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The bittersweet reunion of Mexico City with its museums

On the morning of Wednesday, August 19, after five months closed, one of the tiniest museums in Mexico City was among the first three to open its doors to the public: the Sala de Arte Público Siqueiros. It is a museum with a white facade and only three exhibition spaces, which goes almost unnoticed among the houses of the Polanco neighborhood. The room, which decades ago was the home of the Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros, opened its doors at 11 o’clock and, at 11:07, when the first visitor arrived, the workers at the entrance (all wearing masks) offered him gel, they sprayed it with a disinfectant solution and got excited. “We received it with applause,” recalls the director, Willy Kautz, moved.

But that day, at the box office, an absence was also felt. Missing from the workers was Alfonso Ochoa, known among his colleagues as Don Alfonso, a tall, skinny man who worked for the Sala de Arte Público Siqueiros for 22 years. “He was the face of the museum, the person who always greeted you when you entered,” says his son, Ángel, who works at the same institution.

Every morning, after a two-hour drive from Ecatepec, Alfonso Ochoa came to work at the museum’s ticket office from 10 a.m. to late afternoon. If students or elderly people arrived, he warned them that they were not required to pay the entrance fee. If tourists came, he recommended other museums to visit in the city. “My father entered the room without knowing anything about art,” says Ángel, and says that Don Alfonso previously worked as a security guard for Coca-Cola. “Later, when he saw a Siqueiros magazine, he always bought it and kept it, and sometimes he approached the artists … so, little by little, he began to like art.” Joel Pérez, one of his colleagues, remembers that Ochoa liked to suggest to foreigners which exhibitions they should not miss. “He knew what new exhibition had come out at the Museum of Fine Arts, or what was on display at the Museum of Modern Art,” he recalls.

When the museums closed their doors on March 19, Ochoa missed the tourists. “He was very stressed from being locked up, and it may have affected him, ” his son said. His health, which was already fragile, gradually began to deteriorate. Ochoa began to develop a mild flu in June and, towards the end of the month, he was short of breath to speak. His family then took him to a nearby hospital where visits were not allowed, because all the patients were suspected of having covid-19. “My mother asked him to make her want it, to do it for us,” says Ángel. That was the last time they saw him. Within a few days, the doctors diagnosed him with pneumonia. A week later, on July 2, Alfonso Ochoa passed away after a cardiac arrest. He was 67 years old. “That week I was going to be married to my mother for 40 years,” says Ángel.

When the museum reopened its doors at noon, the workers paid a brief tribute in honor of Alfonso Ochoa, together with Lucina Jiménez, the director of the INBA (National Institute of Fine Arts and Literature). “For 22 years, she was in charge of receiving visitors to this Hall to give them an entrance door,” said Jiménez, in front of a huge mural by the artist Lucía Vidales,. Seeing Mount Calvary, in which the arms and legs of human bodies take on a ghostly, almost spiritual form, like floating in a sunset. “We are going to dedicate to him, and to all the people who unfortunately lost their lives during this covid-19 pandemic, a minute of silence.”

The other workers

Alfonso Ochoa is one of the few INBA workers who died in the five months that Mexico City’s museums were closed. The news was shared among family and friends, but it was also spread in WhatsApp groups that bring together more than 800 people with the same type of employment contract that Alberto Ochoa had: chapter 3,000.

Under this service provision contract, museum workers do not have health insurance, despite the fact that many have worked in museums for years as if they were essential equipment. “We are staff who are permanently, with defined hours, with a direct boss, with a fixed place in the museums,” Paulina Maya, designer at the Diego Rivera Mural Museum, told El PAÍS. “We are really workers, but we do not have access to any benefits.”

Ángel says that his father had a contract with health insurance for decades, until 2016. That year, the former leadership of INBA asked Ochoa and other colleagues to change to chapter 3,000, a precarious employment situation for older adults like him. “I remember he was very worried about being left without health insurance,” says Ángel. When he fell ill, Ochoa used the public insurance for pensioners, which allowed him to be treated in the hospital.

Workers in chapter 3,000 can represent between 15 and 20% of total workers in museums, according to their members. Since the end of Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration, several have organized to protest when the INBA takes several months to pay their salaries. But now that eight of the 18 museums in the city have been progressively opened, one question is what will happen if they get sick when they interact with tourists again. “What worries us is the health issue,” Maya confesses, “who do we approach if we have symptoms? Where am I headed? Do I get tested on the outside? “

Maya admits that the current director of INBA, Lucina Jiménez, has been more sensitive to her concerns than the former director was during the Peña Nieto administration. Jiménez extended the contracts of three or four months to contracts of one year, to give some job stability. When the pandemic hit, Jiménez took it upon herself not to stop payments during the five months of closure, regardless of whether workers could do their work for Zoom or not.

Aware of the health risk, the INBA has also tried to find solutions, although somewhat ambiguous, to the lack of health insurance for workers in Chapter 3,000. “They called me to say that if there was a case of covid-19 among us, those of chapter 3,000, we will notify the institute and that they would support us,” says Maya. “But it was not said what, or where, or how … It is not an official instruction. The point there is that many of our colleagues do not trust that. They think, ‘Do I mark them and what? Are they going to give me money to go to the doctor?

Juan Villadiego, who works for the Museum of the Palace of Fine Arts in the center of the city, is one of the workers in chapter 3,000, and remembers receiving a e-mail INBAL with a phone number to call if they needed “medical advice.” But since no one in their museum has had a serious case of covid-19, they do not really know “what that help process would be like.” Before speaking with EL PAÍS, Villadiego asked his colleagues in chapter 3,000 what concerns they would like to share with the press now that the museums are reopening. “Several answered me: What happens if we get sick ?!” “

Job insecurity worries him so much that Villadiego is considering leaving his post. “With all this, you are realizing who you are for the museum: an expendable worker,” he says, despite preparing the assembly of one of the most important exhibitions at the Palacio de Bellas Artes museum this year: the first exhibition of the Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani.

Even with doubts, Villadiego and Maya consider that the INBA has done a considerable job for the reopening, imposing strict health rules in the museums for workers and tourists, and trying to rescue one of the biggest tourist attractions in the city. Exhibitions such as those by Modigliani, or the famous murals by Diego Rivera, could perhaps reactivate tourism in crisis in Mexico City, which has declined by more than 50% in recent months.

The new curatorship

At 8.30 on Wednesday, September 2, a couple of Colombian tourists living in Miami stood in front of the Palacio de Bellas Artes, in the center of Mexico City, to be the first to enter the museum that has been closed for months. The place would not open its doors until 11 a.m., two and a half hours later, but the couple did not want to risk being left out. “I cannot leave this country without visiting the Palace of Fine Arts,” Alfredo Arrieta told his wife. The couple repeated aloud that morning a strange code that allowed them to remember the names of the Mexican muralists they hoped to admire inside the venue: “RiSiTa de Oro.” Ri de Rivera, Si de Siqueiros, Ta de Tamayo, Oro de Orozco. “I thought it was great,” Arrieta explained with a laugh. “It was a dream of mine to come here.”

In the entrance row, and then inside the museum, after passing the ritual of the gel and the temperature taking, small blue circles on the floor suggested to the couple how they should walk between the magnanimous murals of the museum in the second and third floor. “We think that the security measures are very good, we feel very calm,” said Luz Arrieta.

“We had to get a special material to stick those circles on the floor, one that would not damage the marble of the palace,” Cecilia Reyes, one of the museum workers who helped design the new route, explained to EL PAÍS, behind her mask. blue. “Spatially this has been a great challenge. We want to maintain a healthy distance, but without losing the visual importance of the museum. “

The curation of the bodies has become central to the museums that have reopened in Mexico and the world. Workers decide not only which work of art goes in which room, but also how many bodies should see it at the same time, or which tours protect the public’s health. In some ways, the sanitized bodies that visit museums are now as much a part of the exhibition as the works of art. INBA took three months to plan the entire protocol for the reopening, taking into account the experiences of other European museums that opened in summer, such as the Louvre in Paris or the Prado Museum in Madrid. In addition to precautionary measures for tourists, workers will also go to work in smaller, staggered groups, to avoid contagion.

The public at the Palacio de Bellas Artes museum was stunted on the morning it opened. In the first two hours of opening, no more than a dozen visitors walked among the works of Diego Rivera and Siqueiros. But the eyes of Cecilia Reyes, who also works organizing special programs for private groups, shone when she saw the few tourists who dared to enter the site on the first day enter. “I’m excited to see our audience again,” she admits. “This new normal is also new for us, and we want to tell users that too.” At the end of the day, 160 people visited the museum, one of the busiest in the country. The virus, at least, has not totally killed the emotion of reencountering art.