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Touring Oaxaca's Art Galleries

Alvin Starkman

Many travelers to Oaxaca simply don't have the time, patience or inclination to seriously tour the city's multitude of small storefront art galleries replete with wonderfully unique and provocative offerings. It's understandable, given the number of culturally rich and diverse sites to be taken in over the course of a brief vacation.

Certainly the larger establishments should not be missed by anyone. There's the Museo de Pintores Oaxaqueños, for example. Another "must" is Arte de Oaxaca, featuring works of artists who have "made it" and enabling the casual observer to get a good sampling of uniquely Oaxacan metaphors in various mediums… evidence the permanent gallery dedicated to the works of Grand Master Rodolfo Morales.

But a well-planned walking tour of some of the galleries listed below, perhaps beginning with the open air craft and art market known as Jardín Labastida, pretty well guarantees that you'll go home with at least one piece to grace that barren wall that's been crying out for creative forces. More importantly, you'll leave Oaxaca with an enhanced appreciation of the history and culture of Oaxacan and, more generally, Mexican art.

The metamorphosis of members of the art community in Oaxaca is at times a microcosm of the means by which young professionals in the Western World establish themselves… starting out pounding the pavement in search of that first job, eventually catching one or two breaks along the arduous way, and then a decade or two later reaping the rewards of a successful career. But for some 5,000 artists in Oaxaca, be they from abroad or Mexican born, having studied at Benito Juarez University's School of Fine Arts or in one of several workshops in the city, they can ascend the rungs of the ladder much quicker, yet with much less in material rewards. The blunt implication of this for tourists and Oaxacan art aficionados alike is that one day you can purchase a quality piece from an artist on the street or in his co-op style gallery, ranging from obtuse imagery to much more simplistic yet equally entrancing, and then a year or two later encounter his works or obras in high end galleries fetching tenfold what you paid. Alternatively, his work may no longer be locally available as a result of having been "found" by a New York patron or commissioned by government for a special project.

Some Tips

A few pointers, each of which has made me wiser and aesthetically wealthier:

  • 1) If you hesitate, it may be gone tomorrow.
  • 2) You aren't buying a rug or carved wooden animal… go easy on practicing your negotiation skills when buying from the artist. It may backfire, or you may make the purchase, but with a diminished sense of self.
  • 3) When something catches your eye, or better yet if both of you are drawn to it, buy at all cost. You'll never regret it.
  • 4) If a piece seems absolutely enchanting but is curiously inexpensive, don't shy away for fear you won't be purchasing quality. Remember that next year you may not be able to afford it.
  • 5) Never buy for investment first. If you're really lucky, the piece will appreciate substantially, but remember two things:

    • (i) you have to live with it;

      • (ii) when the time comes, your children will probably give it away for a song;

    • 6) Compare what you see in terms of quality, imagery and price to what you already have. In my case, all I have to do is recall my two pieces by R.C. Gorman, the renowned Arizona-born recently-deceased artist influenced by Mexican masters such as Orozco, Rivera and Siqueiros… the buying decisions come faster and easier.
Published or Updated on: June 30, 2007 by Alvin Starkman © 2008
Contact Alvin Starkman

Alvin Starkman together with wife Arlene operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast.

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