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By Bruce Jacobs

This March, Forbes magazine named Mexico’s Carlos Slim the richest man in the world for the third straight year. The Mexican BMV (Bolsa Mexicana de Valores) stock index Mexbol hit a record high. The Pope came to visit––five days after an earthquake registering 7.9 on the Richter scale hit (without any major damage or loss of life). And the 2012 “quiet period” before a three-month campaign leading up to the July election of a new Mexican president came to an end. It was well past time to go visit my favorite city in the Americas: Mexico City.

Slim (a contraction of his Lebanese ancestral name Salim) is one of the most interesting characters on the global economic front. The son of an immigrant shopkeeper, he has built his fortune the old-fashioned way: buy low, and never sell. And Mexico was the perfect place for him to ply his trade. When the Mexican government privatized the phone system in 1990, he bought it for a ringtone. When Apple was struggling to find a market, he bought 7 percent of the stock before it introduced the iMac. When the New York Times needed a white knight, he gave the Sulzberger family a $250 million cash infusion in 2009 that yielded 14 percent interest, full repayment of his loan in 2011, and warrants giving him 16 percent of the company’s public shares today.

Others on the Forbes richest list (Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, George Soros) have joined forces to solve the world’s problems. Slim, no less philanthropically inclined, prefers to give his money away how and when he chooses. One of the most recent and visible examples of this is the fabulous new Soumaya art museum. So that was the first stop on my return to Mexico City.

Named for his late wife and built with his own money, the Soumaya sits in a corner of a commercial/retail development Slim owns. It opened in 2011 and contains a significant portion of his purportedly $700 million personal art collection (curated by his daughter, also named Soumaya). Among the art on display is the largest group of Rodin sculptures outside France. But the most impressive part of the museum is its stunning architecture designed and constructed by 42-year-old Fernando Romero, Slim’s son-in-law.

While Romero may be family, he also studied under Rem Koolhaas and has won a half dozen international awards himself. He’s a guest professor at Columbia University’s school of architecture, and a cadre of global architecture critics have made the pilgrimage to Soumaya to review his work. Many come away with haughty disappointment in the building’s derivative echoes of Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim and Frank Lloyd Wright’s New York Guggenheim. But you have to go there to see it (and I’ve been to the other two). Bilbao’s curves and slices, reflections and patinas essentially overwhelm its outside neighborhood and inside exhibitions. Frank Lloyd Wright often sacrificed easy comfort for dramatic architectural strokes. But Romero’s Soumaya nestles nicely among its neighbors and easily pulls you in the front door, then eases you up the ascending ramps. Something about Soumaya seems just right, especially when you discover the diversity of its art collection.

Getting to Soumaya is no easy chore. There is no close subway stop, so I had to choose whether to walk from the tony Polanco barrio stop or from the more rough and tumble San Juaquin station. I picked the latter and found myself walking along an old railroad bed behind commercial buildings, graffitied playgrounds, and dead end streets. I’m convinced Slim will find a way to fix this, probably not by eliminating the poverty that drags on many of Mexico City’s 20 million people, but by building a new stop to accommodate those with the taste for his collection.

Soumaya at its heart is something of a gigantic vanity Xanadu with nepotism run amok. But it is also Slim’s gift to the people of Mexico, whether they want it or not. The museum is open every day and free to the public, and so his massive collection (unlike many valuable private art collections) is out there for everyone to see and enjoy. Although his taste is not for everyone––how many display cases of early colonial coins, stock certificates, and stamps do you really want to see?––I’m happy to have been there.

Closer to the historic center of the city, another new art museum building has opened called Museo El Chopo. It sits between the Soumaya and the Zócalo, Mexico’s public square, home to countless labor and political rallies since the days of the Aztecs.

Unlike Soumaya, El Chopo is not a new architectural marvel. It is a century old building with cast iron steeples and sweeping metal arches which looks from the outside like some sort of steampunk cathedral. Inside, however, architect Enrique Norten and his firm TEN Arquitectos have designed a gallery space with exposed ductwork and hanging staircases similar to those of Renzo Piano’s 1977 Pompidou Centre.

El Chopo looks like the Pompidou somehow was built inside Notre Dame, creating an interesting clash of old and new that shows off the museum’s rotating exhibits of contemporary art.

Revolución subway station is only three blocks from El Chopo, but the morning I visited, those blocks featured a high wire circus act, a woman trying desperately to help a comatose drunk out of the middle of the street, and a boombox blasting cumbia from a secondhand CD kiosk. Not the usual grand entry to an art museum, but indicative of the interesting contrasts that make Mexico City…well…Mexico City.

After climbing the fire escape-like stairs to the top floor of Norten’s interior galleries, I was knocked over by the fabric sculptures of Astrid Hadad, a multi-talented actress, performance artist, and now creator of these elaborate and colorful pieces satirizing, but also celebrating, the traditions and social history of Mexico. Her bold designs displayed in a modernist gallery space tucked under the old cathedral-like industrial ceiling of El Chopo seem to confirm the many contradictions of Mexico. El Chopo is a museum for art, music, design, architecture, and history that sits comfortably far off the beaten tourist track and glitzy high-rises of La Reforma Avenue.

Of course, I also had to walk the famous Reforma Avenue from Chapultepec Park to the old aristocratic Alameda Plaza. This is the heart of old Mexico City. Just days before I arrived, pictures flashed over the Internet of office workers evacuated from the financial district after the earthquake. Now I encounter those same workers sitting in the same plazas eating their late afternoon sandwiches as if nothing had happened.

What is an earthquake when your city is always moving anyway? Mexico City’s 100 miles of subways are always jammed, and the 10 million automobiles and trucks––twice the number registered ten years ago––fight for space on aging roads every day. There must be a better way, and Mexico City has found it.

With free bicycle rentals throughout the city and now over 200 miles of bike paths, it is trying to wean the rising middle class off fossil fuels and on to muscle fuels. We’ll have to wait and see how that works. New car registrations are increasing faster than new babies are being born. But the old way cannot hold.

I had only one more day in Mexico City, and since this is an election year, I decided to visit the Museo del Objeto (MODO) exhibit devoted to a history of post-revolution political campaigns and campaigning. Located in the trendy Roma district, it highlights a rich tradition of Mexican campaign swag. Even though the PRI party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) effectively monopolized power for 75 years, election years apparently brought out whole families of giveaway tchotchkes with slogans and pictures of the candidates that became collector’s items. A walk around the three floors winding through the old MODO mansion revealed all kinds of ashtrays, lighters, beer bottles, gimme caps, posters, banners, pins, and pens promoting national and regional candidates. Without sophisticated television ads, most recent elections were won or lost on the gewgaws handed out to voters.

This year the ubiquitous use of smart phones and computers––thank you, Carlos Slim––will change the tone of campaigns. Dominating the headlines these days is the fact the current frontrunner, Enrique Peña Nieto, 46, is married to a Mexican soap star (and they both tweet).
But regardless of how new media influences this year’s election, the rules that limit a president to one six-year term and restrict campaigning to three months make sure that Mexico doesn’t fall prey to the circus that characterizes elections in its neighbor to the north. There is something imminently sensible about such a practical and cost effective political process.

I just missed the campaign window and so was unable to pick up a campaign ashtray from Mexico’s first female candidate (50-year-old business woman and politician Josefina Vázquez Mota). Maybe in another six years it will find its way into the MODO collection…or at least into the antiques shop of eBay. Or perhaps Carlos Slim will buy up all the campaign swag for his own collection and build another wing on his museum.


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