When most visitors to Oaxaca think of Oaxacan art, the first thing that usually comes to mind is folk art; alebrijes (carved, fancifully painted wooden figures), barro negro (black pottery), tapetes (hand-made wool rugs), and other craft products. They don’t realize that Oaxaca has a longstanding fine art tradition which continues to thrive today. Indeed Oaxaca has produced world renowned artists such as the late masters Rufino Tamayo, Rodolfo Morales, and contemporary artists Francisco Toledo and Demián Flores.
Within a ten block radius of the heart of downtown Oaxaca you can find well over 30 art museums and galleries, and spend half your vacation marveling and eventually buying. But many travelers to the city simply don’t have the time or patience to seriously tour all of Oaxaca’s galleries.
So to get you started, here’s a summary of Oaxaca’s two most well respected art museums, and two galleries with stellar reputations for a broad diversity of fine art. I highly recommend visiting these institutions in order to get some initial inspiration, before beginning to pound the pavement in search of unique and provocative images to grace your home.
Museo del Arte Contemporáneo (MACO, Alcalá 202) has recently been refurbished. It’s housed in a large colonial building on the city’s main pedestrian walkway, Alcalá. The second floor retains some of the structure’s original frescos, adding to the sense of history which is imparted as you walk the hallways and gallery rooms. Colonial tradition is smartly juxtaposed against stark minimalist design. The placement of art provides both contrast and continuity, while at the same time enhances one’s ability to appreciate the art as well as the building. Exhibits of artists from both Mexico and abroad are changed bi-monthly.
Museo de Pintores Oaxaqueños (MUPO, Independencia 607) is located across the street from the cathedral and central post office. As its name suggests, it’s dedicated to celebrating the works of Oaxacan artists. It has rotating exhibits, featuring up and coming artists, those who have already made their mark, and the grand masters of Oaxacan art. The current exhibition of the works of Rodolfo Morales runs through June. Once or twice a year the museum hosts fine art auctions to benefit worthy charitable causes, provide financial assistance to local artists and assist in enhancing their reputation.
Arte de Oaxaca (Murguía 105), just east of Alcalá, has been promoting the work of both upcoming and established Oaxacan artists since 1987. It has a permanent room dedicated to the work of Rodolfo Morales. Its range of reasonably priced lithographs is impressive. As in the case of the two museums, it’s housed in a typical two level colonial building with courtyard in the middle, though it’s physically smaller than the museums. There are rotating exhibitions of oils, watercolors, lithos and sculptures.
Galería de Rolando Rojas (Alcalá 102) is owned by artist Rolando Rojas who is also the proprietor of the adjoining restaurant, La Catrina de Alcalá. It usually contains a mix of larger oils, both traditional in terms of Oaxacan style, and abstract which often pushes the envelope. At times one comes across large impressive pieces painted by a group of prominent Oaxacan artists. The gallery also contains smaller pieces including lithos and grabados, as well as rotating exhibits. As with the others, this gallery is a must.
And how do you go about buying art in Oaxaca? Here are few pointers, each of which has made me aesthetically wealthier: If you hesitate, it may be gone tomorrow. If a piece seems absolutely enchanting but is curiously inexpensive, don’t shy away for fear you won’t be purchasing quality; next year you may not be able to afford it since the reputations of many Oaxacan artists shoot up meteorically as they encounter patrons in Mexico City, New York and other major urban centers.
Compare what you see in terms of quality, imagery and price, to what you already have; in my case, all I have to do is recall my two pieces by the late R.C. Gorman, influenced by Mexican masters such as Orozco, Rivera and Siqueiros; and buying becomes easier.
Most of today’s promising artists have been influenced by the foregoing masters as well as the likes of Oaxacan greats including Tamayo, Morales and Toledo, so if a piece which draws you in appears to have a special quality, it probably does. Resist snobbery; lithographs and grabados are originals, of a limited number. Even posters of exhibition openings and festivals constitute an art form unto itself. As with other mediums, they often evoke interesting images. They are affordable for the most budget conscious, and framing is modest. They provide at least some of what we seek when selecting our artwork – color and coverage.
Keeping these tips in mind, and spending a day or even a few hours visiting Oaxaca’s art museums and galleries guarantees that you’ll go home with at least one piece to grace that barren wall that’s been crying out. More importantly you’ll leave Oaxaca with an enhanced appreciation of an important part of contemporary Oaxacan culture, and more generally Mexican fine art.
Alvin Starkman operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast (www.casamachaya.com). He has been collecting Oaxacan art for 20 years. You can email Alvin at for gallery recommendations based on your particular taste. Alvin takes couples and families to visit artists outside of Oaxaca, as well as to craft towns. However he specializes in more off-the-beaten-track sights.