Mexico City: Eyes Wide Open

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My first trip to Mexico City was an eye opener. I knew that it was huge but still I was overwhelmed by its scale, its crowds, and its traffic. However, it was impossible not to be seduced by the operatic grandeur of the Palace of Fine Arts with its Art Deco interiors and frescoes by Diego Rivera and Rufino Tamayo. Walking through the historic city center, I marveled at the exuberance of the colonial architecture. It reminded me of streets and plazas in Spain or Italy but on a scale unimaginable there. The city's main plaza, the Zócalo, is said to be the second largest in the world. Only the Red Square in Moscow is bigger. But let me tell you something, just two months ago I walked through Red Square and the Zócalo feels much, much bigger.

Behind the neo-classical façade of the National Palace on the edge of the plaza, I saw the famous cycle of Diego Rivera frescoes illustrating the history of Mexico. An immensely talented artist, Rivera went gloriously overboard depicting brutality and injustice befalling his people but also the nobility and passion of their struggle for independence. To be completely honest, I was more impressed than moved by these monumental frescoes with their revolutionary zeal. Today it comes across as an unabashed attempt at Communist propaganda, one of the main agendas of the artist throughout most of his career.

I was in Mexico City for only four days attending a conference organized by the International Museum Institute of USC in collaboration with UNAM, the largest and most important university in Mexico. Museum leaders of both countries gathered to discuss the vital issues their institutions are facing today; What should be done to enable museums to become more dynamic and relevant as the centers of civic and cultural activity?; What does it take to make every visitor feel welcome?; How does new technology change the dynamic of the public's knowledge and interaction with art? And, what are the criteria by which we should measure a museum's success? Most of us agreed that high attendance numbers should not be the sole criteria or ultimate goal of museum activity. And, there is definitely a need to make museums more accessible by abolishing admission fees following the example of our free public libraries.

Our Mexican hosts did their absolute best to make us feel at home and enabled us to see more than the average visitor would be able to in such a short time. For years I was dreaming about visiting the house and studio of Luis Barragán (1902-1988), the most famous 20th century Mexican architect. The first impression of the building is the modesty and almost monastic simplicity of its uncluttered spaces but then, one becomes aware of the utter sophistication with which Barragán orchestrates the play of color and light.

Driving far to the outskirts of the city, we visited the private collection of contemporary art presented inside one of the many buildings of the Jumex fruit juice factory. This is the best and most impressive collection of contemporary art in Mexico, and it was assembled by the Jumex fortune heir, Eugenio Lopez. He splits his time between Mexico City and Los Angeles, where he has become an important figure in our city's cultural life as well, especially in his role of a trustee at MOCA. It took me almost thirty years to visit Mexico but now I cannot wait to go back.