Typically it’s fun to sit back and watch as the art world in Austin continues to grow, gain strength, respect, and generally produce quality art and artists despite its topsy-turvy art organizations that are relatively disconnected from the community. Recently, however, I’ve been alarmed and somewhat embarrassed by what I feel are incredibly unfortunate missteps by Mexic-Arte Museum.
I must preface this by saying that I have always voiced my support of Mexic-Arte, and I will always continue to support them. The founding director, Sylvia Orozco was unbelievably ambitious and innovative when she began Mexic-Arte with her cohorts in the throes of multiculturalism in the 80s. However, the museum has evolved very little beyond its founding, and has struggled to maintain its relevancy as it also struggles to find its footing in a mission that needs just as much updating as the space itself. It goes without saying that there are obvious problems with the space the museum inhabits. It’s in desperate need of repair, not only for the exhibitions they want to showcase, but for the collection that is threatened daily by mold, dust, and critters. It came as no surprise that Mexic-Arte finally announced that they were jumping on the “building project bandwagon,” the unveiling of this building however threw me into a moral conundrum.
I am confused by the obvious contemporaneity of the proposed monstrosity of the structure. It’s obviously state of the art, and its architect the same one that built the highly criticized Soumaya Museum here in Mexico City (and I speak from conversations that I have had with numerous artists and curators). Now, I’ve come to terms with the fact that Mexic-Arte is operating in it’s own bubble of reality that doesn’t actually or adequately showcase anything that is relevant in Mexico…that is, assuming they operate with Mexico in mind, and considering they are the self-proclaimed Mexican/Mexican-American/Latino art center for Austin, though even that is somewhat muddled. I have long come to terms with the fact that their exhibition programming is not innovative except for the small contemporary exhibitions in the back gallery, and the annual Young Latino Artists exhibition. If you really think about it, their programming has been based on two things: 1. “folk” art, and 2. exhibitions illustrating the Mexican revolution in some way or another (mainly in print form). I have moved beyond the fact that I consider the mission, and the “cultures” which they so wildly claim to represent and give voice to are actually not represented in the museum, and that at times its claims are really more culturally irresponsible than anything else.
I feel though, that it’s important to say that Mexic-Arte isn’t even close to hitting the mark with this proposed building. Not only is it disappointing, it’s painful to watch.
A few years ago they were given a slight wake up call when critic and artist Jaime Castillo published a few suggestions for the museum to consider in order to really become the cultural visual arts institution that we all want it to become (http://salvadorcastillo.wordpress.com/2009/01/15/i-thawt-i-thaw-2008-pt3/. I hoped that the criticisms would be heard, considered, and would show the museum that its community of visual artists cares and wants to see it succeed. Though, year after year I was disappointed, as more and more the museum catered to the idealisms of Mexico and Mexican “culture”, which are, in fact, wildly different from the cultures that I experience daily. I live in Mexico and I am faced with Zapata and the great muralists more at Mexic-Arte than here in the city where they all did their greatest work. And, I hate to break it to you, but Cinco de Mayo is actually a commemoration of the battle of Puebla when the French were expelled from Mexico, which incidentally, no one celebrates here. Ironic, isn’t it?
All of that said, I realize that I cannot criticize an institution for its lack of interest in showing contemporary art. Yes, YLA is wonderful, but it doesn’t actually have to exist. If a cultural visual arts center wants to focus on history, well that’s relevant too. However, I’ve become weary of all the different ways to exhibit Mexico’s “glorious” revolution, and quite honestly, anything that creates such a glossy veneer in front of the word “revolution” probably shouldn’t be taken too seriously. What about the other perspectives? There are two sides to every story, right? What about the incredible migration of Jews into Mexico City during the Second World War? How about teaching or showcasing the economic prosperity in Mexico during the Great Depression? I guess that isn’t interesting. I guess that doesn’t build buildings, and I guess that’s ok. Instead we will be beaten into submission with alebrijes, copper pots, and embroidered fabrics from Oaxaca, all of which are also very relevant.
All of the aforementioned is ok. Sometimes I have to shut my trap and stop preaching about the cosmopolitanism of the city, or how Mexican culture is impossible to homogenize, or that the country is quite large and geographically diverse, meaning a large cultural difference from city to city. I understand all of this. However, the unveiling of their proposed building project made me shudder in horror.
It’s one thing to choose an architect from Mexico City. It’s understandable, in fact. However, one should definitely do their research. Even a mention of the Soumaya Museum makes people roll their eyes and shake their heads from embarrassment. The building is cool, but it was an obvious move of nepotism on the part of Carlos Slim, and it rises as a monstrous showcase of dirty money that is further reinforced by the lackluster, confusing collection within its over-reaching walls. I wonder if Mexic-Arte thought of this, and while they were pondering this, did they consider the statement they were making by inviting former president Vicente Fox to speak at their gala, the very same president responsible for some of the largest arts, culture, and education budget cuts that the country had ever seen? His invitation was basically the metaphorical and hypothetical equivalent of the Austin Museum of Art inviting former president Bush to to give a lecture on education. The bigger question here becomes: what audience are you choosing to welcome into your doors, Mexic-Arte, and what message about Mexico/Mexican-American/Latino “culture” are you trying to send to your audience?
As I was perusing images of the proposed building, I was most offended by one that had a projection of an Aztec Calendar on its facade, and I’m assuming it’s only a projection. There is a reason the Aztec Calendar is in the Museo de Anthropologia in Mexico City. That’s where old things are kept. That’s where they should stay. That’s where people should go to understand the visual history of the Nahuatl speaking people that lived in the basin of Mexico, or where people go to learn about the civilizations that built the different geographies of the country. It’s unfortunate that this is the representation that Mexic-Arte has chosen to project on its facade. It’s a confused, mixed message that simply showcases that the museum is wildly out of touch with any of the cultures it’s trying so hard to represent.
I truly admire the work that the staff has done, the exhibitions that they have worked hard for (goodness, I’ve been there with them at times!), and the artists in their collection. Yet, I can’t help but feel that more and more the museum has continued to elevate an identity that is nothing but culturally irresponsible, and negating their founding mission altogether, ultimately isolating themselves in an unrealistic vision of the cultures they claim to try to represent.
It’s sad, and I can only hope that one day they will listen to the criticism.