Puerto Rico has fallen on hard times. The island’s debt crisis has peaked and it bears a striking resemblance to the financial collapses of Greece and Detroit. Last May saw a $422 million default become the biggest municipal default of bond payments in United States history, and with another $72 billion in unpayable debt looming on the horizon as well. Congress imposed a federal fiscal board, which has taken control of Puerto Rico's government. Things don’t look promising for anyone.
So far the trickle-down effects of wealthy American investors moving to Puerto Rican shores—something that kicked into gear when it was designated a tax haven under the island's Acts 20 & 22 in 2012—have been minumum in the local art market. Paradoxically, the economic crisis has seen artistic production flourish, with many Puerto Rican artists who were living in the mainland returning to the island to work. (In reality, it's cheaper to rent a one-bedroom and a huge separate studio space in San Juan than it is to try and make ends meet in New York.) Even MoMA personalities like Klaus Biesenbach have enjoyed the benefits of living and curating on cheap rent, labor, and production costs, as with Papo Colo's recent Procesion Migracion performance. And, hey, if anyone misses the mainland, they can always hop on Jetblue’s cheap weekend bus ride, no passport needed.
Amid this crisis, the dealer Daniel Báez—who works at Gavin Brown's Enterprise in New York—and the alternative gallery director Tony Rodíguez have decided to go against the tide, and experiment with new economic models, by creating the inaugural MECA Art Fair on the island, taking place this summer from June 1 to 4. (The fair, organized with the help of project manager Mariángel Gonzales and executive producer Emil Medina, is named after the Spanish-language abbreviation for the mercado Caribeño, or the Caribbean market.) The artist and critic Pedro Vélez interviewed the two founders to learn about their experience organizing a new fair during tough times, and to see if their proposed art-fair model might turn out to be the much-needed catalyst for the establishment of the healthy art market Puerto Rico’s art world has been waiting for.
So, how did you guys meet and decided to embark on this project?
Daniel Báez: We met through a mutual friend, probably three years ago or so, while Tony was exhibiting with Espacio 20/20 during arteBA 2015. On the second day I stopped by his booth to say hi and see how was everything going, and for some reason I asked whether any art fairs existed in Puerto Rico. He said there was CIRCA, but noted that it had already been in “bye bye” mode for years. I expressed the desire of perhaps doing one given the opportunity. I guess he had the same train of thought. And then MECA started to take form.
Here’s the question on everyone’s lips: Why an art fair now during the worst economic crisis in Puerto Rico’s history?
Tony Rodíguez: During these times of uncertainty for many here in Puerto Rico, the cultural and creative sectors have great opportunities. I honestly believe that this is the perfect moment to have an art fair in the Caribbean. Let us begin with the fact that in recent years the arts and culture sector hasn't actually relied on the government, or had the funds to continue developing. A lot of what you see today has been created with less than nothing. We are talking about a group that has a lot of resilience, a group that has been characterized for surviving contexts of political, economic, and humanitarian unrest. Therefore, if we look at it from that point of view, our artistic class has always operated under an imminent crisis.
We have nothing to lose. On the contrary, we have much to gain if the project successfully achieves what has been missing: an established art market. That is why we have been working on a structure that is centered on the cultural project in a more realistic manner by making sure there is economic development that is consistent with the findings of the local privately owned cultural organization Inversión Cultural, one of our key partners. Their research demonstrates that creative industries in Puerto Rico contribute close to $1.6 million to the GDP and generate approximately 20,000 jobs. Accordingly, we have developed a business model that will contribute to those figures and will allow the workability of the project in the upcoming years.
It is a simple formula: a healthy art scene that is continuously producing and is just as good as any other in the bigger cities, a considerable group of local collectors on an international scale, and a big cluster of artist-run spaces. The only thing that seems to be missing is a meeting point, a backbone that provides the structure for what has been in the international spotlight for years and that is our MECA.
We have to be daring and take risks. Artists are change agents, and being entrepreneurial should be their main tool. This allows for a combination of factors that will empower a new economy capable of integrating innovation, sustainability, collaboration, and Puerto Rico's citizens. All in all, we are ready for the challenge.
Báez: Why Puerto Rico during this difficult financial time? We felt there was no better time to do something like this. When everything else seems to be falling apart, there’s a group of people trying to establish as complex a project as an art fair. I think it’s somehow prophetic.
What was the response of the local collector base, institutions, and galleries when you two came up with the idea?
Báez: Well, when we first mentioned our plan to them we encountered some skepticism and doubt. Some of it was unspoken, but the looks and gestures were pretty much saying, "How cute of you guys... good luck.” And we totally understood the reaction—the art-fair scene is definitely jam-packed. But they quickly realized that we were very serious about this, and that our drive wasn’t fueled by trends or the excitement of a visit to the latest art fair. Instead this was a sincere project with a lot of heart involved.
What galleries have you secured so far? Can you tell?
Báez: We don’t want to jinx ourselves by revealing too much at this point. Let's say a very decent and serious group of nice people has come on board for our first edition, which is based on an invitation-only format. Among them are 47 Canal, Agustina Ferreyra, ltd los angeles, and Off Vendome, just to give you an idea of what we’re aiming for here.
Is MECA going to be a compact affair like Mexico’s Material Art Fair or the tightly curated Untitled, or something along the lines of NADA, which has always been in close contact with the Puerto Rican scene? What type of model are you following?
Báez: “A compact affair.” I kinda like that description. “MECA International Compact Affair in San Juan.” Thanks for the inspiration! But no, for real, Tony and I think of MECA as a tiny hybrid of NADA, Independent New York, and SPRING/BREAK Art Show. We’re shooting for flair and the cachet of Independent without the blue-chip gallery presence. The relaxed and fresh feel of NADA is very inspirational to us as well, and so is the as-is aesthetic of SPRING/BREAK, in reference to using a state/city-owned location with little to no special arrangements for the booths.
What is the selection process for MECA? Are you interested in political art given the heavy sociopolitical climate on the island?
Báez: Like we mentioned before, MECA is based on an invitation-only format. The selection process runs through Tony and myself in this first edition. We are looking to bring the most solid and promising young gallery programs out there in New York, L.A., London, Berlin, and San Juan, and at the same time to command respect and admiration from their peers in the art world. We’re definitely interested in the sociopolitical situation, not only in Puerto Rico but also the one transpiring right now on the mainland. We’re not trying to establish a heavily political event here, but that’s ultimately up to the galleries participating. What we want is to be a channel for their messages to get through.
MECA will take place in the Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music, a beautiful school overlooking the Condado Lagoon in Santurce, the island’s edgy and ultra-cool neighborhood that many journalists compare to gritty Bushwick for its driven art scene and hip restaurants. What can you tell me about the layout, location, and ancillary events?
Rodíguez: MECA will be taking over the Conservatory of Music and setting up 30 invited galleries in 14 classrooms on the second level of this historic building. The emerging and independent projects section, called MECANISMOS, will be located in one of the two indoor patios that connect to the main foyer. It has an impressive view of the lagoon. There will be a music program during those four days, mainly comprised of students of the conservatory.
As for the satellite projects, the strategic location of the conservatory will allow visitors to easily move around popular Cerra and Ernesto Cerra streets, where most of the independent galleries are located, including 2BLEÓ, Art Lab, and C787 STUDIOS. Other galleries in the vicinity like El Cuadrado Gris, Diagonal, and Peligro Amarillo, among others, will be putting up special programs. We are expecting close to 20 galleries to be part of MECA’s official ancillary program. My only recommendation is for visitors to bring a comfortable pair of shoes.
What can you tell me about MECA’s curated section, MECANISMOS? It’s exciting to see that it’s being juried by the widely respected young curator Carla Acevedo-Yates, who is currently the assistant curator at the Eli and Edythe Broad Museum in Michigan.
Rodíguez: MECANISMOS is a platform where new alternative galleries and exhibition spaces can present emerging talent at an affordable price. However, proposals are based on a curatorial concept within the context of an art fair. The applications will be reviewed by Carla Acevedo-Yates, and the number of participating galleries or projects will be limited to 10.
What can VIPs and international collectors expect to find when they arrive in Santurce?
Báez: The international and local galleries they love and adore in the company of a few others that might pique their interest. Some places that may already be on the radar but that they’ve never had a chance to visit. Another thing to discover is a vibrant, historic neighborhood filled with restaurants, speakeasy bars, and the beach at walking distance. And a lot of culture. Definitely culture.
What would make this first edition of MECA a success, in your view?
Báez: We’re committed to the local scene, and it’s our genuine desire to provide them with the visibility needed in order to gain a foothold in the international community of collectors and art dealers alike. So if we can help to make those connections happen in any way, that would look like success. There’s nothing like this happening right now in the Caribbean, so just the act of getting it done would be an exciting success as well.