It’s not poached, scrambled, fried or free-range. Nor is it hard-boiled. What it is, though, is a museum like no other: NuMu, short for Nuevo Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, located in Guatemala City, is shaped like an egg and, at most, accommodates up to four visitors. But for those unable to travel to Central America to check out the ovoid-y museum, an exact replica of NuMu will be making its own pilgrimage. Having gotten enough funding through Kickstarter, the tiny structure will take up residence at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as part of Pacific Standard Time: Los Angeles/Latin America (PST LA/LA), the city-wide exhibition that begins in September and runs through January 2018.
Insisting that the egg not merely be carted and shipped, though, artists Jessica Kairé and Stefan Benchoam, who founded NuMu in 2012, will personally navigate a vehicle towing their precious cargo overland. Leaving its home base in mid-August and making stops at a beach in Oaxaca, the Chapultepec and Polanco districts of Mexico City and the Zapopan Museum in Guadalajara before entering the States at Laredo, Texas, and landing in L.A., NuMu’s 3,000-mile trek, as well as its fabricating and programming expenses, are estimated to be $75,000.
The upcoming PST show, A Universal History of Infamy, is a multi-site exhibition engaging 16 U.S. Latino and Latin American artists and collectives whose practices defy disciplinary boundaries. LACMA’s Rita Gonzalez, co-curator of the exhibition, recalls finding NuMu.
“I went with the two other curators [José Luis Blondet, curator of special initiatives at the museum and Pilar Tompkins Rivas, director of the Vincent Price Art Museum] four years ago. I had heard of NuMu before, and since part of our research trip was in Guatemala City, we were taken around by Stefan and got to visit NuMu at that time. It really opened things up for us and proved a source of inspiration.”
Gonzalez said that the original idea was to build the replica in L.A., but Kairé and Benchoam nixed that, explaining that they wanted to fabricate the ovate-shaped structure in its hometown, and, by taking it on the road, also turn it into a nomadic museum.
Reached by Skype in Athens, Greece, where the pair was at Documenta 14 for the world premiere of Symphony from the Third World, written by acclaimed 89-year old Guatemalan composer, Joaquín Orellana, whose work will be the subject of the mobile NuMu exhibition, Kairé recounted the museum’s beginnings.
“It started off with conversations we had over 10 years ago, about the lack of institutional support and cultural projects, and that there was no contemporary art museum in Guatemala. And even though we have a museum of modern art, it lacks structure and a lack of programming new works, so we talked about what kind of model of museum we could contribute.”
Benchoam added, “We thought at the beginning it had to be a big, grand space, and we tried to get to that, only to realize there was no interest, infrastructure or economic support to realize that until we found this iconic building in Guatemala City that we figured could be NuMu. When we learned it was available for rent, we jumped on it and decided to build it there.”
Kairé, born in Guatemala in 1980 and who calls both New York and Guatemala City home, agreed: “As soon as we saw it, we intuitively realized this was what we’d been hoping for, but hadn’t been expecting such an odd shape.”
Indeed, the building, which was originally designed as a drive-thru egg-selling kiosk, has a physical space that measures approximately 6-1/2 x 8 feet. Having become embedded in Guatemala City’s urban landscape and now one of the most unconventional cultural destinations in that town, NuMu is the first and only contemporary art museum in Guatemala dedicated exclusively to supporting, exhibiting and documenting contemporary art.
“We cannibalized MOMA’s logo,” chuckled Benchoam, a native Guatemalan born in 1983, “which, in a way really talks about our approach to art and museum-making. On the one hand, it’s a serious endeavor to try to fill the cultural void and lack of infrastructure in the landscape of Guatemala. And at the same time, we keep an innovative approach. It solved a lot of these issues with very minimal funds.”
By converting the micro-museum into an international creative hub that organizes public programs and provides resources to emerging artists, the pair also exhibits work by established artists from all over Latin America. Having mounted some 14 shows, including works by 42-year old performance artist Regina José Galindo and conceptualist Mario García Torres since its inception, Kairé and Boacham believe that NuMu’s minuscule size has led artists to think creatively about space and also to develop site-specific projects that may not have otherwise come to fruition.
Of the museum’s unusual shape and conversion, Kairé said that there was a “small process of rehab – just painting it up, fixing and changing some windows. Overall the idea has been to maintain the original structure, because it has strong architectural value, and the design overall is well-fitting for our intentions.
“So we respected the space,” she added, “and tried to use it most creatively as we found it. It’s shaped most of the things we’ve done – the structure of the museum, the programming aspect, as well as each artist coming in. It’s site-specific and content-specific because of the space and the environment – the city – around it.”
NuMu is also open 24/7. “We try to be as active as possible,” Kairé pointed out. “We keep it democratic, and the trick is that it’s got windows all around. Some are designed to see from outside only, some from the inside to the outside. When we’re not there, the lights remain on and anyone can come and see.”
Benchoam said that NuMu’s neighbors in the area were initially skeptical. “They didn’t understand what we were trying to do. They hadn’t gone to a gallery or museum in their life, but over the years, they have come and voiced their opinions. They give us feedback – what works, what didn’t work – and we’re always trying to do an exhibition that is a response to all these different audiences.”
During its LACMA residency, NuMu will present two contemporary art exhibitions: the Orellana show, which features recordings of his most exemplary scores, as well as photographs, programs, and press clippings, and “Retrospective,” 30 of José Galindo’s performance-based works, represented by documents installed on the museum’s windowpanes, as well as an anthology of 30 of the artist’s poems. There will also be a roster of public programs.
Gonzalez said that, as part of the “Infamy” exhibit, she was keen on having NuMu represented as the quirky physical structure that it is, as opposed to the museum merely offering a wall of photos or documentation from previous shows.
“It’s the structure itself and the way in which you come into contact with it,” she said, “and just by looking through the peepholes, the windows, it’s very much an architectural experience. When I first went into it,” the curator continued, “it seemed familiar [because] I grew up in L.A. and I’m used to eccentric architecture – you buy a donut and you go into the donut.
“I also love the connection between the urban landscape and Guatemala City, and L.A. has the largest Guatemalan Diaspora outside of Guatemala, so that’s another connection I really wanted to make.”
Gonzalez admires the fact that Kairé and Benchoam took it upon themselves as young artists to create NuMu – to just “do it. It’s not the Whitney and a big collection,” she posited.
“They didn’t have state sponsorships or millions of dollars, but it was more in the spirit of the artist-run museum, which has a long history going back to Duchamp – artists thinking about their work in relationship to museums, museums in basements and the idea of the artist as conservator/caretaker. That’s a deep part of our history that makes sense art historically, but for them, more practically, it provides a cultural resource that’s lacking.”
Kairé noted that the duo was looking forward to seeing how the structure and architecture of NuMu will be supported in L.A., home to programmatic buildings such as the Tail o’ the Pup, the long-shuttered hotdog stand that resembled the products sold inside. “We’re excited to see how being found within a new context will bring new meaning to NuMu, even though it is the same structure physically.”
That kind of thinking also squares with the curators’ philosophy of museums in general. Explained Benchoam: “We think the typical model, having a huge museum with different outposts that are very slow to move, is kind of outdated and archaic.
“We believe in smaller spaces and structures that are better able to adapt to the changing contexts in which they operate, and thus are better able to generate discussions and different readings of the place where the museum is situated. We want projects we do to be as site-specific and content-specific as possible.”
Expanding on that notion, Kairé said that even though the initial intention of a museum was to come in and fill a void – the lack of institutional support in Guatemala, for example – she and Benchoam have “noticed over the years, that museums and institutions all over the world are shifting and attracting different audiences.”
“Another big aspect of NuMu is not only to document and support artists, but to question and therefore to propose new models of what a museum is, can and should be in the 21st century,” she said.
Benchoam adds, “Museums should speak to the context in which they operate, and then, at the same time, should be there to help preserve the legacy of the artist that its mission entails. But in terms of a collection, we think that should be rethought, too. It’s the history and art guide of the shows that we have worked on within the space.”
As NuMu’s exhibitions for PST LA/LA will be the second iteration of the originals already presented in Guatemala, Kairé and Benchoam pointed out that they’d also wanted to exhibit a male and female artist, each from different generations, and that these exhibitions should have socio-political relevance, as well.
There’s no doubt that NuMu’s road trip will be making a major socio-political statement, with Benchoam likening it to “the Fitzcarraldo of the 21st century,” Werner Herzog’s 1982 West German surreal adventure-drama in which a rubber baron is determined to transport a steamship over a steep hill in order to access a rubber lode in the Amazon Basin.
“We want the architecture of the museum itself to be exposed the whole time. We’ll be pulling it in the same way that you pull a boat, so you can always see a structure, and wherever we stop we’ll just open it up. Orellana has been completely groundbreaking,” Benchoam added, “but there’s never been any support of him. We started to support him and preserve his legacy – doing high-quality recordings of his most emblematic works that will now travel.”
Kairé agreed that having the museum exposed along the way is paramount. “One of the main goals or interests in transporting NuMu is to give much higher visibility – to Orellana in this instance – as well as to expand our network and diversity of audiences.”
“Because we do have a limited audience in Guatemala, this is the opportunity to open up, for people to get acquainted with NuMu and participate – in potential collaborations with new artists and new people, and [to] engage in dialogue. We’re hoping that all these things happen along the way and take the shape based on the travels,” she explains.
Benchoam acknowledged that they are working on the final details of the trip. “It’s a big logistical feat, but from our research now it seems that Laredo is the best way to enter. Given the current political situation in the U.S.,” he added, “we want to make sure NuMu makes it to Los Angeles.”
Top Image: Courtesy of NuMu
This story was originally published by KCET Artbound, July 5, 2017.
Victoria Looseleaf is an award-winning arts journalist that has been a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, KCET Artbound and other outlets, including her widely-read blog, The Looseleaf Report. In addition, she covers arts festivals around the world, filing datelines from cultural hot spots that include Berlin, Venice and Abu Dhabi. Her feminist novella in verse, Isn’t It Rich? is being adapted for the stage.