Zona Maco is ripe for a change

Zona Maco 2019 Photo: Raúl Castellanos

Zona Maco 2019 Photo: Raúl Castellanos

Zona Maco is a trip. It sets up annually at one end of the humongous Centro Citibanamex In Mexico City, a trade-show complex overlooking a soccer field that’s roughly the same distance from tony hotels in Polanco that JFK is from Manhattan.

And lots of people go—62,000 visitors this year—but in its just concluded 16th edition, Maco seemed listless, as if operating on automatic. By contrast, the Material fair, a smaller enterprise with 73 galleries to Maco’s 180, was abuzz all week. Some collectors carped that buzz was all it had, and that the good stuff was at Maco. And it was. But there’s the rub.

At the 6 February, VIP preview, Kasmin, Sean Kelley, Continua, Mai 36 and hometown galleries OMR and Kurimanzutto were the mainstays generating the most sales. (As one fairgoer observed, “Kurimanzutto could put a potted plant in the booth and sell it for big bucks.” Which it has.) Some of the other big guns, like Nordenhake, Travesia Cuatro and Tina Kim, also had new stuff, but mostly the fair looked like your grandmother’s closet. Michael Kohn had arresting works by Bruce Conner, and Pace offered vintage Lucas Samaras and Kiki Smith, but too many dealers relied too heavily on back inventory, perhaps appealing to those playing catch-up rather than out to make discoveries.

Pre-fair gossip predicted that gringo collectors would skip Mexico altogether and head straight to the inaugural Frieze Los Angeles. Though the American presence was noticeably much smaller than in past years, several foreigners took respite from frigid northern climes by putting both cities on their itineraries.

The Swiss eminences Michael and Ellen Ringier breezed through the preview with former Stedelijk Museum director Beatrix Ruf, then scuttled off to galleries and museums. The ICA London director, Stefan Kalmár, accompanied collector Maja Oeri, the power behind the Schaulager in Basel and a first-timer in the Distrito Federal, initially for the 5 February opening of a Peter Fischli exhibition at House of Gaga, a Maco veteran.

Photo: Raúl Castellanos

Sections labelled Zona Maco Sur (for thematic presentations, selected by Kiki Mazzucchelli), and New Proposals (organised by the Storefront for Art and Architecture director Jose Esparza Chong Cuy) made opportunities for smaller or younger galleries, but their tiny cubicles were at the outer edges of the fair and their contents, surprisingly, were as unadventurous as the rest.

The 20 galleries on the modern art aisle probably shouldn’t be segregated from the central section, and wouldn’t be if organisers were more selective, while the design boutiques on another outer aisle looked as if they were lifted from a suburban mall. Does this fair really need them? They did nothing to contextualise the main section as a serious place for art.

Personally, I’ve always found reasons to like this fair, and have great respect for its founder, Zelika Garcia, who keeps pulling it off, and expanding, against the odds. (South American dealers, for example, largely prefer to stick with São Paula and Miami.)

To my eye, the problem is that Zona Maco tries too hard to mimic fairs in other parts of the world, instead of capitalising on its unique position between the Americas. It could be a platform for exchanges of all sorts, instead of offering the same old same. Of course, there’s a lot at stake, but with competition growing stiffer, it might be time to experiment with different, 21st-century models for drawing new audiences to contemporary art, and to Mexico City — a sunny, exceedingly popular destination inhabited by gracious people and virtually vibrating with cultural benefits that don’t bruise the wallet or go to bed early.