No other contradiction better describes Mexico City than the seemingly inexorable imbalance between abundance and poverty. From an aerial view of the city, one will see how few patches of modernity exist within a sea of impecunious neighborhoods. This social contrast is nothing new; it goes back to colonial times. And so today, the so-called “Mexican moment” has as its background corruption, classism, racism, nepotism, mistrust, and their intimate friend, violence, which is widespread and normalized to the point of institutionalization. Talking about art in contemporary Mexico City without reference to this context doesn’t do justice to reality. While it is true that Mexico City has a vibrant, globalized, and prosperous middle class that is actively engaged in the arts, the vast majority of Mexicans live in straitened circumstances. The depiction of Mexico City as exotic, trendy, and rapidly growing, which appears ad nauseam in the international media, only applies to a few areas of the city, like a shiny soap bubble floating amid a grey sky.
The multicolored bubble
The little sphere of the contemporary art world, likewise, is not uniform. If in the 1990s there were a few spaces interested in contemporary practices, today there is an explosion of commercial galleries, art fairs, private and public museums, and independent spaces working with different budgets, aims, specializations, and missions. In both institutional and independent spaces, a wide range of styles and genres are created, presented, discussed, and analyzed—although video and installation are clearly favored at the expense of traditional fine arts like painting. But diversity is not new. Historically, Mexican art production has been diverse and engaged with international actors from Europe, North America, and Latin America. Today, the difference is to be found in exponentially greater visibility thanks to the Internet and a growing interest in Mexico City as a place to watch.
The museum context has been pivotal for the transformation of Mexico City’s outlook; today there are public and private institutions dedicated to the promotion and exhibition of contemporary art, all with diverse missions. Some museums—such as Museo Jumex, the Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo (MUAC), and Museo Tamayo—show large-scale international exhibitions (though on occasion find themselves trapped in the boring blockbuster trend) and also manage important art collections. Institutions with smaller budgets (like Museo del Chopo, Casa del Lago, and Sala de Arte Publico Siqueiros) have diverse programs that include local and international artists of various generations. There are also museums dedicated to discussions on photography (such as Museo Cuatro Caminos and Centro de la Imagen), digital arts (Laboratorio Arte Alameda), and performance art (Ex-Teresa).
In addition to the publicly and privately funded institutions, there are dozens of commercial galleries. Some are internationally recognized, such as Kurimanzutto, which has played a key role in the international promotion of a generation of local artists (including Damián Ortega, Sofia Taboas, and Mariana Castillo Deball) but has remained passive in the search and addition of new talents to its roster. Also important are a number of galleries that manage to endure the intermittent economic crisis within a small national art market (such as Labor, Proyectos Monclova, and Yautepec). They all not only represent local young talent but also bring artists from other parts of the world. For instance, Labor represents local artists (such as Antonio Vega Macotela or Jorge Satorre) and represents the work of artists from the southern hemisphere (such as the Australian Nicholas Mangan and the Argentine, Amsterdam-based Irene Kopelman). Furthermore, during this past year, interesting galleries such as Jose Garcia and Parque Galeria have opened their doors, the latter with a strict focus on socially and politically engaged conceptual art.
Also creating space for the exploration of new art practices are numerous artist-run initiatives, nonprofit exhibition spaces, community centers, and art residencies (like Obrera Centro and Casa Maauad). For instance, Bikini Wax is an artist-run domestic space where young artists gather for exhibitions, art discussions, and parties. A small island is Lulu, a space that contributes to the scene by showcasing international young and established artists who focus on materials and craft. These independent art initiatives bring some enjoyable diversity to the scene.
Worth mentioning in the cultural landscape are also various educational projects. On the one hand, and besides the universities’ art schools, there are public art centers. One example, El Faro de Oriente, is located in a high-crime, meager area; its students, most lacking tertiary education, remain in the margins of the art world and do not consider themselves cultural producers. They are certainly not part of the flamboyance that attracts foreign media and art connoisseurs to the neighborhoods with soy cappuccinos (like Condesa, Roma, and Polanco). On the other hand, there are non-institutional art schools such as Soma, located in a middle-class neighborhood and founded and managed by established artists operating in the international art circuit. The school attracts young ambitious artists from around Mexico and other parts of the world. Some Soma students receive grants; they navigate easily among the well traveled, English-speaking Mexican intelligentsia and usually find a place in the art circuit. El Faro de Oriente and Soma serve different purposes, but the distance between them seems more like that between countries than between institutions ten miles apart. These schools reflect the multiplicity of realities of Mexico City and certainly reinforce the gap between privileged groups and everyone else.
The bubble shooter
Mexico City’s art scene has unquestionably changed in recent years, following the global trend that, for better or worse, has reshaped the art world into a hyper avid and specialized network of professional dealers, patrons, curators, and artists.
Take, for example, the state of curatorship in 2002, when the British, Canada-based curator Pip Day pioneered the first curatorial-studies program in Mexico City. At that time, there were few museums dedicated to contemporary art practices, the scene of the artist-run spaces was fading, and conversations around exhibition processes, research, and methods were scarce. In contrast, today it is easy to find specialized programs in curatorial studies in both private and public schools and universities. Curatorship has become a relatively established career.
The multiplication of arts professionals has undoubtedly enriched the Mexican art scene. But despite the flourishing of First-World entities like art institutions, artist-run spaces, galleries, and collections, practitioners face a very Third-World challenge: a lack of well-paid opportunities in a reduced and non-transparent job market. Cultural industries dedicated to the ‘artainment’ sustain themselves through almost free labor. Public institutions are constantly subject to governmental reductions of budgets, the product of a cultural system with no clear strategic planning. Artists strive to have exhibitions and receive decent fees or to find representation in a closed circuit of galleries. This pushes them to depend on government grants and funding, which are always subject to budget cuts and which can often be tainted by potential conflicts of interest. Curators and other art professionals also struggle to find fairly remunerated jobs. This competition becomes more problematic as museums and institutions seldom fill vacancies through open calls based on merit and experience but rather depend on social connections or political favors. Only a few exceptions, like Fundacion Jumex, are beginning to announce their job opportunities as a matter of routine. In general, staff members are personally selected or invited, and when they attain high-level positions, they tend to cling onto them for ten years or more. Those who do secure jobs within institutions receive slightly higher wages than a decade ago but have limited creative freedom and exhibition opportunities. Furthermore, some institutional curators establish links with commercial galleries by curating, collecting, or supporting artists in questionable ways.
Of even more concern is that public and private institutions, as well as independent spaces and galleries, often fail to connect meaningfully with nontraditional audiences and producers. This limitation creates an echo-chamber effect, in which the same few people reproduce the same few messages.
Mexico City’s art institutions have criticized the country’s political situation through their exhibitions and public programs, but these have become so normalized and trendy that they pose no threat to the regime. Perhaps it is time to look inwards critically and to stop reproducing the same structures that have brought the country to a distressing social and economic standstill. Now that the institutional infrastructure is fairly solid, an upgrade to a more transparent, fair, and inclusive professional ecosystem is long overdue. One day, I hope to affirm that Mexico City is fully thriving, as it is said in the international art media; today, this is simply impossible. Contradictions and inequalities are everywhere; in the art world, some of them are sustained by people who advocate change—but only to the extent to which it won’t alter their comfortable positions.