‘All the artists want to come to Mexico. You can do ten times more with the same money’

The directors of the three most important contemporary art museums in Mexico — the MUAC, the Tamayo, and the Jumex — spoke with EL PAÍS about the institutions they curate, and the country’s evolving place in the international scene

Amanda de la Garza, Magalí Arriola and Kit Hammonds
Amanda de la Garza, Magalí Arriola and Kit Hammonds in Chapultepec Forest, Mexico City.Gladys Serrano

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“There is no such thing as contemporary art; there are as many contemporary artforms as there are artists creating in the present moment,” says Magalí Arriola, director of Mexico City’s Museo Rufino Tamayo, as she sits next to Amanda de la Garza, director of the Museo Universitario de Arte Contemporáneo (MUAC), and Kit Hammonds, chief curator of the Museo Jumex. These three individuals are responsible for developing and overseeing the programming at three of the most important contemporary art museums in Mexico. In February, EL PAÍS brought them together to have a conversation about the institutions they curate and about Mexico’s place in the international art scene. Arriola (Paris, France, 53 years old), Hammonds (Sheffield, UK, 48 years old) and De la Garza (Monclova, Coahuila, Mexico, 42 years old) all agree that Mexico City has long been, and still remains, one of the best places in the world for artists, curators and gallery owners.

Question. How do you and your institutions understand contemporary art?

Kit Hammonds. There’s an academic way to answer that: contemporary art is the name given to art from this century, more or less. It doesn’t mean much, just that it represents an alternative to modernity. Basically, we follow art that artists are currently making. It’s not our task to define, but to identify what’s relevant. We each have our own perspectives, but I expect our objectives are more or less the same: to help the public have an experience and reflect on their own life and their own conditions. I think that should be the ethic of an art institution: to speak to people’s lives.

Magalí Arriola. There is no such thing as contemporary art — I don’t think we can talk about it in such a fundamentalist way. There are as many contemporary arts as there are artists creating in the present moment. I think we should associate it less with historical referentiality, which has very moveable borders, and more with the development of a certain type of discursivity. Meaning, that it’s linked to the development of proposals and discourses that are relevant to the social, political and cultural contexts in which they develop. What I find most compelling about any artistic proposal are the questions it raises, not the answers it gives me.

Amanda de la Garza. This is a question that comes up a lot, and perhaps there’s not a totally satisfactory answer to it. It’s related to a series of questions that artists have raised in various moments. On the other hand, there is also a series of practices that pose a different relationship with the world, as part of a social field that is not separate from what is happening outside it. Sometimes, when people have misgivings and say that they don’t understand contemporary art, I think that contemporary art, in reality, is art that is much closer to our lives than other art movements — closer to what we think, to the ideas of a given era, or to problems that exist.

Question. How do you make contemporary art accessible to the public?

Amanda de la Garza. At the MUAC, we try to show a diversity of perspectives. Some of our exhibitions are aimed at a much wider public, others at more specific, even academic, sectors. Another very important element in this is how we welcome the public, how we support and guide visitors, for example, by having meeting points and a team of museum facilitators. We work with university students, and this allows the audience to have a different interaction with the works, because you have a person who is telling you about the different features of the exhibition, and about the artist or the artwork. On the other hand, media and communications are undoubtedly very relevant aspects as well. Especially since the pandemic, digital programs, online conversations, and virtual exhibitions have become very relevant.

Kit Hammonds. Contemporary art is not that hard to understand. There are borders that people perceive and that we want to break down. The Museo Jumex sees a large number of visitors who know nothing about contemporary art. We are always looking to create opportunities, both inside and outside the museum, to share the artist’s experience. In our programming, we have other types of exhibits and projects that include the public in their design and construction. For example, we currently have an exhibition by Minerva Cuevas, which uses games, and the central sculpture is built in collaboration with the public. We also have a project called “Museums in Common,” which is a collaborative project involving artists and a community from a nearby market, with the idea of inverting the notion that artists are somehow separate from the culture. We try to break down the boundaries of class and education at various levels.

Magalí Arriola. We use the traditional approaches and resources that have always been used: wall texts, explanatory cards.... We’re also starting to develop a kind of downloadable PDF guide that you can take home, where we can add updated information from the artists or the curators. And, on the other hand, we also organize workshops, guided tours catered to different types of audiences... During the pandemic we did several experiments to develop elements that can be hosted on our website, such as a program called “Guided Collection,” in which artists and curators present specific works that they select themselves. Recently, as part of this series, the artist Mariela Scafati presented one of her pieces in the museum’s basement storage room. Being able to open the bowels of the museum up like this is a good way to enrich the conversation around the works, and to eliminate many of the barriers that the public has come to believe exist.

Question. The artists featured in you programming already have institutional standing. What excites you about emerging art? How do you keep your finger on the pulse of what’s happening?

Amanda de la Garza. The pulse is an intuition. You’re always asking whether you’re taking the pulse correctly, and whether you’re asking the right questions. You’re always looking, and of course, you get excited about certain things, but you can also get excited about things from the past that have a relevance to the present. The idea of the new is a difficult thing to put your finger on. The questions are mostly the same, but they can also change, and they can have different answers. Also, each one of us is connected to an international scene, and so [we think about] how to establish relationships between the local and what’s happening elsewhere, because we don’t want to stay isolated, but at the same time, we want to provide a space for the local scene to continue growing stronger. Institutions shape the interests and tastes of the era, and are born from professional practice, but also from personal affinities.

Kit Hammonds. We are not museums for Mexico, we are museums in Mexico. Of course we need to stay on the pulse of what’s happening here and connect our activities with the audience and the artists. On the other hand, the youngest artists who come to the Museo Jumex have an opportunity to participate in the programming, not just to show in a major exhibition. For example, every month we have a rotating exhibition featuring a different artist. That is great opportunity for them, whether they’re Mexican or international. For me, it’s important to identify artists with potential, and to offer them opportunities, and to experiment with ways of supporting the growth of the scene, not just to take its pulse.

Hammonds, De la Garza, and Arriola in conversation on February 1.
Hammonds, De la Garza, and Arriola in conversation on February 1.Gladys Serrano

Question. What do you think of Mexico’s contemporary art scene?

Amanda de la Garza. Mexico occupies a really interesting place in the international contemporary art scene. There are a lot of historical relationships and interactions, as well as asymmetries. That is to say, although Mexico’s cultural production is very interesting and relevant, we obviously don’t have the resources that exist at the international level. However, it’s not just a question of how many human or economic resources you have, but also, discursively, how this ties in with what is being discussed in other contexts. There is a lot of interest in what’s happening in Mexico. On the other hand, there are many challenges in terms of the country’s arts education.

Kit Hammonds. Artists everywhere want to show their work in Mexico. The country is a focus of attention for international artists, and everyone wants to come here. It’s false to think of Mexico as separate from the world. Mexico has [an international] presence and everyone wants to make their mark here. We should think more about what the international scene wants from us.

Question. Why is it that so many artists are attracted to Mexico?

Kit Hammonds. There are a number of reasons. One is that the country has a vibrant, living culture. Particularly in Mexico City, but more and more Yucatan, Baja California... And that’s because of the influx of international people. It’s a little sad to say, but really, it’s because of the economy. It makes economic sense to come here. You can do ten times more with the same amount of money. Berlin was this place for Europe in the 1990s, for the same reason. There are waves. Our job is to build an infrastructure for the culture to continue when the attention shifts to… Manila.

Question. What have been the most influential works of the last 50 years?

Magalí Arriola. It’s too soon to tell. I wouldn’t want to give any final or definitive assessment. Maybe it sounds a bit cliché, but there needs to be a certain historical distance. It’s not only a matter of evaluating the works as such, but also of understanding the context in which they are produced and how that context evolves over time. There are pieces that are responses to certain political and social situations that have immediate repercussions, but over time, things can change and become rearranged. Perhaps it’s more interesting to think about why, at certain moments, some works gain relevance and at other times they don’t. I have my own personal favorite works of art, but that’s a different thing, and I don’t think my opinion is relevant enough to share.

Kit Hammonds. I’m not a historian. It’s not my job and I have a resistance to writing history because history is always biased. I’m interested in looking for the relevance of the works as they exist today. For me, it’s more important to talk about today’s context and what an artist can say about our present conditions. It could be a piece from the 10th century that’s relevant today and is therefore contemporary. That’s the idea of contemporary art for me.

Question. What topics are being addressed today in the world of contemporary art, and what will people be talking about in 2023?

Magalí Arriola. At the Tamayo, we want to provide continuity to some of the paths we opened in 2022. For example, our 40th anniversary exhibition featuring a historical review of the creation of the museum itself, and its collections. For [Rufino] Tamayo, this would have been the international contemporary art institution that he dreamed of. This year we plan on engaging in another process to review what international art means today, starting with recent additions to our collection, many of them by artists born after 1960. These works highlight themes that are omnipresent in contemporary life, and that have to do with gender, identities, migration...

Amanda de la Garza. One important question that museums should be asking is what the social role of museums should be in the face of the global crises we are experiencing, and what the role of art should be. Another important issue for museums is to understand how we can participate in this general awareness of the environmental crisis. And on the other hand, there’s the question of how the pandemic has altered art scenes and the contemporary art circuit.

Question. And how it has changed artistic production?

Amanda de la Garza. It’s not an easy question to answer. Last year, for example, we saw an emphasis on collective practices in art. And of course, conversations around gender. These are themes that are very prevalent among artists today. It’s a moment of change, but one where what comes next has not been clearly defined. It’s that kind of moment where there’s something that hasn’t been fully configured but is still developing.

Kit Hammonds. Defining whether something is fashionable or not is less interesting to me than talking about things that have continuity across generations, across cultures... However, certain themes have stood out in the aftermath of the pandemic, such as our relationship with nature and ecology. Another very important theme, not only in Mexico but in international terms, has been identity. And one type of exhibition that interests us now involves a return to the forms of direct art production. Most of our exhibitions this year were by artists who work directly with the materials to produce a work. We have two big exhibitions, one by Gego [a Venezuelan sculptor of German origin] and one by Lari Pittman [a US painter]. Their art forms are completely different, but both artists create their works in a direct way. There is no planned production of an image or sculpture; the forms emerge in the act of production.

Question. Do you think there is a lack of representation of any kind? Do institutions owe any kind of debts?

Magalí Arriola. If it were up to me, I would do a thousand things, but there are certain limitations. I think the big challenge is to do as much as possible in the best way possible, but it’s not always feasible. There are thousands of debts owed, but I don’t want to get into that. You can only do what you can do. You can only do as much as life, money, infrastructure, people, your relationships out there... It seems very easy to say: ‘Well, I already have my museum, I already have my equipment, I already have my budget, and I’m going to put together a program for you.’ Well, it’s not like that. I mean, just putting together a schedule is very complicated.

Amanda de la Garza. The demand for institutions to do more is tremendous. It’s natural that there should be such a demand, considering that we are such a limited resource. We have limited budgets, and limited space. This year, the MUAC will have seven exhibitions. Seven projects, in the context of a very lively international art scene, is not very much. Not to say that these project don’t reflect what we need to be doing, but it’s a very small slice of what exists, or of all the project that we could think of pursuing to realize our goals. In this sense, there are always things missing, but there are also things that simply cannot be done immediately, and not everything is up to us. We make every effort to be relevant institutions. A lot remains to be done, but a lot is also being done, under complex conditions.

Kit Hammonds. I agree. It’s not worth talking about what’s missing. What can we change internally, within the institution, to adjust our directions more ethically? Are we looking to diversify our teams? Are we putting ads in many places? Or is it just a gesture? If it’s a gesture, that’s not what we should be thinking about. I’m more interested in the transformation of structures. That is the only thing that is missing: flexibility in the institutions. It takes years to change even a little bit. Just like programming. It’s not easy to say: ‘This year there are only 35-year-old artists from Tepito.’ Yes, it’s possible, but why? What interests me most is when there is an interaction with people who don’t have access to art and who could become artists in the future. There are trends. It’s easy to follow trends. It’s difficult to change the structure or the programming.

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