The most important new art museum in North America is not in the U.S., but in Mexico
Opening to huge acclaim in Mexico and nary any in ours, the Museum of the International Baroque in Puebla is unique — there is simply nothing like it in any other city or country.
Conceived by a distinguished Mexican diplomat and educator, Jorge Alberto Lozoya, it was taken on by the then-new governor of the state of Puebla, Rafael Moreno Valle Rosas, as a way both to bring tourists to its capital city and to instill pride in the locals. For Poblanos, as they call themselves, it had always been necessary to cross the great mountain range to visit museums in Mexico City. No longer.
Why baroque, and what kind of baroque? The simplest answer is that Puebla is the largest and best-preserved baroque city in the Americas. (Note: There are none in the U.S.) This was recognized by UNESCO, and the central part of the old city is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, whose buildings and facades are carefully protected. The City of the Angels, Puebla de los Angeles, is as different from our Los Angeles as two places can be. Founded in 1531, Puebla de los Angeles was the first planned city of the New World, preceding New Haven and Philadelphia, the United States’ first planned cities, by more than a century. Its greatest period of international importance was 1600-1800, the age of the baroque in Europe, and it had America’s first public library, the Biblioteca Palafoxiana, founded in 1646 and opened to this day.
Yet, if Puebla was a baroque city, it became, after World War II, one of the most modern and industrial cities of Mexico, the manufacturing center for Volkswagen Mexico and, soon, Audi, all the while carefully preserving the architecture and institutions of its urban core. That fact is recognized in the creation of the Museum of the International Baroque. Designed by Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese architect Toyo Ito, the museum is a public-private partnership unique among Mexican museums, which tend to be operated by the government. It also is one of the very few museums in Mexico whose aims are global rather than national.
The reason for this can be linked to the baroque era and the position of the city in world trade. Before the Panama Canal, all trade from Asia came across the Pacific Ocean to a port in Mexico or Peru, both part of “New Spain.” The advantage that Mexico had in this is that the section of the Americas it occupies is comparatively narrow, and well-trodden paths had been active for centuries before Europeans arrived, paths that linked the west and east coasts of Mexico. Hence, goods from India and China were consolidated in the Asian capital of New Spain, Manila, shipped to Acapulco and brought overland to the great markets in Puebla, from which they wended their way to Veracruz and Havana before reaching Europe. Literally, Puebla was the market center where east and west met in the baroque era, a global city well before provincial Boston or Philadelphia were founded.
Today, it is difficult for us to conjure up those days of preindustrial globalism, but that is precisely what this new museum does. Larger than the Dallas Museum of Art and conceived not as a static display of a permanent collection, the new museum is, at its core, experiential. It is about engaging viewers of different types — with extensive and learned labels in multiple languages for older visitors, loads of computer-driven devices for millennials and glorious objects arranged in an utterly theatrical manner appropriate for a baroque museum. The museum’s walls are all undulating white concrete curves, and works of art hang from the ceiling, sit on the floor, scale newly built walls and fill vitrines of every possible type and character.
There are three theaters in the installation, a triumphal arch of glorious vulgarity, a room-size model of the city of Puebla and a full-scale “cabinet of curiosities” with stuffed birds, elephant tusks, alligators, paintings, scientific devices, fossils, rare stones and the like. I walked through it in two hours and felt so energized that I wanted to start all over again.
Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of the museum is that, immense and complex as it is, it was conceived, built and installed in less than two years, something that is inconceivable in our country, whose planning cycles, regulations, unions and risk management issues create a situation in which an institution like this would have taken as much as 10 years to plan and build.
What is more amazing is that it had no collection to act as its core, but borrowed key works from public and private lenders in Europe and Latin America, which were added to a small group of works that it acquired outright. Toyo Ito, its distinguished architect, was so stunned by the pace and quality of the work that he told his patrons that nothing of this scale and importance could have been erected so quickly in his own nation, Japan, since the 17th century, in which autocratic rulers could simply decree completion.
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