The Museo Tamayo for Contemporary Art is located inside the Bosque de Chapultepec, on the edge of the neighbourhood of Polanco. Short walks away are the Museum of Modern Art and the National Museum of Anthropology, the Castillo de Chapultepec, and the National Auditorium, attached to which are a series of small- and medium-size theatres and performance houses. There are also two important presentation houses nearby, the Casa del Lago and the Sala de Arte Público Siqueiros or SAPS.
Together, these institutions constitute one of the cultural axes of Mexico City, another prominent one being in and around the Zócalo, or central square, where one finds the Palacio Nacional, Palacio de Bellas Artes, San Ildefonso, San Carlos, Templo Mayor, the Cathedral, and the Franz Mayer Museum.
Many other museums and centers can be found throughout the city, around 280 of them, including the University Museum of Contemporary Art (MUAC), the Jumex Museum, the Frida Kahlo museum, the Anahuacalli Museum, and the Luis Barragán House.
This vast cultural infrastructure of Mexico City has been built over a period of around 100 years and continues to render new institutions: MUAC, which opened less than a decade ago, or the Museo Jumex, which opened in 2014, to name the two most prominent in the landscape of contemporary art. Throughout, the cultural scene in Mexico City has been central for the national imaginary, and has renewed itself several times over, the most recent (and least strident) renewal taking place in the 1990s, which saw a shift towards the international scene and market and the emergence of a solid contemporary art world that includes several commercial galleries like OMR, Kurimanzutto, Labor, José García, Arredondo/Arozarena, House of Gaga, and a series of independent centres like Casa Maauad, and schools like SOMA. Today writers, architects, contemporary artists and filmmakers from Mexico are present all over the world, and together represent one of the most thriving cultural scenes internationally.
The Museo Rufino Tamayo de Arte Contemporáneo opened its doors in 1981 as a cultural center of Televisa, one of the main television networks in Mexico, and a few years later was given over to the National Institute of Fine Arts, becoming the first public museum in Latin America to be dedicated for contemporary art and designated as such.
I should mention, nonetheless, that in the 1980s, in Mexico, people called “contemporary” what we now call “late modern” with figures like Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Tamayo himself, Isamu Noguchi and Barbara Hepworth. This early group of works now forms one part of the museum’s collections, while another responds to the emergence, in the ‘90s, of what is now called contemporary art.
Since 1986 the Tamayo Museum has thus operated as a public institution, with the support of the Olga and Rufino Tamayo Foundation, an association of private individuals who provide financial support to the museum’s program, following a model close to the French, with associations of friends of the museum, which provides both agility and extra resources that are vital to the healthy running of our institutions today.
There is a growing discourse today that wants museums to move closer to a combined model, with shared public and private budgets and responsibilities – and, one assumes, shared governance. It is difficult to assess the pros and cons of such a move, for it is a direct symptom of the privatization of the public sphere – or, more precisely, the privatization of public services – which might have been more interesting had it been accompanied by a more progressive and stricter observance of public interests.
As it stands almost everywhere in the world, privatization often means a revision of the government’s social responsibilities, hoping that the market economy will develop a social consciousness. This discourse is not unique to Mexico, and in fact has been inflecting public policy in many of the countries that spent the latter half of the 20th century developing a social democracy: France, the Netherlands, Canada, and Mexico, to name the ones I’m more familiar with.
In the Netherlands, as people in Europe might still remember, there was a rather ruthless cut to arts funding in 2011 aimed, I still suspect, at three things: at shining the spotlight on culture so that other projects of privatization would go unnoticed (health, for instance), at reducing a rather excessive number of institutions – mostly small ones – to a more manageable number, and at forcing a combined public-private model on the “culture industry.”
The first two goals were somewhat achieved, but the third one poses a significant problem, namely that there is neither an established culture of giving – as there are in the U.K. and in the US – nor is there a fiscal incentive in place to develop one. Fiscal incentives, especially in the Usa are high, and give the citizen the possibility to decide where her or his tax money goes (a particularly American skepticism towards governance lies beneath this drive, a skepticism that is general throughout the continent;) and people surpass the limit of tax-deductible donations because giving out of social responsibility is socially perceived to be a good thing.
In terms of private funding, public museums have for a while now been on a difficult competition with private ones, museums that are built by private individuals in order to host their own collections, often in an effort to have even more control over the uses of their own tax money. This immediately discloses a current problem: not only is the State’s management system seen with suspicion, but taxes are perceived as being personal, or individually owned. At any rate, for public museums like the Tamayo, one of the most imminent goals is to establish trust in the institution so as to give the sense the public function of museums transcends individual tastes and interests. As museum directors we must have a very clear vision of what the museum’s public function is today, at the onset of the 21st century.
The Tamayo museum’s original mandate is to represent the most relevant practices of contemporary art for local audiences to develop a better critical and aesthetic sense. Over the years, with the redefinition of “contemporary art,” the museum’s mandate has expanded to include modern and contemporary, but also to give a prominent platform for contemporary cultural practices in a more expanded sense. Thus, there are two fields of action for the Tamayo museum.
On the one hand, we are dedicated to producing exceptional exhibitions of modern and contemporary art that are relevant to its different publics and which make the museum relevant internationally. On the other hand we are looking to provide a space and platform for the further development and visibility of the myriad of projects that are being produced in Mexico in terms of cultural production, contemporary projects with textiles, ceramics, books, or projects in public space.
Amongst the projects we are developing, a significant one relates to the uses of public space and relates to the history of playgrounds. This project has its first moment with the opening of the exhibition Isamu Noguchi, Playscapes, which is a survey of the many projects the Japanese-American artist produced for public parks and around the notion of play over a period of five decades.
This initiates a reflection that we wish to continue, together with Design Week Mexico, on the significance of playgrounds as spaces of creative collective activity, and as spaces that might help us reflect on how our societies are constructed and how we interact according to established social constructions, on how we play, and how we might manage to develop forms of engagement, through aesthetics, that might lead towards a constant improvement of our collective political imagination.
Text by Juan Andrés Gaitán – Photos by Jaime Navarro Soto, cortesía de Tamayo Museum