REVIEW – Museo Soumaya

by Tomek Jedrowski

A billionaire’s museum in Mexico City is a missed opportunity

In 1976 Paul J. Getty asked “How does one measure the success of a museum?” As the richest man in the world at the time and the founder of his museum in Los Angeles, Getty came face to face with the thorny relationship between extreme wealth and arts patronage.

These days, Carlos Slim should be asking himself the same question. Slim, a Mexican entrepreneur and currently the richest man in the world (according to Forbes Magazine), inaugurated the new Museo Soumaya in Mexico City this March, to showcase his extensive art collection of 66,000 pieces. The museum will be open to the public for free, and includes a large collection of pre-Hispanic and colonial coins, Mexican murals, modernist paintings by Picasso and Miro, and the largest collection of Rodin sculptures outside France.

Slim said, “All desirable things must be accessible. It’s a gift to the city.”

Slim’s rhetoric is as grandiose as the building he commissioned for his collection. Situated on the fringe of the city’s exclusive Polanco district, the structure looks like a sequined anvil. It was designed by Slim’s son-in-law, the previously little-known Fernando Romero, and is covered by 16,000 hexagonal aluminum scales, supplied by one of Slim’s companies. From the outside, the structure looks set to become an icon of the city.

As I walk inside, Rodin’s gloomy Le Penseur is surrounded by bar chairs and cordoned off for a private event. Black-suited security guards follow me across white marble floors. A girl with a Gucci bag noisily orders a taxi over the phone while I stare, amazed, at a replica Museo Soumaya in Bulgari gold.

The feel is somewhere between a fancy Chelsea gallery and a luxury mall.

Working my way up the six floors, I walk across large ramps reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York. Alas, these walkways are on the outside of the interior, and in the absence of a courtyard or windows (as originally conceived by Romero but blocked by Slim for financial reasons) give the space a claustrophobic feel.  As a blunt commentator on the L.A. Times Magazine website put it: “Not a wave of natural light – just the darkness of a man’s ego.”

The collection contains many treasures, from historical household objects to 17th century landscapes, from pre-Colombian pottery to Van Gogh. I am particularly struck by El Greco’s “The Holy Family”, and a Mexican feather painting from the 18th century – a stunning example of indigenous craftsmanship and play with colours.  But at times it seems that the collection is trying to do too much by showing a few pieces in almost every branch of art ( “a grab-bag of objects across endless categories”), leaving an overall sense of disorientation.

Discord between the art and the layout of the rooms contributes to the sense of chaos. Laura Dominguez, who oversaw the completion of the interior, divulged to the Architecture Magazine that her team were not given a museological program, and that organizers were “piecing together their curatorial mission” a week before the museum’s opening. This is particularly obvious on the upper floors, where very diverse works are separated by makeshift internal screens and displayed according to dozens of micro-themes, sometimes containing only four objects. On the last floor, the supposed highlight of the museum, a staggering array of sculptures by Rodin, Dali and Bourdelle are arranged seemingly at random, like a fantastically expensive storage room.

Stepping out of the Museo Soumaya, one stands on the Plaza Corso, a colossal construction project including office towers and a shopping mall – all financed by Carlos Slim. The “Emperor’s New Museum” might not yet have reached its artistic and curatorial potential, but in the meantime it will make Mr. Slim richer. And that sort of success is easy to measure.

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