Why Did a Horde of the Uber-Rich Just Descend on Mexico City’s Galleries? Because the Art Market’s Future (for Now) Is Regional

Even without a fair at a convention center, Zona Maco provided a model that other international art hubs can follow.

Winter Street Gallery at Galeria Hilario Galguera for Zona Maco Art Week 2021 during the last week of April in Mexico City, Mexico. Photograph by Casey Kelbaugh

Last Wednesday, Zona Maco founder Zélika Garcia was sitting in one of the many elaborate courtyards of Casa Ortega, the first residence of the great Mexico City architect Luis Barragán. It was 6 p.m., which meant Garcia was still at lunch, nursing a cocktail of tequila and fresh juice. As the meal entered its seventh hour, many of the guests smoked cigarettes; others wandered around taking in the sprawling outdoor exhibition Zona Maco Patio.

“I really cannot believe,” Zelika said, taking a sip, “that we were able to pull this off.”

Work by Jose Dávila at Zona Maco Patio at Zona Maco Art Week 2021. Photograph by Casey Kelbaugh.

It was no small feat. After 15 months of almost no in-person art-world programming, the largest art fair in Latin America decided to be the guinea pig for our new era, scrapping the convention-center model and pivoting to a Mexico-forward art week where the biggest galleries in CDMX hosted those from all across this continent-spanning country.

The event, planned over the course of just a few weeks, emphasized outdoor ventures and low-capacity, mask-required gallery hopping rather than crowds in a hanger. It drew such deep-pocketed collectors as Eugenio Lopez, the Slim family, and the Taco Inn baron César Cervantes. Vaccination levels in New York and Los Angeles meant that out-of-towners—including the musician Beck—were in the mix, too.

Latin America in general is in a state of disaster with regard to the pandemic: Brazil has a seven-day average of around 60,000 COVID-19 cases, 10,000 more than the still-struggling United States. But the seven-day average in Mexico is just 3,000. And while Europeans are barred by their governments from entering the U.S., they are free to go to Mexico. Nearly every visitor I met said they had been vaccinated (though Mexico’s vaccination distribution pales in comparison to that of the States).

For those with the requisite shots, there were cocktail parties at mansions in Roma, line dancing at salsa clubs rumored to be run by the cartels, and late nights at speakeasies nestled within nondescript buildings in Condesa. Thousands visited the programming at Zona Maco Patio, gallery-hoppers darted to and from galleries, and once business was done, locals and interlopers alike descended on expansive outdoor seating areas at trendy lunch spots.

Zona Maco showed how, even if we’re not quite at the end of this strange era, the art world can come together again. With local engagement, rather than global jet-setting, as the goal, organizers offered a model for how to foster lively engagement in this odd in-between moment.

The gallery Labor, pictured here, hosted the gallery Peana during Zona Maco Art Week 2021. Photograph by Casey Kelbaugh

Supporting Mexico First 

The key was engaging the local gallery circuit, which has become incredibly robust over the past five years. Galleries such as Kurimanzutto, Proyectos Monclova, OMR, Galería Hilario Galguera, and Labor have expanded their collector bases well beyond the DF. But it’s not in fair booths where their programming shines—it’s in their gallery spaces, which are ample and affordable in this sprawling cultural capital.

That’s why Maco arranged for galleries that would have ordinarily shown at the fair to set up shop at a local mainstay instead. It’s the model used by London dealer Vanessa Carlos’s Condo (which held a Mexico City edition in 2019), but with one twist. Garcia insisted that all the galleries participating be from Mexico.

Not only was this easier logistically, but also, Garcia said, “It was really important to us that we supported the galleries here in this country.”

Work by Damien Ortega at Kurimanzutto. Photograph by Casey Kelbaugh

When the city’s biggest collectors rolled through Kurimanzutto, they saw work by gallery artists Damián Ortega and fashion designer and artist Bárbara Sánchez-Kane alongside presentations by the Oaxacan project space YOPE and local galleries Salón Silicón, Llano, and Galería Agustina Ferreyra. It felt like a mini-fair.

Sales—particularly for works in the four to five-figure range—came easily. At Proyectos Monclova, work by Gabriel de la Mora was selling for between $25,000 and $75,000. The gallery also sold work by the Detroit-based James Benjamin Franklin for between $12,000 and $20,000. OMR sold at least one of Gabriel Rico’s pop-forward wooden sculptures for $40,000.

Out of its new project space, OMR Aire, the gallery also found buyers for nearly a dozen works in the four-figure territory, and Proyecto Paralelo was selling work by Cynthia Gutiérrez for $4,000. Yope sold out of clay renderings of Bitcoin tokens by David Zafra for $1,000 each—way less than a Bitcoin, and prettier, too. Darío Escobar’s minimalist structure Modular Construction No. 28 (2021) sold for $25,000.

Galeria OMR at Zona Maco Art Week 2021 during the last week of April in Mexico City, Mexico. Photograph by Casey Kelbaugh

At Galeria Mascota—which popped up in Aspen during the pandemic but is now back in the DF, joining a group of smaller galleries turning over their spaces to Mexican artists—works by local artist duo Sangree sold quickly for $6,500 each. Labor sold Pablo Vargas Lugo’s Bandera rota (Mimoniades Nuscia) (2020) for $13,500.

Beyond commerce, perhaps the most striking gesture toward a Mexico-first art week was on view at Museo Jumex, fruit juice heir Eugenio Lopez’s private museum in Polanco. Despite the fact that Lopez has one of the world’s greatest collections of European and American contemporary art, every single work up at his museum was by an artist from or living in the country of Mexico.

Work by SoiL Thornton at Moran Moran at Zona Maco Art Week 2021 in Mexico City, Mexico. Photograph by Casey Kelbaugh

International Presence 

For Zona Maco Week to truly be a global art event, it couldn’t be only local dealers and collectors. And it wasn’t. Many in the States and, to a slightly lesser extent, Europe, decided this was the first real art event they would risk traveling for.

Friday lunch at Contramar, the city’s top restaurant, is always a hotbed of activity for the city’s art scene. (“Not going to Contramar on a Friday,” one dealer told me, “is just simply bad for business.”) But on the Friday of Maco, it was positively humming with commerce; dealers from New York and Los Angeles hopped tables contra the six-per-table rule as lunch stretched to 8 p.m.

(Contramar used to do dinner service, but the regulars would refuse to budge from their lunch seatings, making the evening meal impossible.)

Contramar before service. Photo by Nate Freeman.

Several galleries also put up shows of work by American artists, giving the proceedings an international pedigree. Travesía Cuatro, a Spanish gallery that opened a sprawling Condesa space in 2019, presented Mexico’s first solo show by the Los Angeles-based neo-romanticist Friedrich Kunath, who also works with powerhouse galleries Blum & Poe and Galerie König.

Carlota Pérez-Jofre, the director of the Travesía Cuatro in Mexico City, said that local collectors were drawn to Kunath’s blend of earnest landscape and half-ironic greeting card hokum, with the show-stopping paintings spread out across the multi-story space. The show is nearly sold out, with prices ranging from $18,000 for a smaller work to $60,000 for a more major one. Most of the works went to collectors in Mexico or Spain—the first Travesia Cuatro outpost is in Madrid—mostly because, as Pérez-Jofre put it, “this was his first solo show in Mexico, and we were focused on the Latin American market prior to any international sale.” An important Mexican institution bought one of the “skies” paintings in the show, among the most sought after.

She added that there was “an immense interest in Kunath in Seoul and Hong Kong” and that three of the works were sold to collections in South Korea.

(Though the artist couldn’t be there himself, one of his friends, the musician Beck, told Pérez-Jofre it looked fantastic.)

Work by Mathieu Malouf at House of Gaga at Zona Maco Art Week 2021 in Mexico City, Mexico. Photograph by Casey Kelbaugh

Also unmissable was a suite of garishly in-your-face portraits—of the Beach Boys, of Jack Dorsey, of Batman—by the divisive prankster-artist Mathieu Malouf at House of Gaga. (Malouf traveled all the way from Manhattan to install the show, and kept the House of Gaga team in the dark about what he was going to present until days before the opening.)

The Mexico City scene has proven so buoyant that the L.A. gallery Morán Morán is planning a permanent outpost there. Though it doesn’t open until June, it was among the most talked-about narratives of the week. It will debut with the first survey of works by Robert Mapplethorpe ever staged in Mexico, put together by the former Museo Tamayo curator Tobias Ostrander.

Work by Tony Matelli in “Under a Loggia,” a show organized by Winter Street Gallery at Galeria Hilario Galguera. Photograph by Casey Kelbaugh

Above all, perhaps the most memorable testament to how Mexico City’s art world has grown from regional to international is the origin story of Galería Hilario Galguera. The eponymous dealer, a natural raconteur with extremely thick metal rings studding his hands, founded his namesake gallery in 2006 solely to stage Mexico’s first-ever Damien Hirst show.

Galguera met Hirst on the artist’s first trip to town. After a bender through the city (“there was… a lot of drinking,” Galguera recalled), Hirst demanded that Galguera open a gallery in order to give him a show. Galguera took a shot of tequila and agreed.

Winter Street Gallery at Galeria Hilario Galguera for Zona Maco Art Week 2021 in Mexico City, Mexico. Photograph by Casey Kelbaugh

“Damien calls up Jay Jopling, and says, ‘Jay, I’m going to have a show in Mexico,’” Galguara recalled, standing on the roof of his multi-story gallery in San Rafael. “And Jay said, ‘Mexico? Is there anything there beside mariachi bands and tequila? And Damien, what gallery are you going to show at in Mexico?’ Damien put the phone down and asked me, ‘What’s the name of the gallery?’ I shrugged. ‘It’s called Galería Hilario Galguera,” Damien said into the phone.”

Ganguera raised his hands,

“And then Jay Jopling said, ‘Who the fuck is Hilario Galguera? And Damien responds, ‘He’s my dealer in Mexico, and he’s going to fuck you.’”

The Hirst show was a sensation, drawing more than 70,000 people, and for many it marked the start of Mexico City’s role in the global art hajj. (Galguera and Jopling became friends at the opening, when they realized that they could work better together than apart.)

During Maco Week, Galguera staged a series of shows, including one on the roof. “Under a Loggia,” curated by Ingrid Lundgren and George Newall of Winter Street Gallery, which opened on Martha’s Vineyard in 2020, features work by New York-based artists Carl D’Alvia, Al Freeman, Tony Matelli, and Kayode Ojo.

At the opening, New Yorkers ran into friends from L.A., curators from the Jumex checked out a few pieces, and Palais de Tokyo co-founder Nicolas Bourriaud—down in Mexico after being ousted from his perch running the Montpellier Contemporain—glad-handed his way through the crowd.

Casa Gilardi with work by Robert Janitz. Photo by Nate Freeman.

The Power of Barragán

When lunch ended around 7:00 p.m., Zélika Garcia, the Zona Maco founder, led me to yet another Barragán house. It was Casa Gilardi, the last property fully completed before the Pritzker Prize winner’s death, and probably his masterpiece. It’s small, with a pool rendered invisible amid cream and pink walls—perhaps the most woozily gorgeous house I’ve ever stepped foot in.

For Maco, the house hosted a show of new work by Robert Janitz curated by Gianni Jetzer, the curator-at-large at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C. After a walkthrough, I ran into Janitz on the rooftop terrace. Back in the day I used to see Janitz around New York, but I hadn’t seen him in a while.

Casa Gilardi with work by Robert Janitz. Photo by Nate Freeman.

“I moved to Mexico last year before it all went down, and I decided to stay,” he said.

Janitz was sipping tequila and looking down at his own work installed in the historic house. He went back to New York last June, but didn’t much like it anymore. He’s planning on staying south of the border for the time being.

“I guess you can say things worked out OK,” Janitz said.

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