The José María Velasco Gallery. A Public Space for Cultural Promotion in Tepito
Posted on 10 February, 2015
Carlos Guevara Meza
This text was read at the presentation of the book La Galería José María Velasco. Espacio público de promoción cultural en Tepito, by Guillermina Guadarrama, México, Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes, Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, Galería José María Velasco, 2013. Galería Velasco.
For starters, we must congratulate Guillermina Guadarrama, the author of this superb and interesting book. She did an excellent research job to document extensively the trajectory of this important space. We must also congratulate Alfredo Matus for the painstaking edition of this beautiful and profusely illustrated work which convenes us all here today.
This book tells the 60 year-old story of a space which Alfredo Matus terms “sui generis” in his preface. It is so indeed. Virtually all of the fine arts tradition, since it was established in the Renaissance up to our time, with a few honorable exceptions, has tried to see in the contemplation, the knowledge of, and of course the possession of works of art, an element of class distinction, in detriment of the popular sectors, and even the middle classes. As if money and power were not enough, art is also used as a means for exclusion and segregation. Art’s libertarian potentiality, its ability to put us in contact with aspects of ourselves which we do not usually exercise, or worse still, which we are not allowed to exercise in our daily life and work; and to put us in contact with others, discovering that others can think and feel just like we do, is neutered by banning our access to it. That is why politically radical groups, which developed revolutionary processes and in some cases achieved victory, have always raised the flag of free and egalitarian access to art and to educational processes, including artistic training, to widen its understanding and enjoyment. The modern museum was born when the French Revolution expropriated the king’s art collection and his palace –the Louvre- to open its doors to anyone who wished to see it.
Something similar happened with the Mexican Revolution, whose most radical sectors (anarchists, socialists and communists) led a largely successful struggle for the universal right of access to education and culture. This process, however, was not devoid of conflicts and contradictions. The universal right to culture was recognized, but this didn’t always translate into corresponding practices: some were directly opposed to that principle, while others were so limited in scope that they couldn’t possibly achieve that purpose. At times, unfortunately, the same representatives of those radical groups and of the popular sectors, accustomed as they were to regarding the arts as mere entertainment for sophisticates, didn’t lend due importance to a project which wasn’t only aesthetic, but also and above all political, since the universal right to education and culture presupposes and makes manifest the essential equality of all human beings.
In the 1950’s, the momentum of the Mexican Revolution explains the establishment of galleries in traditional popular neighborhoods in Mexico City. Their history, and the history of their discourses, highlight the difficulties faced by an egalitarian project, and the contradictions that riddled it. Guillermina Guadarrama, with an agile, precise, almost telegraphic style, reveals the threads of a fabric which I consider essential, in so far as it opens up the wider panorama of the struggle for culture in Mexico.
Popular galleries, established and extensively promoted by Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes (INBA), with exhibitions of the greatest Mexican art masters of that time, such as José Clemente Orozco, whose name the gallery originally bore; inaugurations attended by the highest INBA officials and foreign ambassadors, with wide press coverage, were affected from the start with doubts about their viability. Architect Guillermo Rosell de la Lama, who had adapted the site to turn a midnight theater into this magnificent gallery, a work described by the press with such phrases as “the most functional”, “the largest”, “the best designed, according to the latest scientific advances”, wrote in the preface to the opening exhibition –as quoted by Guillermina Guadarrama- that this place wasn’t suited to an artistic space because “our people won’t react positively to this event”. Such attitudes, affecting not only popular galleries but the whole cultural project of the Revolution, translated into practices which aimed, for instance, at limiting the funding of INBA, and perhaps forced INBA to close the other two galleries (in Colonia Doctores and Colonia Guerrero), to focus its energy on the Chapultepec projects (being as it was a popular area as well), while the Orozco gallery survived perhaps because it was administratively framed as a room of the National Museum, not as an independent space, even though it was largely neglected.
For the author, it is clear that the gallery managed to survive thanks to the energy and dedication of its successive directors: Elena Olachea, Enrique Martínez, Juan Carlos Jaurena and Alfredo Matus, who have dealt very creatively with the budgetary limitations, the fact of being ignored, neglected or even directly attacked by several authorities in Mexico City, who once tried to make it disappear under the banner of the “Tepito Plan”. In more than one occasion, the gallery would program low profile exhibitions (such as children’s drawings, works by elementary art teachers), arguing that the audience, due to its social extraction, wouldn’t be able to understand more complex and profound works; but this would backfire, as those exhibitions turned out to be aesthetically interesting, in tune with the gallery’s democratic vocation, even widening it; thus, local people were not only allowed to see “great masterpieces”, but the gallery was turned into an exhibition space for popular visual arts production.
Succeeding directors managed to convene the most interesting artistic production of their time, and not only in the visual arts, since this space also hosted theater and dance productions, as well as concerts with artists, young unknowns at that time, who would eventually become key figures in our culture. They also established art workshops, to make available to the people not just works of art, but the means to produce their own. Guadarrama’s book highlights the directors’ strategies to forge a link with the neighborhood, opening the doors to local artistic expressions and cultural traditions, which have become legendary, such as dancing and wordplay (“albur”), along with the also legendary Tepito Arte Acá.
For all this, the Velasco Gallery has been and continues to be a magnificent example of what can be, and in my opinion what ought to be, the social function of art, apart from and against elitisms and classisms which must be subject to criticism and opposition. A wager that must be carried over and strengthened with every means at our disposal. A thousand congratulations for these titanic achievements, and for this book that displays them for us.