Material Art Fair 2016

How Mexico City Became a Shangri-La for Upstart Dealers: A Q&A With the Material Art Fair’s Isa Natalia Castilla


How Mexico City Became a Shangri-La for Upstart Dealers: A Q&A With the Material Art Fair’s Isa Natalia Castilla
The Material Art Fair’s Isa Natalia Castilla

Undeniably, Mexico City is having a moment. The New York Times named it the number-one travel destination for 2016, everyone’s favorite pope is coming to town, and the low-flying peso has made this teeming metropolis an exceedingly affordable place to take in world-class culture with a tequila chaser. In contemporary art circles, meanwhile, the Material Art Fair is now returning for its third and biggest-yet edition—bringing 64 exhibitors from all around the globe, who will be showing their wares alongside the larger Zona Maco expo. And from the look of its lineup, it’s going to be a heady mix.

The only fair in the city to focus exclusively on contemporary art, Material has thrived under the leadership of its founders (the art advisor Isa Natalia Castilla and the gallerists Daniela Elbahara and Brett W. Schultz, both of Yautepec Gallery). This year especially, collectors can expect to find an exhibitor selection of rare caliber and range for the emerging sector. Prepare to discover such galleries as LambdaLambdaLambda from Kosovo, Galleria Acapella from Naples, Ed Video Media Arts Centre from Guelph, Canada, and Good Weather from North Little Rock, Arkansas—names that will be new to even the most road-hardened art aficionado. The variety is part of the fun, as is its elaborate new setting at the centrally located Expo Reforma designed by Mexico City-based architecture studio APRDELESP in collaboration with Carla Valdivia

To find out more about what to expect from this year’s edition, we spoke to Castilla (also the proprietor of the Incontemporary art advisory firm) about the role Material plays in the city’s art scene.


How did you first become involved with Material?

After I finished my masters at the Sotheby’s Art Institute, I came back to Monterray with some experience as an art advisor working in New York and was approached by Daniela and Brett. We decided to get together and start the Material Art Fair because we felt there was an opportunity to create a new market and expand the presence of emerging international art galleries here in Mexico City.

Was there anything you picked up from your advisory practice that tipped you off to the fact that there was an appetite, in Mexico City, for the kind of art these galleries offered?

Dealing with a lot of younger collectors, I know they are always looking for younger artists and emerging artists from their own generation—it makes it a little bit more accessible. So bringing this art to Mexico was very important, to give these young, new collectors a broader selection of emerging artists that they could identify with.

When you talk about these younger Mexican collectors, what kinds of fields are they coming out of?

Mostly I would say they are interested in entrepreneurship, so they have their own companies. Mexico City is a very entrepreneurial community, with a lot of people working in design who travel and are always looking for the best in design, architecture, and art. They get involved with museums as well. You really feel that energy when you’re here.

How does these young collectors’ interests break down, between emerging artists from Mexico versus emerging artists from the rest of the world? Is there a drive to patronize local artists, or is foreign art more of a draw?

I think they’re more familiar with artists from Mexico, but it’s not a trend that people only collect Mexican artists—they’re basically open to knowing more about the artists from abroad, so having more galleries coming here to Mexico is very positive for the market. They’re driven more by the context and the content of the art than the nationality.  

I ask because in the first edition of the fair, nearly a third of the exhibitors were from Mexico, but then in the second edition there were only six, and now this year only nine out of a record 64 galleries are from Mexico. Proportionally, you have been including them less and less. Is this a deliberate shift?

That’s partly because when we opened in 2013 it was with the idea of also being a platform for project spaces, so we had several of those as well. As the fair grew, we maintained the Mexican galleries and have also increased our numer of project spaces—we have 27 project spaces in this third edition. We have a selection committee, and it really comes down to the applications and proposals that were sent. It’s also a reflection of how many international galleries want to come to Mexico City to cultivate or expand a collection base in Latin America. 

One thing that’s really exciting about your fair is how cutting-edge your gallery list is. I remember last year you had a booth by New York’s Queer Thoughts gallery before that gallery even opened its doors, and there are a number of artists who have shown early on at your fair who have gone on to become sensations, such as Puppies Puppies and Gina Beavers. The list usually has a fresh feeling, and this year is no exception. You have galleries I’ve never heard of before, from really far-flung and unexpected places, like Kosovo, Naples, Guelph, Queens, and Little Rock, Arkansas. How do you find these galleries?

The first two editions were by invitation only, and for our third edition we’ve opened applications to anyone who wanted to participate. We’ve seen a lot of organic growth through word of mouth, and galleries that took a chance on us in the first and second years were happy with the experience, so every year we’ve had more and more interest in showing at Material. Also, over the past few years word has spread that Material is not just about exhibiting and getting to know collectors, but is also a very tight group of peers where you can make new friends. I mean, after four days of the fair we all get sad to see everyone leave, and I think that speaks to how comfortable and sociable the experience of the fair is. Obviously, you then travel to other fairs and see your fellow exhibitors and it’s nice—we really create a little family at Material. I don’t know if that’s something that every fair experiences, but it’s definitely something particular that happens in Mexico City.

There's a very lively nightlife situation at the fair too, with the New York artist-run bar Beverly’s running an outpost onsite last year and with dealers heading out to the tequila bars after the day is done. It’s a bit like one big party.

Yeah, and Beverly’s is coming back to us this year with a new proposal, so we’re excited that they are collaborating with us once again.

Now that you have an open application process, how many submissions did you get?

I think we were over 130—so that really gives you a bigger pool to choose from. Our selection committee, obviously, then chose from that, so that we could bring the best proposals to Mexico City.

So why would a gallery from Kosovo want to show at a satellite fair in Mexico City? 

We are a satellite art fair, but because there are only two fairs here there’s a little bit more exposure. Also, the galleries at our fair are very particular—everyone we show shares the same intimate context, and they might see Zona Maco as something that is too big for them. But as to the question of why someone from Kosovo would want to come, it’s not only a chance to exhibit at the fair—Mexico City is also a very enriching city with a dynamic culture. We have so many museums and anchor galleries and artists as well, so they come to take in the city and perhaps find some ideas that they could export back home. 

One might also imagine that the fact that Mexico City is such a relatively inexpensive city is a big draw too too, since it allows younger galleries to make a bet on a fair while keeping their costs low.

It’s definitely a good place to start out, where you can be close to important collectors and side-by-side with really good galleries.

This will be your third edition of the fair, and it will also be your third venue, which provides collectors with a sense of variety but which must also be something of a logistical nightmare for you as organizers. What has led you to change sites after every edition?

The first edition was held in the Hilton Hotel in the city’s center, but even though that was really great location-wise, the artwork was not meant to be shown inside a hotel. So we moved to the Audiotorio BlackBerry, which is more of an event space, and we liked that you could sort of weave through it and that it had an alternative setting that gave a fresh feeling to the fair. But for our third year it really came down to growth, and the Expo Reforma is a proper exhibition space in which we have much more liberty to generate the experience that we want for our visitors. We have fewer limitations on what we can do. We’re not just building another fair—we’re building Material, you know. You’ll see when you get to the fair.

As an art advisor, what are a few things that you can bring to the fair that your typical art-fair director might not think about?

One thing is that I’m in constant contact with collectors, as well as institutions and private firms that are looking to buy art, and this allows me to gauge what they want and provide it as an organizer of the fair. I have nothing to do with the gallery selection, you know, but I think that my contribution has been to invite people to come to the fair and to assure them a good experience inside the fair. We’re providing a lot of private tours, for instance, because we know this is very important for them to get to know the galleries at the fair and also get inside the private collections. But another thing is that the time I spend with my clients gives me a perspective on what the trends are—what people want to buy at that moment, and a view of the market that lets us know how we’re doing.

As a matter of fact, I decided to pursue art advising at almost at the same time as starting Material because I believe they complement each other very well. My travels to other art fairs, for instance, allows me to acquire an in-depth understanding of the global art market, while being a director at Material allows me to meet a plethora of emerging artists and galleries—which benefits the clients that reach out to me for advice on collecting art.

What are some of the trends you’re following now?

You’ll see in Material that there’s a lot of mixed media, so there are videos and there’s photography and there’s collage. This is an area that I’m glad that Material explores in Mexico, because I think it’s very important that collectors don’t only focus on the traditional categories of art, like  paintings, but that they are able to explore these mediums that they may not have thought about. The galleries that we show are really good about featuring this kind of art, so we saw last year that there were some works made out of fabric, or a shelf with books—all these things that we don’t necessarily associate with fine art. Material is a fair that brings collectors closer to this kind of art, like the giant Amanda Ross-Ho sculptures that we had last year and which I love. You know, you don’t have to go to Basel to see this work—Material brings it to Mexico City for all to see, to make it accessible for those who don’t travel to see Independent, or FIAC, or NADA, or Basel.

What is your advice for collectors who are coming to the fair? 

Something I always do is check out the exhibitors list, to see if there’s someone I know or that I’m excited about so I’m aware of what’s coming. This is one reason why I’m so excited about our collaboration with Artspace, because people who are coming to Material can preview what’s going to be in the fair, and people who aren’t coming to the fair can see what’s on view from the comfort of their own homes. But, really, I think Material is a fair where you can come to have fun and talk to galleries in an accessible way, so if there’s something that you like you can just go ahead and get to know the artists and the programs. It makes for a very enjoyable visit.   


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