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4,500 People Sign Open Letter Urging Mexican President to Step in as Art World Struggles 

The letter urges the government to redirect millions in funds currently dedicated to converting Mexico’s largest park into a cultural center designed by artist Gabriel Orozco.

Aerial view of the Bosque de Chapultepec park in Mexico City. A government-sponsored project spearheaded by artist Gabriel Orozco proposes transforming sectors of the park into a cultural complex. (via WikiCommons)

In the short film Mexico Without Artists, a woman flips through the pages of a novel by the Mexican author Juan Rulfo, only to find them blank; she opens an art history volume and stumbles on a skeletal outline of a Frida Kahlo painting, drained of its brilliant colors. Produced by Movimiento por la Cultura y el Arte en México (MOCCAM), one of several movements to emerge in the last few years in response to the precarious conditions of arts and culture in the country, the film depicts a stylized yet increasingly conceivable reality.

More recently, nearly 4,500 people signed an open letter in May asking President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to support the nation’s struggling arts institutions and workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Penned by Frente ProMuseos, a group formed in 2019 to foster dialogue among museum professionals, the letter demanded an emergency plan to assuage the “already dire scenario of budget cuts, reduction of self-generated income, and absence of granting opportunities and sponsorships” that long preceded the current health emergency.

“The vast majority of museums in the country — as well as cultural workers, artists, curators and others — face substantial economic losses that consequently place at risk the right to culture of all citizens,” the letter read. In an attempt to survive, it says, “institutions have been forced to cancel educational and social programs, to break inter-institutional agreements due to a lack of resources, to reduce salaries and to vacate staff, at a time when support networks are more necessary than ever.”

The letter secured the signatures of cultural heavyweights from Mexico and beyond, among them Amanda de la Garza, director of the Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo (MUAC) in Mexico City; Gabriela Rangel, director of the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires (MALBA); MUAC curator Cuauhtémoc Medina; French-Mexican journalist Elena Poniatowska; and prominent Mexican contemporary artists, including Carlos Amorales and Eduardo Abaroa.

Frente ProMuseum’s principal demand, that cultural organizations be integrated into the president’s COVID-19 emergency measures and relief packages, was followed by calls for new fiscal actions to alleviate tax burdens on museums. The group also suggested the postponement of a government-sponsored project to convert sections of Mexico City’s Bosque de Chapultepec, one of Latin America’s largest urban parks, into a cultural center designed by artist Gabriel Orozco. This year, they argue, those resources could instead be funneled toward a rescue package for extant institutions.

López Obrador, known as AMLO, rose to the Mexican presidency in 2018 after a landslide election that ended decades of conservative and centrist rule. The self-professed “anti-establishment” politician and his leftist coalition, led by the National Regeneration Movement, preached economic growth, increased social welfare programs, and an end to corruption. In AMLO’s progressive promises, Mexico’s beleaguered arts community — already fraught by years of negligence by his predecessors — finally saw a glimmer of change.

Instead, the sector has come under strain in the last two years, with slashes to federal funding allocations and threats to the Fondo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes (FONCA), the national agency dedicated to grantmaking in the arts. As the Mexican writer and professor Rafael Lemus noted in an op-ed for the New York Times, the Secretariat of Culture budget suffered a cut of 3.9% relative to the previous year. Only 0.21% of the federal budget was designated to arts and culture, the lowest in decades and significantly below the 1% allotment recommended by UNESCO.

The destitution of arts organizations has inevitably trickled down to their workers, many of whom are hired under flimsy contracts with low pay and poor benefits. Employees of the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes y Literatura (INBAL) in Mexico City, the national organization overseeing the country’s major museums, staged a shutdown last December to protest delayed and absent payments. Some had not peen paid for several months. Workers’ collectives like MOCCAM, #NoVivimosDelAplauso, #YaPágameINBAL, and #conTRATOdigno have formed in response to the increasingly uncertain conditions in the visual arts, theater, film, and music industries.

INBAL workers protesting delayed wages at the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City in March 2018 (photo courtesy of Edgar Ali Villalba Herrera)

Amid this bleak panorama, made more dismal by AMLO’s announcement of 75% cuts across the federal budget as part of his COVID-19 austerity measures, some have questioned the government’s decision to move forward with the costly transformation of Chapultepec Park. Orozco’s design will purportedly integrate the park with the adjacent Espacio Los Pinos, a former presidential residence turned museum, together amounting to 2,000 acres of land for the colossal arts complex which will include, among other features, a contemporary art pavilion.

Out of a total projected budget of 10 billion Mexican pesos (~$440,000,000), nearly 1.7 billion pesos (~$75,000,000) are slated for the ambitious undertaking in 2020. (That sum does not include artist’s fees, which Orozco has reportedly waived.)

“They’re killing museums in Mexico,” Violeta Horcasita, a curator in Mexico City and one of the letter’s signatories, told Hyperallergic. She continued:

Salaries for workers in the cultural sector have never been equal to those in other areas. A 75% cut is going to be brutal. What option are they leaving culture workers? Closing institutions? That would have a terrible impact on those who work there as well as the visiting public. What will they do with the archives, the research, and the collections that these museums preserve?

“The message coming from the government is deeply contradictory,” she added. “They support a project like the Chapultepec cultural complex, without first attending to the totally precarious state museums have found themselves in for decades.”

In its petition, Frente ProMuseos asked AMLO to postpone the project temporarily and re-allocate the funds to rescue existing arts organizations.

Curator Luis Vargas, one the group’s founding members, said it is not their intention to question Orozco’s value as an artist nor the pertinence of his project in the long term. Rather, Frente ProMuseos is advocating for the relief measures that are so desperately needed in the present.

“We decided to single out the Proyecto del Bosque de Chapultepec because of the significant sum it represents, and because out of several projects prioritized by the president, it is the only one presented within the cultural sector,” Vargas told Hyperallergic.

“The priority for culture right now should be to salvage existing institutions and the people who live from the arts. Our intentions as a group go beyond the current moment and are nonpartisan; they respond instead to a general preoccupation for museums, a dormant and longstanding concern that unites us as professionals and as participatory citizens.”

Orozco did not comment for this article.

In the days after the letter was formally sent to the president, the group received response from the Secretary of Culture, Alejandra Frausto, who promised to work together with the group on a plan to alleviate institutions. Vargas hopes it will include new partnerships between private museums and the Servicio de Administración Tributaria (SAT, Mexico’s equivalent of the IRS.)

Mexico has more than 1,800 museums, attracting nearly 70 million visitors annually. They are organizations fulfilling educational missions, Frente ProMuseos notes, and as such, they should be exempt from entertainment taxes — imposed on all non-governmental museums in Mexico — and enjoy the self-sufficiency to dispose of revenue.

The Chapultepec Park project, however, is still slated to move forward as planned. Earlier this month, the government awarded a contract of 161 million pesos (~$7.1 million) to the Mexican architecture firm Fredel Ingeniería y Arquitectura to begin construction on a walkway that will connect sections two sections of Chapultepec Park. That work is set to be completed in the coming year.

Viviana Kuri Haddad, one of the group’s members, stressed a sense of solidarity and unity among museums of all ilks under Frente ProMuseos: science, art, and history; private and public. The city of Guadalajara, where the Museo de Arte de Zapopan (MAZ) she directs is located, is renowned for mounting the country’s first ever contemporary art fair and for its tapestry workshop, el Taller Mexicano de Gobelinos, among other highlights. But the meager resources allotted to culture under the current and previous administrations mean its historic institutions are at risk.

The petition’s rapid circulation and growing list of signatories, and a series of roundtable discussions between Frente ProMuseos and the Ministry of Culture — which began last month, with one meeting so far — offer some hope, though most art workers Hyperallergic spoke to cited bureaucratic slowdowns and empty promises as par for the course.

Through the roundtables, the group seeks acknowledgment of the alarming state of museums across Mexico.

“We aim to convene federal and state authorities, as well as civil society, to design an economic rescue plan; relax the fiscal and social security burdens on museums; support sanitation measures after Covid-19; and carry out a census of the financial and human capital losses,” said Vargas.

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