Thursday, April 7, 2011

Emperor's New Museum In Mexico, Carlos Slim's Museo Soumaya

[soumaya1]Photograph by Adrian Gaut

MEXICO RISING | The Museo Soumaya's 150-foot-high structure is covered with 16,000 hexagonal aluminum plates designed to reflect the sun's light.

If you take a cab to the Museo Soumaya, Mexico City's newest, shiniest art museum, you will find yourself whisked past streets with names like Ibsen and Oscar Wilde. There is Burberry, then there's Lacoste, before you turn into Molière Street past glassy office towers, one of them housing an outpost of Ernst & Young. There's not a taco stand to be seen. Even if you've made the trip before, the slick establishments paving the way are just enough to make you forget you're in Mexico. Turn a corner and there sits the Soumaya—and now all your bearings have fled completely.

Encased in glimmering aluminum, the building rises up 150 feet, before it canopies like an oversize mushroom thought up by Magritte. The facade is a honeycomb of shiny silver hexagons. The structure is top-heavy, almost threatening to tip itself over in this city of earthquakes. Passersby look up, half curious, half concerned. It will soon be a contemporary home to an eclectic private collection of some 66,000 pieces: Da Vincis and Toulouse-Lautrecs, Picassos and Dalís, Riveras and Renoirs, religious relics and even a treasure of coins from the viceroys of Spain. A Rodin collection—the second-largest in the world, the largest in private hands—sits perched on the sixth floor, boasting works like "The Kiss." But the Soumaya, which cost an estimated $70 million to construct, also houses something else: Mexico's biggest hope yet to create an art museum worthy of international buzz.

It's something that Latin America lacks. Mexico City, for all its marvels, like murals by Diego Rivera, is best known in art circles for the house-museum of Rivera's lover, Frida Kahlo. Sure, the city has a great anthropology museum, if your idea of fun is staring at pre-Columbian figurines for several hours. But in terms of art, the region is wanting. São Paulo, Buenos Aires, Bogotá, Santiago—all world-class cities, all bereft of the caliber of museum that anchors so many cosmopolitan destinations.

Mexico, however, does boast something no other Latin country does: the world's richest man. Carlos Slim Helú, owner of the Soumaya bounty and ranked No. 1 in Forbes's 2010 list of the world's richest billionaires. In addition to collecting companies, Slim collects art—lots of it. For years he's displayed some of it in a tiny space in the south of the capital. Now at 71, he is building a museum writ large in honor of his late wife, Soumaya Domit, who died of kidney failure in 1999.

Photograph by Adrian Gaut

WORK IN PROGRESS | "The Thinker" by Rodin sits wrapped in the entrance gallery.

A few steps into the narrow entrance, the museum unfolds as an airy white gallery—a trick an architect tells me was used by Baroque builders to convey a sense of grandeur. It's the day before the VIP inauguration gala (the museum officially opens to the public on March 28). The Mexican president is slated to attend. But there's hardly any art on the walls. "The Thinker" by Rodin is still wrapped in cellophane. Workers in hard hats are painting. A pile of tubing sits forlorn. And the director is nowhere to be found. Suddenly I regain my bearings: I am in Mexico City.

If there's a Mexican version of the American Dream, the Slim family lays claim to it. Slim's father, Youssef, was a Lebanese immigrant who changed his name to Julián. In 1911, he founded a general store in Mexico City's downtown called "The Star of the East." The Mexican Revolution had broken out in 1910 and the elder Slim bought up his competitors on the cheap as they fled mounting violence. When the country stabilized, the Slims were a clan of considerable wealth. Carlos has nourished his part of the family fortune in very much the same way: Buying companies at low prices, he then builds them into profitable monopolies. In 1982, family history repeated itself when Mexico's president nationalized the country's banks and caused a scare that more expropriations would be on the way. Slim bought up a stable of companies at fire-sale prices—big operations were going for 5 percent of their value. Some of the companies, bought for tens of millions of dollars in the '80s, are now valued in the billions today. Slim's personal wealth has been estimated by Forbes at $53.5 billion.

People in Mexico often joke that Carlos Slim owns every cactus in the country. And it is hard to find sectors his empire doesn't own: telecommunications, banking, restaurants, construction, drilling, airlines, the list goes on. He even owns a large stake in the New York Times, which he acquired when its stock was slumping. Slim's eye over the art market is keen to spot deals, too. In the 1980s, when Rodins were valued at a lot less than they are today, Slim began snapping them up. In later years, prices for the sculptures had surged, and Slim was atop a collection of more than 100 pieces, many of them highly priced and prized, like "Eve" and "The Burghers of Calais."

Easing into a discussion the day before the gala, Slim says the wholesale acquisition wasn't about the money. "Rodin is a great sculptor," he notes, before wandering off into a musing litany of works he owns: " 'The Kiss,' 'The Thinker,' 'The Shades,' 'Eve,' " he pauses. "These sculptures are very special, very outstanding, very pretty."

Yet critics in the Mexican art world still believe Slim is more of a bargain hunter than an aesthete. "He doesn't look for quality, he buys what is cheap," says Rodrigo Rivero, a well-known antiquarian and Mexico City art dealer. Rivero concedes that Slim's collection has improved over the years, and that he has even amassed a noteworthy set of portraits from Mexico's colonial era, but there is exasperation in his voice when he says, "He's impulsive. The king is interested in quantity. He's interested in a big museum, not a grand museum."

Photograph by Adrian Gaut

Workers construct an expansive ceiling for the museum's top floor, assembling a skylight meant to provide natural light to the galleries.

Slim won't break a sweat with such critics. "I'd invite him to come have a look at my works," he says. "Almost all of the works we bought individually from Christie's and Sotheby's. The Tintoretto is extraordinary. The Rubens is very good."

Entrance to the Soumaya will be free, with the Carlos Slim Foundation underwriting all of the maintenance and mounting costs. However Slim's history as a philanthropist is a tad controversial. Last summer, when a group of billionaires led by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates's Giving Pledge foundation vowed to hand over at least half of their fortunes—amounting to nearly $150 billion—Slim refused to follow suit. Taking the rebuff a step further, Slim told a journalist in January: "But why half? Why half?" He continued, "I think it will be a big mistake that companies like Microsoft, Apple, the leaders of the world in technology be sold by the founders to put the cash to fund charities. They shouldn't. It's more important that they continue to manage the companies."

Has Slim turned a new leaf with the Soumaya, unveiling a charitable side after all? A glance across the construction site doesn't make too much of a case. On the far end sits a recently opened commercial development, part of the same $800 million construction project that includes the museum. Inside are a few familiar names in Slim's empire, from Sanborns (Slim's restaurant chain and the country's biggest bookseller) to Inbursa (his bank) and iShop (the Apple distributor that Slim has invested in). Slim acknowledges his commercial project is bound to be profitable, but he says it's a separate enterprise from the museum, which is meant to increase the "humanistic capital" of Mexico. "It's a gift to the city," he says. "And to the whole country of Mexico, to all the young kids too."

Not every commission has gone smoothly for architect Fernando Romero, the imaginative creator behind the Soumaya. Once when he was building a house that was meant to be his home, his wife saw the angular frame and rejected it, one of his colleagues recalls. Romero says it was simply over budget. Whatever happened, what existed of the thing was eventually torn down. But Romero has little to worry about when it comes to finding a patron with big pockets: Carlos Slim is the architect's father-in-law.

Romero arrives to be interviewed in a Jil Sander suit and Prada shoes. His bodyguard is in another room. Tall and thin, Romero presents himself as a sprightly 39-year-old in a world where most projects in big cities go to aging giants like Norman Foster and Renzo Piano. A dozen engineers, all seemingly younger than the boss, gaze at renderings of buildings-to-be as techno music streams through their headphones. Romero picks up my tape recorder and puts it in front of him. "Most architects do their best work when they are young," he begins.

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