Clockwise from top left Diego Rivera, The Great City of Tenochtitlan, detail from the National Palace frescoes, Mexico City. Photo G. Dagli Orti  De Agostini Picture Library  Bridgeman Images.

Art cities: How a rich gallery sector and a growing collector base have boosted Mexico City

In early February Mexico City becomes the centre of the art world as the Zona Maco fair opens. Brilliant architecture, a thriving economy and the attention of Hollywood are all burnishing the city’s lustre, as Alastair Smart explains 

The poet Pablo Neruda once described Mexico City as ‘the touchstone of America’. That was in the mid 20th century, yet any visitor to the Mexican capital today will find his words still ring true.

It’s the fifth-most populous city on Earth, boasting 21 million inhabitants. There’s also the small matter of 14 million tourists who visit annually.

What’s the attraction? Well, there are thriving scenes for food, fashion and architecture. In 2018, the World Design Organization named Mexico City its ‘World Design Capital’. The Oscars success last year of Alfonso Cuarón’s movie, Roma — named after the district in which it’s set — has only added to the cultural lustre.

The Soumaya Museum, which shows the collection of Mexican telecoms magnate, Carlos Slim. Photo Shutterstock

The Soumaya Museum, which shows the collection of Mexican telecoms magnate, Carlos Slim. Photo: Shutterstock

And then there’s the art. Casa Azul — the old home of Frida Kahlo, now a museum in her honour — is among the most popular sites in all Mexico. Yet, there is copious contemporary art worth seeing too.

In early February each year, Mexico City becomes the centre of the art world, as the Zona Maco fair opens its doors. About to mark its 19th edition, Zona Maco will host more than 200 galleries: foreign heavyweights such as Pace, Lisson and Kasmin, as well as local ones such as Kurimanzutto and OMR.

‘Since we launched [in 2002], the panorama has definitely changed,’ says Zélika García, the fair’s director. ‘In parallel with Zona Maco, the art scene in Mexico City has expanded. Numerous artists and galleries have developed reputations on a global scale.

In 2019, Zona Maco Art Fair attracted 62,000 visitors. Image courtesy of Zona Maco

In 2019, Zona Maco Art Fair attracted 62,000 visitors. Image courtesy of Zona Maco

‘This is a city where everything happens. Awesome new spaces, both commercial and independent, pop up regularly.’

In 2019, Zona Maco attracted 62,000 visitors, not far behind the 70,000 who attended North America’s marquee fair, Art Basel Miami Beach. Its success has resulted in the springing up of satellite fairs (held in the same week). The best known is Material Art Fair, which focuses on younger, less established galleries.

Some describe the scene in Mexico City in terms of a boom or an explosion. But the truth is that art has thrived there for a century — from the great muralists like Diego Rivera in the 1920s; via the abstract painters of the Ruptura movement in the 1950s; and the conceptually-inclined ‘Friday Workshop’ artists in the 1990s; through to today.

Diego Rivera, The Great City of Tenochtitlan, detail from the National Palace frescoes, Mexico City. Photo G. Dagli Orti De Agostini Picture Library  Bridgeman Images. Artwork © Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F.  DACS 2020.
Diego Rivera, The Great City of Tenochtitlan, detail from the National Palace frescoes, Mexico City. Photo: G. Dagli Orti /De Agostini Picture Library / Bridgeman Images. Artwork: © Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / DACS 2020.

What has changed in the past two decades is the artistic infrastructure. A rich gallery sector and fairs such as Zona Maco have emerged, thanks to a fast-growing collector base.

Political stability and economic prosperity are key factors here. The capital has been immune to the drug-related violence that afflicts much of the rest of Mexico. Incomes have also risen steadily since the country signed NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) with Canada and the US in 1994. Economists predict Mexico will have the world’s fifth-biggest economy by 2050.

One of the local galleries with a booth at Zona Maco is Proyectos Monclova. Since its founding in 2005, it has built a reputation for thought-provoking shows — the artist Yoshua Okon is currently exhibiting the charred remains of a replica Banana Republic store he set fire to (below).

Yoshua Okón, República Bananera. 2019 Video monocanal, sound 5’ 27’’, loop. Edition 1 of 3 plus 2 APS. Image courtesy of Proyectos Monclova. Courtesy of the artist and Proyectos Monclova
Yoshua Okón, República Bananera. 2019 Video monocanal, sound 5’ 27’’, loop. Edition 1 of 3 plus 2 APS. Image courtesy of Proyectos Monclova. Courtesy of the artist and Proyectos Monclova

‘One of Mexico City’s strengths is that the rules of the art game are less fixed here than they are in more established art hubs,’ says Teofilo Cohen, the gallery’s founder-director.

‘The focus in this city, for a long time, used to be on traditional work in traditional places… Awareness of contemporary art has developed [only relatively recently — which] has allowed more room for experimentation, the unstructured and the unexpected.’

Cohen thinks another factor has been important too: the international connectivity brought by the internet, which has let Mexicans plug into art-world trends and discourse like never before.

‘Mexico City may be a sprawling modern metropolis, but it’s also a historic settlement dating back to the 14th century’. Palacio de Bellas Artes in the historic centre of Mexico City. Photo Cathyrose Melloan  Alamy

‘Mexico City may be a sprawling modern metropolis, but it’s also a historic settlement dating back to the 14th century’. Palacio de Bellas Artes in the historic centre of Mexico City. Photo: Cathyrose Melloan / Alamy

It’s also worth mentioning the low price of the Mexican peso against the dollar, which has continued to help local artists sell work abroad.

Proyectos Monclova is located in the trendy district of Roma (that of Cuarón’s film). It’s one of several galleries flourishing there, alongside cafés, bookshops and fashion boutiques. Cohen calls it a ‘beautiful’ place to be, though insists ‘there are many other vibrant areas for art and culture’.

For every pristine, white-cube gallery, there’s a converted taco store or newspaper kiosk showing art too

Mexico City has districts with very distinct characteristics rubbing up against each other. If Roma is stylish, then San Rafael has a vibe that’s bootstrapping and alternative.

For every pristine, white-cube gallery, there’s a converted taco store or newspaper kiosk showing art too. (Long before it had its current gallery space, Kurimanzutto held its first exhibition in a fruit-and-vegetable market.)

All of which points towards a fundamental, creative tension. Mexico City may be a sprawling modern metropolis, but it’s also a historic settlement dating back to the 14th century.

According to pre-Hispanic myth, the Aztecs built it as their capital after seeing a divinely promised eagle perched on a cactus eating a snake. Districts may be changing apace, as the city grows, but each one has a long, rich past that pervades it.

The Jumex Museum, which houses the art of juice magnate Eugenio López Alonso. Image courtesy of The Jumex Museum. Photo Moritz Bernoully. Courtesy Museo Jumex

The Jumex Museum, which houses the art of juice magnate Eugenio López Alonso. Image courtesy of The Jumex Museum. Photo: Moritz Bernoully. Courtesy: Museo Jumex

No discussion of culture in Mexico City is complete without mention of its museums: there are more than 150 in total, surpassing every city on Earth, bar London. The National Museum of Anthropology is a must for any visitor, though the biggest change on the landscape has been the recent building of new art museums.

The standouts from the past dozen years include the Soumaya Museum (showing the collection of Mexican telecoms magnate Carlos Slim); the Jumex Museum (housing the art of businessman Eugenio López Alonso); and Museo Universitario Arte Contemporaneo (MUAC), with its collection of mainly Mexican art from 1952 onwards.

‘Mexico is a large, highly centralised nation — and the capital is its stage,’ says Minerva Cuevas, an artist born and bred in Mexico City. ‘People from the rest of the country flock here for work, so public space is constantly being negotiated’.

‘As an artist, I take a lot from the streets around me’ Minerva Cuevas. Photo Gonzalo Morales

‘As an artist, I take a lot from the streets around me’: Minerva Cuevas. Photo: Gonzalo Morales

Cuevas, 45, has long mixed art and social activism. Her past projects include the launch of a new currency; the handing out of free tickets on Mexico City’s subway; and the video Disidencia, featuring footage of street protests and demonstrations in the capital across several years.

‘As an artist, I take a lot from life on the streets around me — the mix of people of different ages, social levels and geographic roots. I pay attention to the struggles many of them have with money and democratic processes... Mexico City is a special place. It always inspires me.’

Minerva Cuevas, Fine Lands, 2018. Acrylic paint on wall. Variable dimensions. Image courtesy of the artist and Dallas Museum of Art. Photo Chad Redmon
Minerva Cuevas, Fine Lands, 2018. Acrylic paint on wall. Variable dimensions. Image courtesy of the artist and Dallas Museum of Art. Photo: Chad Redmon

Will the city continue its artistic rise through the 2020s? The ongoing tensions between Mexico and its neighbour to the north suggest there’ll be plenty for artists to get their teeth into.

Mexico City also boasts a progressive mayor — Claudia Sheinbaum, an environmental engineer who has promised to move it forward by making pollution and traffic her priorities.

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It is also a young city: the average age of its citizens is 26, meaning there should be no lack of creative energy to maintain a thriving cultural scene.

‘That’s absolutely crucial,’ says Gabriela Lobo, Managing Director of Christie’s Mexico. ‘The scene here is vibrant and youthful, with lots of artists, buyers and sellers all still in their twenties. As impressive as things are currently, in many ways it’s just planting the seed for an even more impressive future.’

One area of concern, though, is the cost of living. In the past couple of years, rent in many parts has risen markedly, the fear being that this may force artists out of town. That said, it’s still low compared to other North American cities, such as Los Angeles and New York. 

According to Minerva Cuevas, there are few signs of things slowing down: ‘This is a city of many historical layers. It always finds a way to reinvent itself.’

To contact Gabriela Lobo, Managing Director of Christie’s Mexico, email Globo@christies.com