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Puerto Rico’s New MECA Art Fair Opens in a Debt-Ridden Island Paradise

The screen printing operation at Green Go Home, the special project booth by Rirkrit Tiravanija and Tomas Vu.

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It may not be the best time to launch an art fair in Puerto Rico, where an increasingly dire economic crisis recently forced the U.S. territory to file for bankruptcy to handle its approximately $123 billion in debt. But that didn’t deter Daniel Báez and Tony Rodríguez: After two years of planning, Báez, who is based in New York, finally opened the inaugural edition of MECA this week alongside Rodríguez, who is an artist based in Puerto Rico.

Naysayers first balked at the idea of MECA, which is an abbreviated version of Mercado Caribeño, Spanish for “Caribbean market.” The founders of Circa, an art fair in Puerto Rico that shuttered just as the economic crisis started, told them they were crazy. Collectors weren’t very supportive either.

“When we told them we were doing MECA, they laughed,” said Báez, who in New York works at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise and reps the gallery at fairs in Latin American markets. But that soon changed. “They noticed we were persistent,” he said.

Báez and his team managed to get more than 30 exhibitors to sign on to the invite-only fair, which runs through June 4, including New York-based galleries Shoot the Lobster, 47 Canal, White Columns, Marlborough Contemporary, Off Vendome, and, naturally, Gavin Brown’s Enterprise. Galeria Agustina Ferreyra, Embajada, and Zawahra Alejandro are among the Puerto Rico-based galleries participating. Around 35 to 40 percent of the artists in display are from the region.

“I want to put a spotlight on Caribbean artists,” said Báez.

Instead of staging MECA in a convention center, Báez wanted more of a community feel, so he turned to the Conservatoria de Música de Puerto Rico, a 19th-century colonial building listed National Register of Historic Places in Santurce—a place that reaches back to the island’s roots. The fact that it’s technically U.S. soil was a plus, eliminating the normal the red tape of customs and currency exchange.

“They use dollars, so it’s easier for everyone,” Báez said. “If you’re from the United States, you don’t need a passport to come here. It’s tropical.”

Traffic early yesterday at the fair was a bit slow, but that started to change as the VIP Preview transitioned into public hours. And the work was quite affordable, with price tags rarely exceeding $20,000, a deal compared with what’s for sale at fair giants like Art Basel, FIAC, and Frieze. In the main section of the fair, galleries took up space in classrooms that surrounded a courtyard on the second floor.

Caribbean motifs were everywhere. In a projects section labeled Mecanismos, the Berlin-based Puerto Rican artist Chaveli Sifre hawked coconut bombs—coconuts decorated with dedicated glass perfume bottle tops that might give viewers an unexpected surprise at La Estación Special. “If you open it, you might pass out,” warned an attendant at the booth. It turns out they were filled with a mixture that included chloroform.

Installation view of the booth for the San Juan-based Galeria Agustina Ferreyra.

COURTEST GALERIA AGUSTINA FERREYRA

Nearby, at the booth for San Juan outfit 2Bleó, Puerto Rican artist Daniel Lind Ramos paid tribute to “traditional Afro-descendant communities” through sculptures featuring coconuts and shovels. In the main section, Embajada displayed new cigarette sculptures and $200 prints featuring symbols that Jesús “Bubu” Negró used to reference his homeland while in China. (The artist had just completed a residency with Davidoff in Beijing.) One featured a Puerto Rican flag pointing to the island nation, and a palm tree and sun to show that he was from the U.S. territory. At Off Vendôme, a conch shell sound sculpture by Juan Antonio Olivares dangled in the air. Elizabeth Karp Evans referenced Puerto Rico’s sugar cane heritage with a large-scale mural of a sugar farmer composed of 2,500 buttons titled The Color of Money.

Meanwhile, at a special projects stand, the Puerto Rican artist collective called National showed prints by Melvin Martinez that fused Puerto Rican and American identity, like a coconut with a straw and an umbrella with the heart-adorned “I Love NY” logo on it. “It’s about the Caribbean, the preconceptions, and identity,” said the collective’s Jorge Frontera.

The community feel that Báez discussed was quite obvious, as evidenced by intra-booth connections between fair participants. Christopher Rivera, the artist-turned-gallerist, manned both Embajada—which also featured an installation by Mexican artist Claudia Peña Salinas that involves Tlaloc, a Mexican water deity—and Marlborough Contemporary, which showed plein air paintings by John Riepenhoff that ranged from $2,500 to $13,500.

“It has a lot of potential,” Rivera said of MECA. “It has a different format from a typical art fair. This could be a bridge. Everybody needs art.”

Then, around the corner at the Milwaukee-based Green Gallery, Riepenhoff, another artist-gallerist, was collecting peppers from the island to make hot sauce and showed minimal abstract canvases ranging from $7,500 to $10,000 by Andrew Kuo and Michelle Grabner, artists also represented by Marlborough Contemporary.

Over at Alaina Simone’s stand, which was part of the special projects sector, the Washington, D.C.-based artist Aaron Maier displayed canvases that he said depicted the balance between “the grotesque and human frailty.” A sculpture, Artifact 1, was made of concrete shoes, acrylic paint, and plastic by Dulcina Abreu—who, as it happens, just recently got married to Maier. It was evidently tough to get through the airport security, where the object befuddled TSA agents.

Works by Spencer Sweeney in the booth for Gavin Brown’s Enterprise

COURTESY THE ARTIST AND GAVIN BROWN’S ENTERPRISE

For one of its last hurrahs before moving to Mexico City, longtime San Juan-based Galería Agustina Ferreyra presented geometric abstraction by 67-year-old Puerto Rican painter Juan Julio Suarez alongside work by New York artist and writer Heather Guertin. Next door, Chicago-based Patron showed a pigment print by Whitney Biennial Harold Mendez. Gavin Brown’s Enterprise had a solo booth of new works by Spencer Sweeney that ranged from $2,500 to $3,500. Down the hall, Matthew Higgs’s White Columns booth exhibited works by “artists with disabilities, self-taught artists, and artists who don’t typically have access to a larger contemporary art audience”—like Karen May, a disabled Bay Area-based artist who draws over ads she discovers in Artforum.

Higgs also had Kim Gordon’s Design Office T-shirts, which were selling like hot cakes. After purchasing one, you could walk right over to Green Go Home, the special project booth by Rirkrit Tiravanija and Tomas Vu, and have phrases like “Soñamos bajo el mismo cielo” (We dream under the same sky) screen-printed onto your wearable canvas. Portraits of figures ranging from Roberto Clemente and Debbie Harry to Manny Pacquiao covered the space. “Rirkrit did his research,” said Báez, who has worked with Tiravanija in the past. “He found all the fighters for freedom and put it on the wall.”

Higgs had high hopes for MECA, citing two other fairs—Theunfair, in Cologne, and the Gramercy International Art Fair, in New York—that were initiated by dealers. “A lot of people met at those fairs for the first time, and from those connections a lot of interesting things happened,” he said.

Although there wasn’t a mad rush for work in the opening hours, transactions were definitely happening. Word was that pieces sold at Embajada, White Columns, and Green Go Home, and that there was a lot of interest in the Spencer Sweeney work at Gavin Brown. Báez, who also wants to use MECA’s foundation arm as a platform for arts education in Puerto Rico, was certain that there is a market. “There’s 3.2 million people in Puerto Rico and 45 known collectors,” he said, “so there must be 25 that don’t want people to know that they’re doing this.”

Not even bankruptcy could stop Báez and Rodriguez, who hope to eventually turn MECA into a roving fair around the Caribbean. Báez recalled a conversation that his boss Brown had with Tiravanija, discussing their colleague’s risky art fair gambit: “It’s genius. It’s bankrupt. It’s the best moment to do it.”

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