Interview Mexico

“You have to devote yourself to what you are good at”

Mexican dealers José Kuri and Monica Manzutto discuss their partnership—both professional and personal

The dealers at Fiac earlier this year

Kurimanzutto gallery is the brainchild of husband and wife duo, José Kuri and Monica Manzutto. Founded in 1999, the gallery is now based in a converted timber yard in the heart of Mexico City. Kuri and Manzutto are credited with raising the international profile of major Latin American artists, including Gabriel Orozco, Damián Ortega, Gabriel Kuri and Allora & Calzadilla.

The Art Newspaper: How did you first meet?

Monica Manzutto: I met José in 1992. A friend thought we should meet, and she was right—we’ve been together ever since.

TAN: Were you always involved in art?

MM: José has always been close to artists but for me, meeting him was the beginning—I was 19 then. I became very exposed to artists in Mexico after that.

TAN: Why did you decide to open a gallery together?

José Kuri: A lot of factors came together. There was a fantastic generation of artists living and working in Mexico in the 1990s, but no gallery system or market to support them—they were really on their own. I knew that Gabriel Orozco wanted to come back to Mexico to work more, and he didn’t have a gallery there to help develop projects.

MM: We talked with Gabriel about this generation that didn’t have representation in Mexico. That was the moment when José and I said we should do it together. We knew we understood the context, so knew we could do it. We were all living in New York at the time—we were there for two years from 1997.

TAN: What were you doing there?

JK: We went to do masters degrees. I was studying economics at Columbia, and Monica was at NYU. Even though art was my passion, I studied something else because I never believed I could make a living from art. But, I learned from the masters that you have to devote yourself to what you are good at, and don’t worry. I just thought I should do what I love.

MM: I dropped out of NYU and went to work for Marian Goodman. I went as an intern, knowing I wanted to open the gallery. Marian was very important in exhibiting a certain group of artists that no one in New York knew before her shows. It was very important to understand how a gallery functioned, and also how to work with a specific generation—[as] we did later.

TAN: Why not stay in New York and open a gallery there?

JK: You could easily fail in New York because there is so much at stake. The market is tighter and there is little room for experimentation. In Mexico, there was no developed market or gallery system. People weren’t paying attention, so there was a lot of room for new things. We were really excited. It also felt like doing it was a kind of historic obligation for us.

TAN: When was this?

MM: We left New York on 1 July 1999 and opened the gallery in Mexico on 21 August.

JK: We had no money so we opened a gallery without a space. At the very beginning we worked from my parents’ house—we had to go back there to live because we couldn’t afford a place. It was actually a good thing—we concentrated on developing the artists, instead of spending the little money we had on a space. We worked like that for the first five or six years—later from our apartment in Mexico City. We travelled a lot and it gave us the opportunity to really focus on what is important—the artists. It was great to just close our apartment and go away for a month to see our artists—something that you cannot do with children. It was an adventure [The couple now have two children].

TAN: Was it difficult to live and work together?

JK: At first, very. We almost separated. Our office was in our home—at one point the storage was in our kitchen. It was so full we had to have our meals outside. But we figured out how to do it. We have a fantastic team now, it really has grown a lot.

MM: It was very difficult at the beginning. It was not about us—it was hard to understand how to work with artists that are also your friends, and to work without a space. Now we’ve found equilibrium. José is very rational. I am more intuitive. It’s a balance.

TAN: When did you get a proper space?

JK: In 2008. We’ve grown organically, little by little.

TAN: Now you have it, does the gallery live up to your expectations?

JK: It’s fantastic. It has a gallery, a beautiful kitchen and a bar, so once a month we have an open house where the artists come and we cook. It’s really how we always dreamed—like a community.

TAN: Has having a permanent space changed your programme?

JK: Certainly. When I look back, I feel nostalgia—we had the most fantastic time. But now we have amazing possibilities.

MM: It has changed a lot, but in a good way. Now we function differently—our work goes out further. Before, we would not have an idea of how many people were coming in but now we can see what is happening in the gallery. The nicest thing is that people are doing a lot of research and we are able to give that information out.

TAN: Latin American countries have traditionally looked to Europe and North America. Is there more dialogue within the region now?

JK: Yes. I think we came to realise that, when the crisis hit Europe and the US so hard, that you don’t need those economies so much. Why go abroad for validation when you have fantastic artists that really relate much more to your reality, your politics, your economics, your weather? It has been very interesting. For us now, we’re trying to be even more connected, and there are fantastic collectors. Lima is a super interesting place. Peru is fantastic—it’s economy has grown 8% in the last eight years. Bogotá is beautiful.

TAN: Do you think that will continue?

JK: Yes—once you create a tie, why break it? Confidence has been growing. We sold a couple of works at Frieze to some great collectors from Peru.

TAN: Were there collectors in Mexico when you started?

JK: Yes, very good collectors. And, they’re not conventional. They are really willing to support challenging works, and they help the flow of information. There are many more now—at least 15 or 20 really top collectors, and then more people at a lower pace. It’s lively.

TAN: How were the Frieze and Fiac fairs?

MM: Fiac has wonderful works around that are fantastic. It is a high quality art fair. Frieze was very important for us—we have been going for a few years but didn’t do it the past three years because we were concentrating on our space. But the response this year was quite amazing in the sense that we were able to sell to institutions—we sold a Jimmie Durham to the Tate—and it was a good moment to talk to curators.

TAN: Could you have achieved so much solo?

MM: No, never.

JK: Absolutely not. I rely so much on Monica. The gallery has created a sense of community. What we share is an act of love, so I think it has a meaning. It’s exciting.

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