions for starting up a space, many people in Mexico City bemoaned the difficulty in getting public funding for their spaces. “In the ‘90s there was this heyday where things opened up, but the state only provides for its own institutions,” Okón told us. “They don’t have a fund for non-profits. SOMA hasn’t gotten a cent from the state and we’ve asked.” Public funding is a double-edged sword, however, requiring recipients to adhere to the political or commercial interests of donors, or risk censorship. “Some of the structures around art really allow the art to happen and then some even have the opposite effect,” Okón said. “A facade creating the illusion of freedom and democracy when it’s not really the case.”
Be they white cube, apartment gallery, or online platform, the current wave of independent spaces in Mexico City all aim to give more autonomy to the artist, who has perhaps been pushed aside in the rush to capitalize on the global enthusiasm for contemporary Mexican Art. “More and more we are working for someone else’s agenda,” Okón said. “That’s not the reason I signed up to become an artist. If it’s about money, I become a businessman. If it becomes about working for the rich collector, for whom art is just a hobby, then what is the point?”