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|November 24, 1999|
MEXICO CITY, July 22, 1999
In the 1980s, when he was flush with cash, the television magnate Emilio Azcarraga Milmo decided to create a modern-art museum that would give Mexico City a new aura of sophistication and make it a respectable stop on the international art circuit.
To direct his museum, Azcarraga plucked Robert R. Littman from New York art circles and brought him to Mexico. Littman, the former director of the Grey Art Gallery and Study Center at New York University, became the director of the Cultural Center for Contemporary Art, which opened here in 1986. Before long, the new museum was filled with traveling and other exhibitions involving artists of the global stature of Robert Motherwell, Salvador Dali and Anselm Kiefer.
Persistently but rather quietly, Littman also put his eye and Azcarraga's largesse to work on building a permanent collection for the museum. In time it came to include about 1,800 works of modern art and a collection of photographs assembled by the nonagenarian dean of Mexican photographers, Manuel Alvarez Bravo.
Azcarraga died in 1997. His son, Emilio Azcarraga Jean, took over his media empire, closed the museum as a luxury he could no longer afford and let Littman go. The museum went out of business, and its permanent collection was locked away in the basement of the headquarters of Grupo Televisa, the Azcarragas' media conglomerate.
But the collection, in a sense, has been reborn, in an incarnation that befits the times in which it will live: financially leaner, but with more fluid artistic interchange between Mexico and the rest of the world.
After reviewing proposals from several museums and libraries, the Televisa Cultural Foundation, which owns the collection, signed a 25-year agreement to turn over its management to Casa Lamm, an institute run by five Mexican women who show art and teach art history. The institute is in an aristocratic turn-of-the-century mansion in the capital city.
In contrast to the generous spaces of the Cultural Center for Contemporary Art, Casa Lamm (which is named for its architect, Lewis Lamm) is far too small to serve as a museum to show the collection. So instead of exhibiting it, Casa Lamm will lend the works to other museums in Mexico and the United States. Rather than having an ample supply of Televisa's money, as Littman did, Casa Lamm will spend its time searching for funds to support the collection.
Its new curator is Victor Zamudio Taylor, an American-Mexican, as he calls himself: an American of Mexican descent who grew up at the border in San Diego and later lived in Mexico. One of Zamudio Taylor's goals is to close the circle that Littman began drawing, by taking the Mexican art that is part of the Televisa collection and sending it to be shown in the United States, especially in areas with many Latino residents.
In the Televisa-Casa Lamm deal, there is a something of a parallel with the past. For the chairwoman of his museum, the senior Azcarraga had chosen Paula Cussi, who eventually became his wife. Although her only professional experience had been in reading horoscopes on a Televisa variety show, over the years Ms. Cussi proved herself to be an astute museum manager. Now one of the directors of Casa Lamm is Germaine Gomez Haro, the wife of Alejandro Burillo Azcarraga, a cousin of the younger Azcarraga. Burillo is the vice chairman of Grupo Televisa.
"I hope I can do half the job that Paula did,'' Ms. Gomez Haro said, acknowledging that she was part of a kind of succession. "She threw herself into it and made that museum out of her pure talent and with a lot of love. But we are facing different times.''
Her Casa Lamm role is not mere nepotism. The institute offers a master's degree in art history, one of the few genuinely professional programs in that field in Mexico, which has a vast artistic legacy but few scholars to study it. Among the credits of Casa Lamm's in-house art director, Elin Luque Agraz, is an intriguing exhibition she put together in 1996 of small paintings representing pledges by Mexican Catholics to their saints. It was shown, coincidentally, at the Cultural Center for Contemporary Art.
"I don't think anyone doubts that we do a serious job,'' Ms. Gomez Haro said.
Casa Lamm presented the only proposal to Televisa that did not involve breaking up the collection into separate parts. There is the contemporary art collection, with works by Mexicans like Sergio Hernandez, Maria Izquierdo and Francisco Toledo, as well as installations, video and other electronic pieces and more conventional canvases by artists like Jasper Johns, Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter. Among the unusual pieces are huge wall tapestries woven in a Mexican workshop from designs by Francesco Clemente and Ray Smith. Ms. Gomez Haro said many pieces in the collection had never been displayed in public.
In the Alvarez Bravo collection are works from photographers like Guillermo Kahlo (Frida's father), Paul Strand and Tina Modotti. The photographs will come to reside in a new building that is going up at Casa Lamm, and Zamudio Taylor plans to digitalize them and put them online at a bilingual Web site. Casa Lamm will also house Televisa's 15,000-volume library on contemporary art.
Casa Lamm has already arranged for two-year loans of modern art to the Carrillo Gil Museum in Mexico City and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Monterrey, Mexico. Casa Lamm will not charge fees for the loans in Mexico and does not expect to get caught up in the traditional competitive jostling among more established institutions.
"We are not a museum, so we can actually work with museums,'' Zamudio Taylor said.
Zamudio Taylor, who has been associated with museums in San Diego, Los Angeles and New York, said that his vision was to show the art Littman had assembled in order to enhance the glory of Mexico on walls in Latino communities across the United States.
"The first generation had to achieve status,'' Zamudio Taylor said. "Ours has to balance intellectual rigor with creativity in finding ways to show the work. And figure out where the money's coming from.''
Last change: July 22, 1999