The museum as platform

Designed by David Chipperfield, Mexico City’s new Museo Jumex houses the most important private art collection in Latin America amassed by Eugenio López, heir to a family fruit-juice fortune.

Chipperfield, Museo Jumex
What is the role of the contemporary museum? The statement was plastered on the brochures and walls and website of the much anticipated Museo Jumex, which recently opened in Mexico City.
Designed by David Chipperfield, the 43,000 square-foot museum will house the most important private art collection in Latin America, amassed by Eugenio López, forty-something heir to a family fruit-juice fortune. In terms of sheer scale and ambition for a private Mexican cultural enterprise in recent years, the Jumex could only be rivaled by its next-door neighbor, Mexican telecom tycoon Carlos Slim’s Museo Soumaya, designed by Fernando Romero and inaugurated in 2011 to a similar amount of buzz and fanfare.
David Chipperfield, Museo Jumex, Mexico City, 2013
David Chipperfield, Museo Jumex, Mexico City, 2013
The day of the Jumex’s early public opening, the first thing people commented on was how utterly different both museums were from one another (and they are). But as examples of how culture is being constructed in Mexico through, as a friend put it that day, “the privatization of the public”, they represent two opposite versions of the same ambition. In fact, it’s no coincidence that they stand practically face to face in the much-hyped commercial, cultural and entertainment “destination” of Nuevo Polanco, one of the most extreme urban reconversion schemes in the city’s recent history.
Practically smothered by its surroundings, the Museo Jumex surprisingly manages to stand out like a stout little neomodernist fortress clad in a creamy locally-sourced travertine. The museum is sliced in half into a lower public “skirt” that coquettishly reveals just enough to lure passers-by inside, and an upper two floors of gallery space, crowned by a sawtooth roof. Or as Chipperfield himself put it in a public Q&A with Hans Ulrich Obrist held as part of the inaugural program: a detached, reflective museum perched on an active, public one.
David Chipperfield, Museo Jumex, Mexico City, 2013
David Chipperfield, Museo Jumex, Mexico City, 2013
On the outside, the building struggles to bring regularity to its surroundings, a lone figure sailing against the current. The former industrial site was incredibly challenging: a small triangular piece of land squeezed between fussy commercial and residential buildings, flanked by a (still active) train track and an elliptical apartment tower that crept up on it from behind it and sits at about arms length from the museum, not to mention the attention-grabbing Soumaya a couple of yards across and a gigantic LED screen stuck onto the high-flown geometric steel canopy of a neighboring theater originally designed, though not concluded, by Antón García-Abril, constantly spewing slimey green promos for Wicked, the musical.
David Chipperfield, Museo Jumex, Mexico City, 2013
David Chipperfield, Museo Jumex, Mexico City, 2013

With the help of local partner firm TAUU, led by architect Óscar Rodríguez, instead of turning the building’s back on it, Chipperfield embraced the challenges of context. A first version of the project broke up the structure into a series of small boxes, but was discarded because the nature of the collection demanded big, open galleries. So the building went vertical, its awkward geometry softened by refraction.

When necessary, the project was rethought and reworked on site, so very few things seem out of place. To push back from the difficult setting, Chipperfield focused on the more positive aspects of context: a benign climate that allowed for an open, terraced envelope; and the availability of a dedicated and unexpectedly qualified local workforce that cut and turned the stone on the facade by hand, creating a soft, natural variation effect. If one thing sets the building apart from its neighbors it’s the sharp attention to detail that is present in Chipperfield’s best work. The building even leaves some room for humor: the stone facade is a sly wink to the luxury mall across the street, Antara Polanco, designed by Javier Sordo Madaleno in 2006, clad in prefab imitation travertine concrete in the same milky beige hue.    

According to Chipperfield, “a room without a connection to the outside is not a room”
From the inside, the Jumex is nothing short of stunning. The construction is so good every surface makes you want to rub against it. Floor-to-ceiling windows and massive pivoting doors, striking ceiling heights, and a sculptural staircase sided with blackened steel all deliver drama without overdoing things. The travertine floors bring a warmth that is uncommon for White Cube standards. There is none of the hip pretense of current art spaces. In fact, compared to the quirk of the original exhibition space for the collection, which opened in 2001 on-site at Jumex juice factory in the industrial periphery of Ecatepec, the Museo Jumex feels completely grown up.
The foundation itself has also matured, and the new building was a perfect excuse to celebrate and mark a new stage in its short history. The Jumex landed with a bang: a three-day extravaganza of parties, pre-openings, public talks, and a pig roast. Artists, dealers, critics and culture mavens were flown in from across the globe for the occasion. The inaugural exhibitions were maybe not as dazzling as the parties, but they were dizzying in their own right. The second level gallery was occupied a James Lee Byars retrospective, the most cerebral and subtle of the three, co-curated by Magalí Arriola and PS1’s Peter Eleey, where the show will travel in the summer.
Jumex Museum, Gamboa
Jumex Museum, Fernando Gamboa, installation view in the bookstore. Marble floor by Martin Creed.
The main gallery space was occupied by a dual exhibition curated by the Jumex’s director, Patrick Charpenel, simultaneously featuring crowd-pleasing highlights from the collection and a solo exhibition of unassuming works by Fred Sandback. The exhibition made more than one nonchalant contemporary critic roll her eyes, but for Mexico it felt inviting and significant. It had something of the sensory overload that is so deeply rooted here, one of few constants in the city. Like throwing salsa and squeezing lime on top of everything. Or building churches on top of ancient pyramids and new buildings eating up ancient churches. More than the sprinkling of work by Mexican artists, this heavy-handed layering of pieces together on one big platter was an incredibly familiar and satisfying gesture, and probably an effective way of drawing in the crowds that are already pilgrimaging to the site to shoot selfies in front of the sparkling aluminum facade of the Soumaya.
Museo Jumex, James Lee Byars
Museo Jumex, James Lee Byars, installation view
This main exhibition space is permanently cradled in an airy play of natural and artificial lighting, varying depths and clean geometries, all the way up to the jagged skylit roof. “For a curator or a conservator, daylight is the enemy, it is unreliable. How do you get just the right amount of light?” the architects asked themselves. But natural changes in light can also offer the visitor different experiences of the space, so the challenge was not about blocking out the sun or making daylight a regular constant, but designing for a tenuous modulation. Every single gallery in the museum is fed by natural light (though one of the gallery’s sole window was blocked for one of the exhibitions). According to Chipperfield, “a room without a connection to the outside is not a room”.
A third, unannounced exhibition curated by Patricia Marshall, an advisor to the collection, was tucked under the building, in an underground parking lot, with an edgier though not less polished feel to it. As if the three-course serving weren’t enough, a few other goodies were thrown into the mix: a balancing-act of domestic objects outdoor installation by Damian Ortega and a modest presentation (in the bookstore with a gorgeous Martin Creed marble-strip-floor installation) of an intriguing in-house publication that explores the archive of Fernando Gamboa, which was perfectly fitting, considering Gamboa was the famous mid-century cultural promotor that made bringing Mexican culture to the forefront of the international scene his life purpose. In a nutshell, the first answer to the lofty question of what the role of the contemporary museum is, would be that it still needs to put on a good show.
Museo Jumex, Un lugar en dos dimensiones
Museo Jumex, Un lugar en dos dimensiones: una selección de Colección Jumex + Fred Sandback, exhibition view
The lower half of the museum, includes a lobby that opens up to a small plaza, a café that opens up to a small terrace and the building’s most intriguing space: the public vitrine, an experimental glass niche enveloped by an enormous terrace that cuts into the building facade. The vitrine embraces its impossibly saturated surroundings, trying to make best of its flaws, like a model turning gapped teeth into a signature look. It is not an exhibition room, not an auditorium either: it embodies the dual function of a dynamic venue and a truly public destination, a delicate balance between openness and reservedness, between noise and reflection, between embracing the chaos and mundane rhythms of the city and creating a refuge for serious thought and reflection and unique aesthetic experience
The question is how a private institution can assume an even more ambitious public role as vehicle for cultural and social change
So we come back to the question: what is the role of the contemporary museum? The Museo Jumex, like the Soumaya, wants to turn private wealth into a source of public culture. The real challenge for the Jumex is not creating a “world-class” museum (Mexico City has plenty of those, even a couple in the contemporary art category), but making the museum a socially relevant institution in a country and a city (and an immediate urban context) of extreme social pressures. The real challenge will be attending to what Chipperfield referred to as the “voiceless client”, the common citizen. Can a museum such as this become a socially significant instrument of changing culture at street level? Can the move towards a central location also spark a move to a more central position not only in displaying culture, but in generating culture?
Museo Jumex, Un lugar en dos dimensiones
Museo Jumex, Un lugar en dos dimensiones: una selección de Colección Jumex + Fred Sandback, exhibition view
Since it opened in 2001, the Jumex has explored the possibilities of turning a collection into an institution, with the exhibition space supported by a strong research and editorial arm, an important grant program for emerging artists, and a specialized library open to the public. Now the question is how a private institution can assume an even more ambitious public role as vehicle for cultural and social change. In this sense, the launch of the museum’s inaugural public program was a trial run of sorts: a day-long series of encounters that included a Byars performance, a discussion moderated by Gabriel Orozco where the public’s questions on the role of art were addressed, the public Q&A with Chipperfield and Obrist, a public reading inspired by Gamboa and a public concert by a local art band.
Museo Jumex, Un lugar en dos dimensiones:
Museo Jumex, Un lugar en dos dimensiones: una selección de Colección Jumex + Fred Sandback, exhibition view

The Jumex wants to be social and cultural infrastructure: the museum as a public platform. It remains to see if this blurring of the lines between private and public, between the popular and the obscure, will actually be able to connect with a wider public, to create not only a “destination” but a hub of creative and specially critical activity around contemporary culture (which is actually lacking in the city) and channel these energies towards public good. The elements are all there, and they are definitely off to a good start.


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