Sea Changes: Puerto Rico’s MECA

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Left: Site of Allora & Calzadilla’s Puerto Rican Light (Cueva Vientos), 2015. Right: Street art in Santurce.

A report by Alexandra Pechman for ArtForum.

SAN JUAN, DESPITE ITS RECENT BILLING as one of the art cities of the future, has none of the splashy hallmarks of a twenty-first century art hub. That is, there are no grandiose private museums, no sterile government-funded arts districts, no starchitecture vanities.

The city’s art scene, instead, exists in a strange symbiosis with a long-simmering financial crisis, concentrated in the neighborhood of Santurce, where unused commercial buildings beget studios, artist-run galleries, and sprawling murals. (And real-estate boons: Klaus Biesenbach and Alanna Heiss both own homes on the island.) The city often gets compared with Detroit, as both straddle artistic growth abetted by financial decline. (Puerto Rico’s debt is currently more than $120 billion; Detroit’s was $18 billion when it declared bankruptcy.) That seeming paradox achieved a peak intensity with the first edition of the MECA (short for Mercado Caribeño) Art Fair in San Juan last week, just after Puerto Rico applied for a form of bankruptcy relief, the first time any state or territory has done so.

Dealers and collectors didn’t need much of a reason to make the trip. Early June in Puerto Rico brings Listerine-blue tides and humidity that wears as thick as wool—like Miami in HD but slo-mo. Flights from New York are just a few hours; the currency is dollars. It might be an ideal or an awful place for a fair—or both at once.

The fair was the brainchild of Tony Rodríguez and Daniel Baéz, who hail from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, respectively. On opening day, Baéz wore a spray of millennial signifiers—Disney-character lacquer pins, avocado-print socks, rose-gold tipped sneakers—as he explained the project’s beginnings. When traveling to fairs like ArteBA and ArtBo working as an assistant to Rirkrit Tiravanija, he rarely came across work from the Caribbean, despite knowing plenty of artists and dealers from places like Puerto Rico living abroad.

Baéz admitted he was afraid of telling his boss, Gavin Brown (he’s his personal assistant), that he was getting involved in an art fair. “He screamed, ‘Which one?!’ And I was like, ‘Mine!’ ”

He invited dealers, he said, “who weren’t going to be, ‘Sell, sell, sell!’ ” noting some other recent art-world excursions to the island. “It’s not like, ‘Come, buy this house, buy this art.’ ”

The fair, held at the Music Conservatory in Santurce, had about thirty exhibitors, only half of which were strictly gallerists: Others were billed as Special Projects like Green Go Home and the local artist-collective National, or else appeared in the Mecanismos projects section curated by Carla Acevedo-Yates of MSU’s Broad Museum. Outside the walls of the fair, much of the city’s local art got billing as Satellite Project participants—presumably watching how the results would play out from afar.

I must have heard, “It’s a good excuse to come to Puerto Rico” from no less than a dozen people in from out of town. At 47 Canal, Margaret Lee joked, “We’re here to hang out and be in the tropics,” adding of the rushed timing, “I want to arrive in Basel really tan.” Her gallery shared a room with Matt Moravec’s Off Vendome, which brought Juan Antonio Olivares. “I’m an accidental Puerto Rican,” Olivares admitted, of having been born on the island to foreign parents.

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Left: MECA founders Tony Rodríguez and Daniel Báez. Right: MECA Special Projects’ Maria del Mar Frederique and dealer Javier Bosques.

A lot of spaces in town have one foot in PR and one elsewhere—San Juan’s Agustina Ferreyra will soon relocate to Mexico City, Embajada is run by ICI’s Manuela Paz and artist Christopher Rivera who live in New York. The latter showed work by Jesus “Bubu” Negron conceived during a recent residency in China—a series of prints making pictures of everything he needed translated.

Puerto Rican dealer Izam Zawahara Alejandro showed Hector Madera—formerly the director of the local space 20/20, he lived in New York before that. “The market is whatever you make of it. It’s on-and-off. I could be in New York, but you can go to New York in four hours. And it’s walking distance from the beach,” he added laughing. The location did offer enticing views of the water—though maybe that was also not a great incentive to spend hours at an art fair.

At Mechanismos, held in a separate building, I stopped by Km .02, whose Yiyo Tirado won the MECA 2017 Residency, a collaboration with Mana Contemporary and Clocktower Productions. Cofounder Karlo Andrei Ibarra noted most galleries and artists in the neighborhood have no formal contracts with the owners of the buildings. Often, the owner is the bank. “We’re like ocupas,” he said.

Later that night, the welcome dinner held at the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico hosted just five tables, but lots of rum—a small but concentrated group of mostly dealers where seats changed freely. I ended up at a table with curators including Ysabel Pinyol and Larry Ossei-Mensah. “It’s like getting a startup to beta,” Ossei-Mensah noted about the DIY spirit of the small but lively fair. “It’s amazing they pulled this off.”

The next day I went back to MAPR, the island’s largest museum and home to historic works by Rafael Tufiñoas well as large contemporary installations by Dzine and Pepón Osorio. “It’s a delicate situation,” curator Juan Carlos López Quintero said of the current moment. “We have bad news all the time, and this [fair] is something good.”

Later, in Santurce, Maria del Mar Frederique, who managed MECA’s special projects, toured a group around Calle Cerra, where we passed a new artist-run restaurant completely draped in murals; La Comuna, a new artist space with a rooftop bar; and Recinto Cerra, where Chicago-based space Produce Model brought a satellite project. “We’re not seeing any big money here,” she mentioned, adding sarcastically: “There’s no coworking spaces.” A flurry of openings and projects opened their doors until late at night, such as Mistral, El Lobi, and Km .02, run as a popup store selling revamped Nike wares for Colombian artist collective Carne.

There was plenty more. The next day, I took the two-hour drive to Guayanilla to see Allora & Calzadilla’s installation at Cueva Vientos, which recently graced the cover of the May issue of this magazine. In an open-air cave up a steep incline of rocks, the artists have installed Dan Flavin’s Puerto Rican light (to Jeanie Blake) 2, 1965—a green, glowing totem set at the top of the cave like a Virgin. Hiking back, we ran into the artists themselves. “I don’t like to come, because then I’m like, ‘You didn’t see this or this,’ ” Jennifer Allora said, noting that in June the light doesn’t come through the ceiling as strongly. In the middle of the forest, Allora talked about the project, which took nearly ten years to come together and, luckily, has been extended until next January.

That night, everyone ended up at Embajada, where White Columns’s Matthew Higgs DJed an opening for Chemi Rosado-Seijo. By midnight, people were heading to the bar La Repuesta, adjacent to yet another show at Diagonal, for a dance party that lasted into the morning. Exhausted by the Guayanilla journey, I booked it home early. It seemed a good sign that such a small fair had the capacity to tire us out. I wondered if it might get better traction as a post–Art Basel Miami Beach antidote than a June tag-on, but the founders have bigger plans than just Puerto Rico. Baéz said the fair could potentially rove around the region, mentioning Jamaica and Cuba as potential stops. The economic crisis could certainly prevent the fair from rooting here, so the open-ended plan seems wise—if a bit of a tease.

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