The way Kit Hammonds explains things, it takes 10 years to get a museum right, to figure out which artists to exhibit and how to lure large crowds through the doors, to hone a distinct curatorial vision and, just as important, to assemble a behind-the-scenes team that understands the challenges every institution faces.
Museo Jumex, where Mr. Hammonds is chief curator, has accomplished all of those things, though it has enjoyed some clear advantages getting through its first decade, notably the financial support of Eugenio López Alonso, whose family made a fortune with its Grupo Jumex juice business in Mexico, and who spends considerable sums of money in the name of visual arts. Mr. López founded the museum, built its gleaming, white home amid the designer retail shops and sleek residential towers in Mexico City’s Polanco neighborhood, and funds its continuing expenses.
With his backing, the museum has quickly evolved into a major player in the country’s visual arts scene, staging a long list of exhibitions by contemporary Mexican artists, along with blockbuster shows of work by global superstars, past and present, including Jeff Koons, Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol and James Turrell. Museo Jumex, in a building designed by the Pritzker Prize-winning British architect David Chipperfield, is a crowd-pleasing success.
But Mr. López has also embodied the unique challenges Mr. Hammonds refers to. He has been simultaneously the museum’s greatest asset and its biggest distraction, with both the museum, and its benefactor, receiving criticism about his role in day-to-day operations. Mr. López is heavily involved in decision-making over exhibitions and is frequently accused of usurping a role usually filled by professional curators.
The museum operates without a board of directors. The top curators report directly to Mr. López, whose title is president. The arrangement has been murky, at times, and one reason that high-profile staff turnovers are as much a part of the museum’s history as its popular exhibitions of work by Urs Fischer, Gonzalo Lebrija and Pedro Reyes. Mr. López has been framed by Mexican curators and journalists as a rich collector running a vanity project dressed up as a public entity.
Mr. López acknowledges the negative opinions but dismisses much of that as background noise. The museum’s triumphs speak for themselves, he said, and, aside from acting as an adviser, he leaves curators to their work. “I don’t make the final decisions,” he said in a video interview last month. “They make them, and they always have.”
The current curators say that is true, though they have learned to pass big decisions by their employer and respect his wishes around which shows get produced, according to Mr. Hammonds. “Probably 50 percent of the programming, in reality, comes directly from Eugenio,” he said during a tour of the museum last month. The rest comes from the staff, he said, though once a show gets the green light, curators work without interference.
That was the case for Lisa Phillips, the director of New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, who was hired as guest curator for Museo Jumex’s celebratory anniversary exhibition, “Everything Gets Lighter,” which opens Nov. 18.
She was asked to develop the show’s lineup from the museum’s in-house holdings, a luminous collection assembled by Mr. López himself over the last quarter-century, and she was free to proceed at will, she said in a video interview last month. She sorted through more than 2,800 objects and selected a roster with 67 artists. Built around the theme of light, the show will include work by Gerhard Richter, Ana Mendieta, Dan Flavin, Damien Hirst, Gabriel Orozco and Ugo Rondinone.
“Everything Gets Lighter” will fill all three floors of the museum’s exhibition spaces, known for their flexible layouts and high ceilings, as well as their ample outdoor terraces. The terraces frame views of the surrounding buildings, including the landmark twisting, tiled tower of the Museo Soumaya next door.
The show will also use the exterior plaza at Museo Jumex, a showplace for large-scale works, where Olafur Eliasson’s “Waterfall,” originally from 1998, will be installed. The piece is a working, mechanical waterfall and just one of the attractions that invite visitors to “climb on, swing in, move around and interact with” the art, Ms. Phillips said. (New Yorkers may recall that four of Mr. Eliasson’s waterfalls were installed around the city in 2008.)
The museum’s leaders hope the exhibit will match the popularity of recent offerings, which have attracted record attendance. A sprawling retrospective of the Greek artist Jannis Kounellis earlier this year, for example, drew more than 250,000 people, three times the number that attended a typical show at Jumex just a few years ago, Mr. Hammonds said.
One reason for that boost may be economic. During the pandemic, the museum did away with its entrance fee and made all of its offerings, including programs for families, completely free. Tickets were never much to begin with — 30 pesos, or the equivalent of about $1.75, for residents of Mexico — but it was a barrier for some.
Mr. Hammonds also thinks the museum has developed a visitor-friendly personality that sets it apart from other contemporary spaces in Mexico City, such as the University Museum of Contemporary Art (better known by its Spanish-language acronym MUAC) which has a more academic bent. Museo Jumex can be academic, at times, but he says that it tries to frame shows in a fun, relaxed manner that acknowledges fine art “can be part of the popular culture without being diminished.”
One example is the interactive installation “Long Live the Paperwork!” by the Argentine artist Amalia Pica, on display through Sunday. It takes the form of a typical corporate office with low walls and cubicles for workers.
Visitors use a pen and clipboard to fill out an application to enter the space. But then a museum attendant immediately puts it through a paper shredder, letting the shreds fall into the office. The piles of accumulated refuse serve as a playground of sorts: Some visitors roll around on the floor and toss paper bombs at one another.
Mr. Hammonds, who curated that piece, credits the museum’s staffing structure — the same structure others criticize — for enabling its looser moments. It does not have “a lot of committees and things” vetting each show, he said. “It’s amazing, as a curator, how free I am to concentrate on curating.”
Still, some suggest that a more traditional organizational chart would add rigor to the museum’s offerings. MUAC’s chief curator, Cuauhtémoc Medina, for example, has been critical of the way Museo Jumex organizes its staff. He points to the fact that both of its first two top curators left their positions abruptly — Patrick Charpenel in 2015 and Julieta González in 2020 — leading to the appointment of Mr. Hammonds, who is the third curatorial director in the institution’s brief history.
Museo Jumex’s “slightly vague directorship” prevents it from being taken seriously as a museum, Mr. Medina said, echoing comments of other critics and curators. “In my view, it is unhealthy to assume that because an institution is supported by private funds, arbitrariness can be tolerated,” he said.
For his part, Mr. López prefers to focus on where the museum has excelled.
His goal with the museum, he said, was to give his city a gift that would expose more people to the visual arts in Mexico. “Basically, that is all I wanted to do,” he said. “And I think we have done it.”
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