Mexic-Arte Museum: Someone has to say it…

 

Proposed building project for Mexic-Arte Museum

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.

The Museo Soumaya, Mexico City from http://www.arnewde.com

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.

A snapshot of a wall label from an exhibition at Mexic-Arte Museum in 2010, claiming "Post Revolution, it was considered important to narrate the past in order to help incorporate the diverse Indigenous population into the state. By creating a new visual national identity, Mexico was able to help bind the nation's disparate peoples." I'm pretty sure Mexican history would prove otherwise.

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.

also by Leslie Castro

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29 responses to “Mexic-Arte Museum: Someone has to say it…”

  1. The facility is not done yet. Orozco will find a way.

  2. Real talk

  3. I absolutely agree with this! Mexic-Arte is nothing but a disgrace, and as a Latino living in Austin, I’m continuously embarrassed by their exhibitions, curating and programming. Isn’t there a member of the Mexic-Arte staff, board or community that travels? That goes to actual world-class museums? That is somehow connected with contemporary trends in culture -let’s not even say fine art- in Latin America?

    My problem is not that Mexic-Arte is a lousy museum, my problem is that Mexic-Arte has decided to be the “voice” of my culture, which they couldn’t be more disconnected from. Should I go to Mexico and open an “American Museum” and just show Mad Men-era silkscreens and Civil War portraits? I’m sure that would form a vision of the US just as accurate as Mexic-Arte is doing of Latinos for Austinites.

    Lastly, I couldn’t agree more with Castro’s words of “unveiling of their proposed building project made me shudder in horror”, my jaw literally dropped to the floor when I saw this huge CARICATURE of what contemporary Latin American culture is for the board and decision-makers behind Mexic-Arte. It is one of the most ridiculous choices to represent contemporary Mexico I have ever seen and I don’t want this 5-floor tableaux of the spring-break-dude-vision-of-Mexico to loom over my kids, sorry. Take it to a World Fair and then knock it down, like all ego architecture.

    I’m Latino and I live in Austin. Please stop this monstrosity from happening.

  4. The YLA Exhibitions are the only good shows they have anyways. They need more avant garde, cutting edge. Less what that other stuff.

  5. this is a very well written, on point, and respectful critique.

    Ive seen some great exhibitions there, but everything the author said is true. And that building design looks stupid.

  6. I thought this was a good critique in a variety of ways, but I was wondering what you guys though about how the museum’s mission might be affecting the institution’s success. I see a lot of people are upset that contemporary Mexico isn’t necessarily represented by the museum. In addition to being the “Official” Mexican art museum of Texas, it is also the “Official” Mexican-American art museum of Texas. As a result of this dual identity, the museum is pulled in many different directions. The museum’s mission expands its focus even further, including historical AND contemporary Latino and Latin American art as well. Should they represent historical, modern, or contemporary Mexico? Should they represent historical, modern, or contemporary Mexican-American and Latin American Artists? They certainly cannot all be represented concurrently in the small gallery space of Mexic-Arte. An effort is made to represent a variety of influential and innovative artists from the United States to the Cape of Good Hope. Perhaps the issue the public has with the museum arises from Mexic-Arte’s encompassing mission statement and the lack of clarity that can arise from such broad horizons.

  7. Very good, constructive criticism. Worth reading.

  8. This is such an important piece and Im glad it has finally been written, thank you Leslie. This museum needs more work than a new building to begin a welcoming partnership with the Latino community in Austin. I think its unfortunate to hear several young Latino/Chicanos not attend openings at this space because of an entry fee or not know about events at MexicArte because its not well connected to them as well as meeting older Latino/Chicano residents not know of MexicArte is simply unacceptable. Why are our Latino residents disconnected to this place? Especially, as a center that prides itself on being THE Mexican and Mexican American Fine Art Museum of Texas.
    When Latinos cant afford to attend a museum that showcases and discusses the history of their people and culture then something is going wrong here. The vision of MexicArte was and still is inspiring to me. And the staff over the years that have put all their time, energy and life into this place to literally keep the walls up gives me hope that there can be an internal readjustment to this space towards a more culturally responsible and inclusive arts center. But again, a new building laid on top of old foundation isnt going to keep the walls from cracking again.

  9. And a enormous yawn was heard across the land…

  10. I agree with this article in every aspect. MexicArte so often presents a frozen and extremely limited vision of Mexican and Mexican-American culture, and even perpetuating narrow stereotypes of Latin American art.

    It would be great if the museum took this criticism to heart and used it as it seems to be meant–as a spur to a more authentic and inclusive vision.

  11. Some points are valid but I think that one museum cannot do all the work of representing Mexicans and Mex-Ams. The blog you link to brings up some good points about hours. However if you and the blogger are complaining about the content then why care if the hours allow more people in?

    I think many people forget that Austin has just now in the past decade become a “big city”. At the same time our country is funding less and less due to the economy. Texas is full or irony’s, Fort Worth a hick town which is now quite large was always the best city for museums for 30+ years. Dallas, the higher class city with a rep for being “NY” had no museum until very late in the game. There will always be different outlooks for a Hispanic museum’s course to run. In time, less Hispanics need extra help because as someone mentioned galleries showcase all kinds of work so their art is seen regardless of them being Hispanic. The old reality of Hispanics being excluded for being Hispanic has ended in the art world (I hope). Changes are probably due at Mexi-arte but understanding the history and where the museum fits into that may help you to judge it less harshly. I think they do not need new blood-but new ideas.

  12. Oh no, senor Beel

  13. Like a lot of institutions, Mexic-Arte is doing a lot with a little, and even doing a lot with nothing in some cases. Clearly there are some shortcomings, many of which are understandable for a such a small organization, but I’m sure a good writer could come up with an equally scathing critique of just about any art institution in Austin. This is still a relatively young museum, in a relatively young city, so sure it’s easy to point fingers at such an institution when it’s not doing what you want (dare I say it’s especially easy to do from 1000 miles away). I think it’s worth recognizing that Mexic-Arte, as unfocused as things are and whether or not you agree with what they choose to exhibit, is at least trying to do things that no other institution in Austin is doing… and sometimes that leads to some public mis-steps. But to say that all of the programming is based upon folk art and the revolution ignores not only YLA, Totally Cool Totally Art, the Serie Project partnership, and the 31k Project but also all of the many under-served youth that have received art education services from museum staff, and all of the other contemporary artists whose work has been exhibited there outside of YLA. It makes me wonder if the author is truly so familiar with the museum’s programming as she might lead the reader to believe. If the community wants to support Mexic-Arte, as this author suggests, it seems a good first step to do it would be to recognize what’s right about Mexic-Arte and ask for more of the same, not to dog-pile criticism of Vicente Fox and Cinco de Mayo (which was relevant because…?) on top of a local asset that we should all be working to support.

  14. I used to attend openings at Mexic-Arte regularly. Now, I go to Mexic-Arte whenever I can get downtown, which turns out to be only several times a year. I have been disappointed in the lack of variety from one visit to the next. I like to learn new art and craft and ideas from the Mexican culture. I am not able to travel and see these things in their country of origin, and have counted on museums to assist my education. I was raised in New Mexico, a very diverse culture closely tied with Mexico historically. I do not know of one museum there that claims to be THE ONE voice of Mexican American culture, let alone add historial and contempory culture of Mexico to the claim, too. It seems now pretentious for Mexic-Arte to claim a place in the cultural world it cannot possibly support. The Mexican/Mexican-American/Latin culture is just too broad a subject matter. Such a presentation seems counter-productive. As for their building, reality seems a bit removed from this board of directors. I wish them luck on the fundraising for it.

  15. Right on! I feel the same about how the Tejano Monument was railroaded onto the State Capitol recently. As if there was a “chip on the shoulder” to overcome, thus hurdling the largest (and unfitting for a 19th century structure) monument on the grounds.
    On top of that, they went against the State Preservation Committee recommendations and did not dig the footings to bedrock (due to COST!). What will that say when it’s sinking 30 years from now?

  16. There’s a lot of issues at play here. As an alumni of the “Austin Chicano Arts Scene”, I can’t help but feel like the issues reflect of number of contemporary issues in the Chicano movement.

    Yeah, it’s a bit of a misnomer to use chicano… identity is such a central issue for most artists in the contemporary / pseudo contemporary realm regarding latino / chicano / xicano / hispanic / etc art.

    So, where do we draw the line in regards to “Mexican-American” art institutions? Many contemporary artists don’t have a definite connection to their cultural background, at least, not in terms of subject matter. If that’s the way contemporary works are headed, then what is left for a museum to display that fulfills the requirements of it’s namesake? A balance of historical perspective and contemporary non sequitur? (Though truly, not a non sequitur, but the connections seem to lessen until rendered footnotes in regards to 3rd, 4th, 5th generation, American born latinos.)

    Going back to funding… many of the requirements now places on non-profit institutes require defined plans of action. The age of the non-profit operating as a pseudo business is over. The requirements on grant funding are rigorous, and demand results, rather than ideals. Even in terms of accounting, these organizations are being required year after year to operate in a more business-like fashion.

    Many might not realize as well that funds awarded are often distributed in increments… 30% at beginning of term, then another 30% per quarter, followed by a funding drought which only resolves itself when a final report is given, often after the conclusion of the fiscal year. Essentially, you’re trying to do 110% of a year’s labor on 90% of a year’s budget because of this straddled position.

    So, what am I getting at? If the realities of funding and grant awarding lean towards reporting and results, then the requirement for museums is to truly fall into defined niches. How can you define in terms necessary to win funding a mission which governs a field of art which is continually shifting? I’d hate to be the one responsible for writing that mission statement.

    I’m a big fan of Mexic-Arte’s achievements, but there’s a lot more that needs to be addressed prior to a building expansion. What’s up with the 4-5 exhibits a year? What about touring shows that could strengthen the mission overall? Publishing workshops? Stipends for exhibiting artists? A lot of money spread around as a grassroots level could work wonders for furthering the mission.

    Ultimately, I can’t do more than recommend the same that Richard Duardo did for Centro de Arte Püblico… walk outside, ask the people outside of the museum “How has the museum enriched your life?” If you can’t get a response, then penetration into the market is a MAJOR issue, moreso than building woes.

    See this: http://www.kcet.org/socal/departures/highland-park/richard-duardo.html

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