The future of one of Mexico’s best-known art collections, La Colección Banamex, is uncertain after the bank to which it belongs has been put up for sale.
The US-based Citigroup—which bought Mexican high street stalwart Banamex and its vast array of cultural assets 20 years ago—announced this month that it was offloading CitiBanamex after a two-decade venture into the volatile Mexican retail banking market. The Art Newspaper understands that the sale of the collection separately from the bank and its assets is not currently under consideration, but the announcement nonetheless prompted a wave of concern over the collection, which is heavily weighted to ensure Mexican artists and themes are represented and which now numbers more than 6,000 items including works by Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Clemente Orozco and several other artists whose work is deemed patrimonio nacional (national patrimony) so cannot leave the country without permission.
Founded in 1972, initially as a means to buy predominantly Mexican-produced artworks to decorate Banamex branches, the collection is managed by the Formento Cultural Banamex, a foundation that has used its stature—and a handsome budget for acquisitions and other projects—to grow the collection over the past 50 years.
While the most valuable pieces are without doubt the paintings—including landscapes by the English artist Daniel Thomas Egerton, who lived in Mexico in the late 19th century—the collection now includes sculpture, ceramics and textiles. The main body of work is housed in the Palacio Iturbide, a stunning 18th-century building in central Mexico City. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic it was open to the public free of charge.
The Formento also has several other heritage properties open to the public across the country, in the states of Chiapas, Durango and the Yucatan, home to the Montejo Museum in Merida. It also runs a publishing operation specialising in coffee table style art books.
Works from the collection have occasionally toured internationally and in the past were often used to support the country’s soft diplomacy initiatives.
Mexico’s president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who last year surprised many observers by announcing plans to build a vast museum in the country’s capital at a time when many workers in the cultural sector had not been paid for months, has said that he would like the collection—and the bank—to be “re-Mexicanized”. In this scenario Banamex would be bought by a Mexican with the ability to safeguard the future of both the business and ensure the collection retains a home base in the country. In the past he has also spoken of setting up a state-run “peoples’ bank’ for more Mexicans to have access to banking facilities.
Cultural promoter and former director of the Museo Nacional de San Carlos and Museo Nacional de Arte, Graciela de la Torre, is “not overly worried” about the possibility of the collection leaving the country.
“The Mexican people would never allow it,” she told The Art Newspaper. “I am much more concerned about the integrity of the cultural archives and the Formento’s ongoing cultural work such as the research and philanthropic activities.”
Cuauhtémoc Medina, chief curator at the Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo at the National Autonomous University, agrees that the collection should not be broken up and is scathing of the rush to make political capital from the issue: “The government could buy it (the bank and the collection) and have a real bank. What is genuinely frightening is that Citi is selling up because it does not trust the Mexican economy.”
The Formento Cultural Banamex had not responded to a request for comment as of press time.