Since the pandemic started, professionals with newly remote jobs have flocked to Mexico City in droves. Beautiful architecturally, cheap for those paid in US dollars, and conveniently located between the Pacific and Eastern time zones, this ancient city attracted scores of digital nomads, including a crop of journalists who have been pumping out articles about the gentrification of Mexico City—to which they have no doubt contributed. But while locals weather exponentially increasing rent prices, much of Mexico City’s art world has been rejoicing.
“Oh, I’m 100 percent into it,” said Pablo Mancera, the director and founder of Furiosa, a young gallery based in CDMX’s trendy Roma Norte neighborhood. “Fifty percent of our sales are global, as in our pieces leave the country, 25 to 30 percent [of sales] are from cosmopolitan, international people who have homes here. The expat community is fundamental to our success.”
Mancera opened Furiosa in early 2021 after spending the first year of the pandemic working as an art dealer and adviser in Los Angeles. Though the world seemed to be on fire in those first months of the pandemic, it was also a year of unprecedented growth for the art market, with both Sotheby’s and Christie’s breaking their respective records for total sales for all of 2021. When Mancera returned home to Mexico to set up shop, he was ready to ride the wave that he anticipated was about to form in Mexico City, and he wasn’t alone.
Since 2020, a spate of new galleries have opened and expanded in Mexico City, including the LA-based gallery Morán Morán in Polanco and Chicago- and Paris-based gallery Mariane Ibrahim, which launched its CDMX space this week. Mexico City–based institutions and artists are also taking advantage of the city’s moment in the sun to expand, with OMR gallery setting up a gigantic new space in the Chapultepec Park called Lago Algo last year, and artist Bosco Sodi debuting a five-floor studio and exhibition space in Mexico City’s Juarez neighborhood this week. The heat is even being felt outside Mexico City, with Mark Bradford funding an art residency program for students in Guadalajara. Grupo Jumex, run by major collector Eugenio López Alonso who opened the Museo Jumex in 2013, will open a new factory in Monterrey, complete with an exhibition space.
“Over the past 10 years, Mexico City has been getting this quicker, faster New York energy, but manages to keep its Latin American romance,” said Mancera. “This city has more than enough for everyone.”
For gallerists, the potential pitfalls that come with the influx of well-to-do foreigners are easy to balance against the benefits they bring: money. And money can mean great things.
“We want Mexico City to be a place where artists can be successful and live off their art, where we have big galleries and museums,” said Verónica Guerrero, head of operations at Galería Karen Huber, which has been in business for nearly a decade. “There has to be a balance between incorporating new ideas and new people without losing our own voice as Latin Americans and Mexicans.”
But what exactly is a Latin American or Mexican voice? Students in Mexican art schools recount professors critiquing their work as “too American.” But this younger generation of artists can’t simply ignore that they grew up in the wake of NAFTA, the trade agreement that brought a significant number of American businesses and considerable American culture to the country.
Expats also have a long history of major presence in the Mexican art scene, extending as far back as the 1930s and ’40s, with artists like Tina Modotti, Elizabeth Catlett, and the Greenwood sisters, to more recent arrivals like contemporary artists Francis Alÿs and Bridget Bate Tichenor. Their successes in Mexico City, however aren’t divorced from the power dynamics we see in the city today, as middle-class artists from the United States and Europe often have the means to set up large studios for cheap, considering the balance of their respective currencies against the Mexican peso.
And even setting aside expat artists who have achieved international fame while based in Mexico, there is also a preponderance of white Mexican artists who often seem most consistently to reap the rewards of art world fame. Teasing apart the effect of this new generation of expats on the art market and Mexican aesthetics is complicated, to say the least.
Some things, however, are resoundingly clear: the rent is too damn high. A recent report from the New York Times tracked the average monthly rent in Mexico City jumping from $880 in January 2020 to $1,080 by November of the same year, and rates are going only higher. Protests sprang up in Mexico City last year after the city government made a deal with Airbnb that is meant to incentivize more digital nomads to rent via Airbnb in Mexico’s capital. The increases in rent have led to the displacement of long-time residents, and artists are among those who are beginning to leave the city in response.
“A lot of artists are moving to Cuernavaca because it’s close,” said Baby Solís, the voice behind the wildly popular art education Instagram account @ObrasdeArteComentados. “Of course, they don’t want to say it because they want to be perceived as part of the Mexico City art scene. So they move to close, cheap cities and try to come on the weekends.”
This pattern isn’t a new one. Rich and middle-class foreigners bring with them the means to afford high rents, and high rents can kill a city’s ability to support a rich art scene, filled with experimental and avant-garde practices, and just living in general.
Sarah Schulman, the AIDS historian who published Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987–1993 in 2021, wrote a 2013 book titled Gentrification of the Mind, in which she analyzed how the AIDS crisis led to leaps in rent, which in turn changed New York City’s art scene forever. After this jolt of gentrification, artists could no longer afford to focus on their creative work and had to make ends meet by working part-time jobs, sometimes multiple ones simultaneously. That, in turn, Schulman argues, meant that people who could afford to be artists were increasingly white with fairly secure financial backgrounds. Put another way, making art became more and more about playing the art market.
Regardless, most people would agree that high rents are bad, and solutions to that are hard to come by. Solís disagrees with the faction of people who think the only way out of this situation is encouraging well-to-do foreigners to leave. Instead, “it’s about stabilizing rent and regulating Airbnb,” she said.
But as rents skyrocket with no end in sight, resentment is indeed starting to pile up. The art collective OEA, for example, has been producing a great deal of content, merchandise, and art programming critiquing the presence of foreigners from the Global North. The collective put on a show at the CDMX gallery Compas 88 entitled “Gringofobicx” (translation: Gringophobic). The collective sells merchandise like a lighter that shows a burning American flag, with one of their mottos printed on the back: Bad Host. It costs 100 pesos for people from the Global North and 50 pesos for everyone else. And why shouldn’t they up the cost for gringos? OEA member Alberto Rodríguez told ARTnews that rich foreigners opening up galleries in CDMX lately seem to be showing foreign artists exclusively and don’t get involved in the local art scene at all.
“The exclusion is real,” Rodríguez wrote in a message to ARTnews. “There’s a way for [the CDMX art scene] to enrich both sides, but gringos feel more comfortable among themselves. The solution would be to change this attitude, to adapt to each other. But when you have the money on your side the world adapts to you, not the other way around, and that’s the problem.”
The collective’s critique is as biting as it is reasonable. Those who listen, however, have a lot to gain.
Artist Derrick Jiménez Bowser moved out of the US a little more than a decade ago, and still feels he needs to work on his feeling of entitlement. Bowser grew up in Pennsylvania, and moved to Peru, where his mother is from, some years back. Then he made his way to Mexico City seven years ago.
“I’m still culturally gringo though,” Bowser told ARTnews. “There was a lot of work that was required of me not to take up space and act entitled, and I still catch myself acting in ways I’d rather not.”
Bowser credits OEA members with helping him grow into a better member of the CDMX art scene. While the nuances and tensions of the situation in Mexico City can make people feel hopeless or ineffective, there’s work that expats can and should do to become welcome guests instead of hated invaders. Sometimes, the best thing one can be is self-aware.
“And maybe, learn some Spanish,” Bowser added.