What is a gallery, and what is the role of the art dealer, the gallerist?
An art gallery can be a simple place to sell work but that is to minimize the importance. Art needs to be chosen, curated, placed, valued and priced. First artists and then viewers, customers publicists – we all need to come. Irma Valerio asked herself these questions and more 30 years ago, growing up with a seed of an idea, a deep attraction to the visual and its expressions. A lifelong dedication to a place and its people she knows well growing up in the region, a sense of vocation.
As such began Irma Valeria Galerias in the capitol city Zacatecas of the state Zacatecas, a sparsely populated mountainous Central Mexico mining, tourism and ranch state. Her work in the development of the gallery, along with great Zacatecan already mature artists she worked with beginning 1991 and now entire generations who grew up in their wake have helped fill a small fairly remote city with art and creators. She has nourished and cultivated the careers and trajectories of homegrown talent as well as artists who relocated to Zacatecas. Irma herself has stated her gallery exists to benefit the maker and the collector, “En beneficio del coleccionista y del autor”.
Beginning a few years ago I have been collecting stories around Irma and the museums and artists of Zacatecas. For me it is a mystery – what exactly makes for places and times of great creativity? Golden zones and mini-eras in space and time that exhilarate us. So with Irma and her gallery as center we explore Zacatecas and art.
“You don’t talk about paintings, you look at them.¨Pierre Auguste Renoir
Originally we had in mind what you might call an imaginary beauty, a process of basic emptiness with just a few things arising in it. . . . And then when we actually set to work, a kind of avalanche came about which corresponded not at all with that beauty which had seemed to appear to us as an objective. Where do we go then? . . . Well what we do is go straight on; that way lies, no doubt, a revelation. I had no idea this was going to happen. I did have an idea something else would happen. Ideas are one thing and what happens another.
John Cage from “Where are we going? And what are we doing?”
Truth seems to be that many do not know how to look at art, be it performance, painting, dance. Or listen to sounds and music. Art is the act and object that can awaken us from the mundane or draw attention to it. Its pointless and useless in terms of factory function. So we are assuming a level of interest in the visual experience, in knowing another person’s mind, intention, sight and feel.
The art gallery itself, a space with a curator/owner who sponsors and markets artists to customers, is a relatively recent entity commerce, emerging in 19th century Europe. Previous to this and always there have been collectors and private sales of treasures, but it is with the growth of the middle classes, travel and international commerce that this became a “thing”, explained very well by the institution formed from that great fortune collector John Paul Getty: The Business of Art: Evidence from the Art Market.
And in Mexico galleries are easily traceable to less than 100 years ago, post Mexican revolution, when a Greek born Sephardic Jewish migrant Alberto Misrachi opened first a book store then began an art gallery 1933 in Mexico City across from the Palacio de las Bellas Artes. Previous to this art had been dominated by the upper classes and academic schools and Rufino Tamayo, Diego Rivera and other artists were clamoring for independent spaces to exhibit and sell. The Misrachi Gallery in its second generation continues, here is an illustrated history.
On the practical level how does one person go from an idea, in the case of Irma Valerio, to a very practical physical and financial 30 year business? Irma was born the eldest child in the very tiny Villanueva and studied accounting, proceeded to work 10 years in banking. Her brother Francisco explains early building blocks, roadblocks:
The World Heritage site city of Zacatecas City created massive silver mining wealth for New Spain and later in 1914 was location of the Battle of Zacatecas, in which Francisco Villa arguably changed the course of the Mexican Revolution, along with Generals Panfilo Natera and Felipe Angeles defeating the federal troops in a bloody conflict celebrated annually. The baroque and colonial houses and buildings restored create a beautiful 3000 meter high city that is now, with the collective contributions of many artists, gallerists and museographers, the state and national Cultural Departments a living city rich in visual and performing arts, with an annual international Street Theatre Festival as well as a two week Semana Santa cultural celebration.
Prefiguring and contributing to the fertile grounds of Irma Valerio’s Zacatecas environment is a state and city with historic cultural wealth. Francisco Goitia, b. 1882 was a contemporary and admirer of Rufino Tamayo at the national Academy of San Carlos and like promising students of painting at the time studied in Barcelona, Rome and France, upon returning to Mexico was heavily influenced by the Villistas and the violence of the revolution. The major Zacatecan artists 40 years older than Goitia were the first post revolution generation whose influences and teachers in Mexico were the – then as now internationally renowned Mexican muralists Diego Rivera, David Siquieros and José Clemente Orozco. But Rafael Colonel, Manuel Felguerez and Ismael Ismael Guardado represent 20th Century modernism in its fullest expressions, and have been key figures for Gallerias Irma Valerio as well as art in Zacatecas.
Irma Valerio: Our major artistic influences in Zacatecas have two aspects: Manuel Felguérez, creator and champion of the abstract, and consciously or unconsciously many working artists here are strongly based in 20th century abstract. And there is another trend, or lineage of Rafael Coronel, who invoke the figurative. Manuel Felguérez 1928-2020 and Rafael Coronel both have namesake museums in Zacatecas City And Ismael Guardado, the prolific Zacatecan whom I sought out at the outset of my gallery project for a ceramic mural commission that represented the nascence of the gallery, is a tremendously prolific multidisciplinary creator with public art in Zacatecas, Mexico City and 50 years of wide ranging international expositions.
A huge paradox centers the history and economy of our region. For many years it has been a source of enormous wealth in silver, gold, in minerals, yet many of the people live in poverty. Mining and metallurgy by their very nature are crisis and bonanza enterprises, boom or bust. It is ironic yet pertinent to the strength of the native population that the arid conditions, the lack of continual employment statewide that fomented migration away from the state, this adverse reality, which gives nothing spontaneously, has forged not only a strong and battling character among our people but also a feeling of rootedness and belonging to maintain ties with the land they come from, they live in. There is a great truth within this, the true wealth of Zacatecas is its inhabitants.
Afternoon at the Museo Felguerez
There is also great irony in the richness of artistic output contrasting to the expectation of modernism. Felguerez himself in his final lifetime interview in conjunction with his 2020 Museo Universidad de Arte Contemporáneo lamented the circularity of hope and disappointment in the quest for development, for modernism, for ongoing progress in society and the arts ¨There was some generational frustration because we believed that we were going to be a modern country, that we can. For this to work, what was needed was the support of society. Action painting without all the apparatus of galleries, buyers and collectors would not exist. The limit is not in the ability to do, but in what land you sow it.¨ This publication called Manuel Felguérez: El Futuro era Nuestro The Future was Ours along with beautiful document online of his final exhibition you can read/download at https://muac.unam.mx/exposicion/manuel-felguerez. For me a longtime fan from the US of Jackson Pollock the action painter its a bit rich in misinterpretation of exactly what and whom the US and international art market serves, certainly Pollock did not get support or money when alive from his work nor his tierra. Perhaps there is just a constant disaccord, an asynchrony in time between the thoughts and expressions of great artists and their public.
Irma Valerio has dedicated her life and gallery towards forging that bridge between artists and collectors/viewers/appreciators with astute insight and moves through the past 30 years of Galerias Irma Valerio.
In 1991, this was a minimal art market. Maybe a friend bought from the artist. At that time the institutions in Zacatecas and museums were really just beginning and I saw that there was a niche of opportunity there. Because if I had a visitor they would ask me hey, where can I buy a serigraphy or a lithograph of something from Zacatecas?
And there really was no where. So well from the age of 15 I had begun to look in spaces where there were exhibitions because I liked the experience. And I think that the job of galleries is precisely to put on a art and its trade, its commercialization on a serious plane. How did I start with the gallery? In some ways of course I was initially looking for personal fulfillment. I thought I could do it.
I asked the questions: What can I do? How does it work? How does personal taste work? Who are all the artists. And what do we sell?
I studied accounting, I worked for ten years in a bank in which you don’t sell merchandise, you sell services. Sure this experience helped me with the administration of the gallery but also the ability to conceive of selling services, which is essentially what banks do. Because now I sell emotions. I sell the emotion of the creator when making a work of art and I also connect with the emotion of the collector, because the work has two languages: the vision of the creator and the vision received, the meanings that the viewer receives. And from the theory of always that it is beautiful for you or that it is beautiful for me. What is beautiful for you is not beautiful for me. So a definition of beauty is how you connect with it.¨
With the goal of developing art lovers and collectors Irma Valerio early on developed annual auctions of work from national and Zacatecano artists. For the first time in 2020 the auction/subasta was virtual, but during normal times as with the gallery itself it has become a social event as well as an esthetic pleasure.
Within the context of an event art becomes piece by piece something a person can acquire, and auctions, with gallery openings and simply becoming regular goers to galleries, museums, events about art and with artists the creative becomes a part of the everyday. The advantage of a small esthetically rich city is there are simply many opportunities within a small radius to experience great work in historic settings. Its quite wonderful for creators of all disciplines to be surrounded by such a wealth of beauty and energy, and in coming months we hope to introduce you to some of this work and these makers.
Being a cultural promoter you promote and disseminate, but doing a cultural company, a business is another thing, because you looking for a market for these cultural products. And then part of precisely that company is to make our cultural assets sustainable assets for the benefit of the artists, for the benefit of the collectors, and in general for the good of the region and entire community. I feel and I hope over time that has been my contribution.