Exhibition Morphologies. Fine Arts Palace Museum: 1934-2014
Posted on 11 June, 2015
Curatorial policy at what is today known as the Fine Arts Palace Museum has always been particularly notorious when it comes to the visual arts; this is due in large measure to its status as an official art gallery. Its exhibitions have had greater cultural significance, not only in its natural area of influence, Mexico City, but also in the interior of the country. Historiographically, the success of its montages, especially those that received positive evaluations by both specialists and the general public, have even radiated over cultural capitals with a certain museistic power, above all in Latin America.
Its historical centrality is due in part to the emblematic building that houses it, added to the fact of its decades-long insularity, since between 1934 and 1964 it was the only visual arts gallery within the system of the Public Education Secretariat (SEP), thus giving rise to a cultural tradition that continues to this day. A brief approach to the exhibition strategies of such a complex and scarcely studied institution, can only aspire to tracing very broad lines, without attempting any kind of “final tally”, not even at the most basic level, bearing in mind that any exploration of the past provides elements for a cultural construction in the present. The point is, then, to begin a process of reflection.
For almost five decades, the Palace Museum had a collection of its own to exhibit permanently. This ended in 1982, when it ceded the last patrimonial lot it kept. Unable to offer a fixed artistic tour –with the exception of the murals, which can always be visited-, its cultural offer has been limited to an exhibition program of an unavoidably ephemeral nature, articulated through loans, with pre-established time frames. Due to its official character, a certain triumphalist, non-critical approach has prevailed in a high percentage of its operations; even though this is regarded today as an obsolete practice, changing the ways and customs of a public institution is never a particularly fast process.
While the goal of any museum is to generate series of exhibitions that prolong their effects in space and time, and which through their singularity, newness and appositeness have the power to invigorate the cultural circuit, given its 80 year-long institutional life, it is understandable that certain model exhibitions, with a longer reach and durability in the collective imaginary, have been interspersed within a long succession of run-of-the-mill museographic productions that now have become relevant from a historical point of view. The vitality has waxed and waned periodically, and it shows in the unavoidable disparity in the different curatorial experiences and the risks the institution has chosen to run, but the Palace Museum has been the stage of late modernity, with a few incursions in the visualization of local, regional and international representative postmodern artistic works.
From among the instrumented exhibition morphology, the highest point of those defined as consecrating exhibitions are the individual retrospectives. Within them, those that reach the category of homages are those focused on creators who enjoy an excellent fortune with the critics and a long trajectory. Such is the case of countless emblematic exhibitions (1) Revisiting older aesthetic approaches feeds nostalgia and enables a re-configuration of the national or global historiography of art. (2) Without a doubt, the retrospective overview, with a vindicating slant, marks out this museum to a large degree. There are subdivisions within every category: in this sense, I include here those commemorative exhibitions celebrating an anniversary, be it of years in the trade (3) or in life (4), as well as centennial and 50-year commemorations (5), of birth or death predominantly (6). The cult of the decimal system.
In spite of this, the ones that had a greater impact were those that selected recent products by active artists, as far as this strategy enables an analysis and evaluation of the appositeness and contemporary relevance of an artist, or contributes to his consecration. This was the case withJuan Rulfo. Fotógrafo, 2001, which staged on 3D a little known and prolific facet of a cult writer. Another instance was the gloryfying montage devoted to Gabriel Orozco’s pieces, in 2006, when the artist was 44 years old. (7) Unquestionably, any revisionist act affords an opportunity to adjust parameters, activate the market, and suggest artistic genealogies, which in different ways interpret the flow of contemporary art.(8)
Regarding collective exhibitions that propose cartographies of artistic movements and groups, whether historical or contemporary, (9) a distinctive feature of the Fine Arts Palace museums –it seems almost an intrinsic feature- has been that avant-gardes and neo avant-gardes have gained access only after having reached their maximum creative period, often characterized by proposals that are transgressive, controversial or defiant of the conventional and the commonplace. This was the case with the current formerly known as the “Mexican School of Painting”, and with the ill-termed “Rupture”. (10) In spite of their late arrival at this legitimizing space, the ideologized and contrasting stances that dominated the artistic scene at the time made some of these montages famous.
This happened with an outmoded combat for artistic hegemony, between a movement that refused to be historical and an already positioned neo avant-garde. Thus, as late as the 1960’s, this strife continued, it almost seemed as if for advertising purposes only. I think exhibitions such as Salón Confrontación 66 de las Nuevas Generaciones (1966) and Exposición Solar (1968), were unnecessarily controversial. They coexist with many others of a costumbrist ilk, reiterating well- known facts of art, without any intention to reveal undreamed-of aspects of the visual arts of a specific period, neither embodying a breakthrough in aesthetic research or new ways of approaching the work of a group or a generation of artists.
National homages –usually devoted to deceased artists (11)– and individual retrospectives of a consecrating character, both of them acritical, interact with another fundamental exhibition category in the Palace: historicist revisions, designed for international consumption. Noteworthy among these are not just those conceived to be featured in the Palace and a few centers in the interior of the country, but above all those planned to be triumphantly paraded in prestigious galleries in global cities. The pioneering exhibition of this kind was Arte mexicano. Del precolombino a nuestros días, which opened at the Modern Art Museum in Paris, travelled afterwards to Stockholm (Liljevalch Konsthall) and London (Tate Gallery), and was shown in Mexico in 1953. (12) It propagated the exhibition archetype which continues in use practically to the present. An heir to this reductive categorization of Mexican visual arts was México eterno: arte y permanencia, inaugurated in the Palace on the eve of the year 2000, and later exhibited at the Petit Palais in Paris as Soles de México.
It is worth mentioning that this reiterated canon was one of the preferred propaganda tools of the regime that ruled Mexico for almost all of the 20th century. The obvious self-promotion aims were so successful that they contributed to placing our country as one of the top ten global tourist destinations for several decades; it only lost that position in the first decade of this century. The direct link to official policy operations is manifest in two supplementary sub-typologies. The first one deals with those national commitments in which Mexico acts as a host and which, independently of their origin, are accompanied by artistic events. This was the case with the Programa Cultural de la XIX Olimpiada, celebrated in Mexico in 1968, for which the Palace held over 15 exhibitions.
Secondly, those exhibitions sponsored by the Foreign Relations Secretariat or the governments of nations with which Mexico has formal relations. For this purpose, a space was set apart for several decades, to meet such commitments, which largely obeyed to extra artistic motivations. Even though there are some honorable exceptions, most of these exhibitions came and went without leaving a mark. (13) It began as the International Friendship Room, in 1954, at the entrance of the Palace, still designated with the French term foyer. It kept this name until 1959, shortly after the departure of the director of the then National Museum of Modern Art, Miguel Álvarez Acosta, who fostered this gallery. Afterwards, the name was simplified to International Room, and it remained active for several decades until it closed in 1996.
The fact that it is an emblematic space is precisely the reason why political pressures have historically acted as a grand elector, deciding a large percentage of the exhibition program of the Palace Museum. Plan Sexenal, 1937, built around photographs, models and statistical tables, fits squarely with this scenario. Another example: Catálogo de las pinturas, esculturas, grabados y dibujos donadas por los artistas de México a beneficio de la Campaña de Alfabetización, 1946.
Undoubtedly, from among the above-mentioned categories, countless exhibitions at the Fine Arts Palace have represented a before and after in Mexican cultural history, in terms of both quantity and quality. The first stand out as museum best-sellers, designed according to the tastes, expectations and consumer patterns of massive audiences, positioned through an excellent marketing strategy, and with the primary aim of being included in the “most visited” list. Others have become emblematic because they privileged excellence in their contents, as well as innovation and academic rigor in their approach, making a substantial contribution to the development of art history, even if at times they can be elitist and they sacrifice the necessary communicability that ought to articulate the narrative strands of the museums.
The difference between them is also manifest in the catalogue: while one fits neatly in the coffee table book category, the other is distinguished for gathering genuine experts on the subject. The ideal way is to avoid both extremes, to forge projects suitable to all audiences, without compromising the quality of the research, insisting on publishing a book/catalogue that establishes the current state of the issue, while privileging the sociability of the museological display. As a matter of fact, catalogues gather in large measure the most groundbreaking research on the visual arts, especially in terms of a historical exploration of the case under study. Because of the usual demand for it to be published before the closing of a temporary exhibition, it gathers in a brief period of time the most recent expert considerations on a specific issue.
Resistance to blockbuster-type montages —the opposite of experimental, proactive, critical or avant-garde shows— is predicated on the fact that these do not aim at encouraging reflection, but the transformation of the audience into a passive mass, contented with adoring an artist or a group, transfigured as cultural leaders and heroes after the fashion of media idols, who are made fashionable through the construction of stereotypes around their work, and through abusing their biography to highlight scandals and “revealing” anecdotes concerning their loves and sufferings. A classic example are the shows devoted to Frida Kahlo in 1977, 2004 and 2007.
Certainly, not everything is wrong in a populist exhibition. A larger number of visitors means a larger amount of financial resources for the institution, through supplemental budget allocations or increased donations and sponsorships by private individuals. One of the benefits of an exhibition/spectacle is that the mass interest it arouses generates greater activity and visibility in the museum field, where a specific establishment comes to play a leading role on the cultural scene, at least for a few months. Another advantage of generating so much media noise is that it attracts audiences who usually avoid exhibition spaces of this kind.
Naturally, the real challenge is to achieve their evolution from consumers into audiences, from passive into active visitors, who ponder and debate what they perceive. The issue, at least to me, is not the number of people one can get to pass through the doors, but rather the time they devote to the exhibition, and whether or not they return later to the museum. Precisely because of the interest aroused by a multitudinous exhibition of a retro character, La colección de Armand Hammer (1977) —which could be viewed in the then called Green and National rooms, where 170 thousand visitors admired the 100 pieces in 21 days-, Rita Eder, a renowned art historian, gathered a team of researchers to carry out a pioneering study of audiences, with academic, non-commercial goals.(14)
Because of a cardinal feature of the policy instrumented by the State –the cultural sector dependency on the vagaries of the men in charge of the Federal Executive Power-, the museums housed in the Fine Arts Palace have very rarely committed to mid- and long-term projects that have a less superficial impact on the country’s cultural life in the area of contemporary art; for this reason, there are no annual or bi-annual events today, or any with a pre-established periodicity. At the Palace –and in general in all museums in the network of the National Fine Arts Institute (INBA)- it is always a matter of holding single exhibitions. Obviously in these 80 years there have been some attempts. (15) The period between 1954 and 1958 is remarkable because of the evident official interest in carrying out serial actions. The politician Miguel Álvarez Acosta, head of INBA at that time, encouraged the establishment of the Salón Nacional de Grabado, in 1954, with four other editions; the Primer Salón Nacional de Pintura, in 1959, and especially, the Primera Bienal Interamericana de Pintura y Grabado, in 1958. This latter occupied the whole Palace, and was financed entirely by Mexico. Official organisms in each country were invited, and these in turn chose the artists and the works. It was so controversial that it was staged only a second time, in 1960.
Of course, curatorial visions and visualization methods have come a long way since the first half of the 20th century, when the norm was to start off making a list of works, gathering the chosen pieces, and then placing them or hanging them on the museum space, with scarcely a general title and technical labels; if a leaflet, a diptych or a triptych was published, then it amounted to a superior effort. This simple operational method has become more complex, as is well known, being succeeded by documented projects, whose strength lies in making explicit the meaning of the exhibition, through the research carried out during a preliminary stage, which is materialized during the museographic installation, guided by the premise that an exhibition must be the product of systematic reflection.(16)
This does not mean that those from the early museum years of the Palace did not hold specific hypothesis or purposes; it is rather that these were not explicitly expressed, either in the managing or the montage processes. Rearding ex professo research, it began in the late 1940’s, but in an inconsistent fashion, it was still done “on the fly”. The exhibition Diego Rivera. Cincuenta años de su labor artística, from 1949, is especially noteworthy because it was the first exhibition sufficiently prepared in advance, with a catalogue whose selection and contents were the result of a thorough research, conducted by several corporations in different countries, under the general coordination of the curator Fernando Gamboa. His wife, Susana Gamboa, was in charge of management, information systematization, and editing the book/catalogue. Today, this is the minimum required, not only of the paradigmatic Palace, but of any museum belonging to the National Council for Culture and the Arts’ network.
In addition to the increasing complexity of information elements (texts, videos), and the sophisticated nature of the expographic material (display cabinets, panels), innovation lies above all in the exhibition logic: “Whereas in the past the artists and their works were the exhibition’s point of arrival, for the new concept of curatorship, artists and works are points of departure”.(17) Thus, the musealia, artistic devices regarded as “true objects”, are activated as instruments that allow us to prove a hypothesis, a curatorial premise, through the reinterpretation of their own content. The intent is always to corroborate the transcendence and value of art, in relation to contemporary societies.
Ideally, each exhibition, even if understood as an event all on its own, should be related to past and future exhibitions; thus conceived as part of a series, in the sense that it is deployed under a common institutional identity, it ought to allow the weaving together of a consistent curatorial policy, contributing to the construction of symbolic value. Contemporary museology demands it be transformed into a research center and a cultural forum, while including among its goals as well the formation of new audiences and encouraging visitor recurrence, through the creation of exhibitions with open discourses, generating new perspectives and giving rise to questions and reflections. While there is a consensus around the notion that public museums must continue to exercise cultural leadership, it is also necessary that they make a periodical balance of their strengths and weaknesses, of their commitments to the present and the future of visual arts, both national and global.
The titles highlight the hagiographic intent. Some pioneers in this vein: Homenaje nacional al gran pintor mexicano José María Velasco, 1942; Homenaje Nacional a la memoria del genial grabador mexicano José Guadalupe Posada, 1943. Homenaje a la gran memoria del gran pintor Joaquín Clausell, Juan Cordero. Homenaje a la memoria del gran pintor mexicano, both from 1945.
 Maestros del Impresionismo, 1998, including Édouard Manet, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas, Paul Cézanne, Camille Pissarro and others.
 25 años de pintura de Juan Soriano, 1959; Joy Laville. Paisajes interiores y figuras. Veinte Años en México, 1985.
 Homenaje al grabador y pintor Leopoldo Méndez en su 60 aniversario, 1962; Carlos Mérida. Retrospectiva 70 Aniversario, 1961.
 Conmemorativa del Centenario de Leonardo da Vinci, 1952; Exposición conmemorativa en el cuarto centenario de la muerte de Miguel Ángel, 1964; neither of which was able to gather a significant number of works by these artists of such universal renown. La vida y la cultura en México al triunfo de la República en 1867, 1967, was of a nostalgic-contextual nature.
 Diego Rivera. Con motivo del XX Aniversario de su fallecimiento, 1977; Exposición nacional de homenaje a José Clemente Orozco con motivo del XXX aniversario de su fallecimiento, 1979; Siqueiros. Visión técnica y estructural, 1984, a decade after his death.
 Others that had an impact in their day: Obras de Pedro Coronel, 1960; El Mundo de Jesús Reyes Ferreira, 1962; Gunther Gerzso. Exposición Retrospectiva, 1963; 100 Fotografías de Lola Álvarez Bravo, 1965; Historia del Zoológico. Obras recientes de Gilberto Aceves Navarro, 1973; Marta Palau. Del tapiz a la escultura, 1974; Federico Silva. Objetos del Sol y de otras Energías Libres, 1976; Vicente Rojo. México bajo la lluvia. Pintura. Escultura. 1980-84, 1984.
 Among many retrospectives of historical creators, we can mention: Exposición nacional de la obra de Julio Ruelas, 1946; Hermenegildo Bustos, 1951; Homenaje a María Izquierdo, 1979.
 Panoramic views of past currents: Pintores Veracruzanos del siglo XIX, 1944; La pintura en México durante el siglo XIX, 1954; Pintura británica en México. Siglos XVI al XIX, 1963; México prehispánico, virreinal e independiente. Su historia y su arte, 1978; Homenaje al movimiento Escuelas de Pintura al Aire Libre, 1981; La arquitectura en México. Porfiriato y movimiento moderno, 1982; among many others.
 However, there also were sporadic attempts at docummenting the present. This is how I view 23 Pintores Jóvenes de México, 1976.
 Shortly after her death: La obra de Remedios Varo, 1964, who died in 1963;Homenaje a Leopoldo Méndez (1902-1969), 1970; Homenaje a Lilia Carrillo, 1974, the same year of her passing.
 Another one weas Expo 67, which opened in late 66, with 75 pieces expressly made for the Mexican Pavillion at the Universal Exhibition in Montreal of the following year.
 Others attained a certain relevance because the atrocious selection did not justified their alleged panoramic scope. Among them, Arte francés contemporáneo, 1956, which was bashed by the critics in the press at the time.
 Rita Eder, “El público de arte en México. Los espectadores de la colección Hammer”, Plural, volumen IV, núm 70, México, D. F., julio de 1977, pp. 12-23.
 One of the first on record is Primer Salón Libre 20 de Noviembre, of 1942, of a miscellaneous kind, housed in the so called “Green Room”, which only had a second installment due to the forced resignation of the then head of SEP, the brigadier-general Véjar Vázquez. It was formally coordinated by the recently founded Seminario de Cultura Mexicana, establishing the practice of having different institutions coordinate exhibitions in different roos of the Palace; thus, for instance, the Liga de Escritores y Artistas Revolucionarios (LEAR): Dibujos coloridos del niño José García Narezo, 1938. Other serial initiatives were: Concurso Nacional de Carteles, de 1945;Exposición Anual fotográfica. Primer Salón Nacional, 1946; Primera Exposición de Maestros de la Escuela de Diseño y Artesanía, 1969 and Segunda Exposición de los Maestros de la EDA. Escuela de Diseño y Artesanías, 1970.
 Ideally, the first step is to establish the goals, set out the basic concepts, the premises and the critical apparatus, before proceeding with the research. The installation stage is crucial, since it is then that the exhibition assumes its physical form. Now we have sophisticated simulation software to visualize the spatial disposition.
 Teixeira Coelho, Diccionario crítico de política cultural: cultura e imaginario, Conaculta, Iteso, Secretaría de Cultura Gobierno de Jalisco, México, 2000, p. 171.