A Scrappy New Fair Delivers What Puerto Rico’s Strapped Art Economy Needs
Puerto Rico has many of the qualities that could make it the perfect place to host an art fair. It’s warm, edged with spectacular beaches, home to a vibrant artist community, and an easy flight from cultural hubs like New York, Miami, and Mexico City.
But the island, a United States commonwealth, has been in a recession for over a decade. It carries a debilitating $73 billion public debt load, and in early May essentially declared bankruptcy—an unprecedented move for an American state or territory. Population loss and the closure of nearly 200 public schools followed, and citizens are anticipating slashed funding for public pensions and the arts. Two months of student protests and caustic mural campaigns throughout the capital, San Juan, have highlighted citizens’ dissatisfaction with perceived government corruption and the island’s status as a U.S. territory.
Into this precarious atmosphere comes MECA, the art world’s newest fair, which was held last week in San Juan.
MECA’s founders Danny Báez and Tony Rodriguez, who work at Gavin Brown’s enterprise in New York and Espacio 20/20 in Puerto Rico, respectively, said they saw in Puerto Rico’s economic woes a chance to help local artists and galleries connect to the international art community. In turn, artists could develop income channels and relationships outside of Puerto Rico’s struggling economy and begin to establish their own market.
“I knew that in the worst times, you can create some of the best opportunities,” said Báez on the fair’s opening day. “And we saw an opportunity to help our community of artists.”
MECA didn’t receive a dime of funding from either the government or outside investors, according to Báez. But he and Rodriguez did have a wealth of a tenacity and a community of artists, gallerists, graphic designers, chefs, and other creatives to support them. Throw in some free liquor, hotel discounts for exhibitors and press, and paint for the booths from local businesses, and that combination turned out to be enough to launch a fair that is putting the long-term growth of the regional creative community—instead of making a quick buck—first.
Báez and Rodriguez began brainstorming a fair that “would spotlight the Caribbean arts” in June 2015, after crossing paths at arteBA in Buenos Aires, where Báez was assisting artist Rirkrit Tiravanija, and Rodriguez was exhibiting. Born in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, respectively, they shared a frustration that “contemporary Caribbean artists aren’t getting enough international recognition, and not enough support in their own countries,” said Báez.
It was “all talk” at first, Báez laughed, but by the middle of 2016, they started to plan for what would become MECA, shopping the idea around to collectors and gallerists in Puerto Rico and beyond.
The response was mixed. One naysayer was the founder of defunct San Juan-based art fair Circa, which was held in the capital’s convention center from 2006 until 2010.
“They were trying to emulate the Art Basel system, which isn’t a realistic model—at least yet—in the Caribbean,” Báez said. “We don’t have the infrastructure to support it.”
The region needed a different model, Báez knew: “Something more grassroots.”
Funding wasn’t going to come from the struggling government, though they did “donate a few cardboard trash cans,” laughed Karlo Andrei Ibarra, the co-founder of the San Juan-based artist-run space Km 0.2, which exhibited at the fair. Several independent collectors whom Báez and Rodriguez asked for financial support were skeptical, too.
Hard up for cash, the two instead “created a secret formula,” said Báez, one that sounds suspiciously like a recipe for bankruptcy: Start producing the fair on a shoestring budget, and as booth payments come in from galleries, pay the most urgent bills first. Total production costs came to $65,000—much less than the production costs of comparable fairs that also highlight emerging art and galleries.
One reason for doing it on the cheap was to keep booth costs and public entry fees low. Galleries paid $3,500 for booths, and visitors paid around $20 for a fair ticket. By contrast, first-year galleries at Basel’s emerging art fair, LISTE, pay between $7,000 and $8,000 for a booth.
The “secret formula” worked: On June 1st, the fair opened in the arched corridors of the city’s music school, Conservatorio de Música de Puerto Rico.
Fifteen galleries and three special projects set up shop in the main section, along with eight galleries and four performances in a curated section called Mecanismos. They came from San Juan, Santo Domingo, Mexico City, Guadalajara, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and Milwaukee. Some were regulars on the international fair circuit, like Gavin Brown’s enterprise and 47 Canal; others, like Km 0.2, were showing at an art fair for the first time.
The international galleries sought to connect with Puerto Rican collectors and artists, and enjoy a few days on a warm island rich with cultural history. The regional galleries—13 from around the Caribbean and Latin America—had a different focus: They were there to create opportunities for their artists and bolster the Puerto Rican art community, which can’t rely on the island’s unstable government for funding or support.
“In a moment of such extreme instability, when the art schools and museums are in danger of closing because of lack of funding, the creative community needs to learn how to be autonomous,” said María del Mar Caragol, the fair’s VIP program director.
Ibarra, whose gallery-cum-studio is just a few blocks from the conservatory, agrees: “This fair may not have many sponsors, or any support from the city or government, but it also makes MECA really honest,” he said. Ibarra and his partner in Km 0.2, Yiyo Tirado, both grew up in Puerto Rico and studied art in San Juan. Although making ends meet isn’t easy in the current climate, they’re committed to staying, and see participation in MECA as an extension of this commitment.
“Because it operates outside the traditional convention-center model, it’s more rooted in collaboration and community-building,” said Ibarra. “Not only between artists and galleries and collectors, but graphic designers, chefs, local bars and restaurants, too, for the events around the fair.”
Neither Ibarra nor Tirado makes a living off of their art, or from sales of the work they show in Km 0.2, which they reinvest in the gallery. Ibarra works in restaurants to support himself and Tirado does graphic design jobs and teaches art and design workshops. But they hope that the growth of art infrastructure like MECA will provide new opportunities to make money from their art.
Del Mar Caragol, who moved back to Puerto Rico after living in Argentina after college, said the fair was intended to provide that market platform that had been missing until now.
In her view, a small art fair like MECA, which puts art first, can help artists “become more autonomous,” she said.
“They can learn about and start becoming comfortable with art market and how they sell their work,” she continued. “That’s not only healthy for them, it’s healthy for the whole circuit. It’s healthy for Puerto Rico.”
That’s not to say the artists got much practice this time around. Sales at the fair were slow, even though nothing in the fair was priced above $20,000 and major Puerto Rican and Miami-based collectors like José Hernández Castrodad, Humberto Ugobono, César Reyes, Jacky Aizenman, and Marie Elena Angulo were there browsing.
But neither exhibitors, nor MECA’s team, were discouraged. The fair’s organizers say they’re playing a long game.
“We’re laying the groundwork,” said del Mar Caragol. “That’s the only way we’re going to grow and the art market in Puerto Rico is going to be recognized as somewhere where collectors want to invest.”
As for the fair’s immediate future, the MECA team will discuss next steps this week. First on the agenda is deciding when it will return to San Juan next year, and how to iron out kinks that surfaced during the fair’s first go (like consolidating the main section and Mecanismos into the same building). Then, they’ll turn to one of the fair’s coolest features: its ambulatory nature.
“Our goal is to move MECA around the Caribbean. Maybe to Santo Domingo, Havana, and Kingston,” said Báez. Perhaps Central American countries like Panama, also lacking strong art infrastructure, will follow.
MECA’s goals are ambitious—some might say idealistic—but if the tenacity and support that bolstered this first edition is any indication of its future, this upstart fair is well positioned to enrich Puerto Rico’s art scene, and maybe even economy, by helping its artists and galleries find community and stability, despite the chaos around them.