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Oil on Canvas, untitled, Jeffrey Brown, 1996

Art Museum Takes Over Ranch Lands

by Lou Christine

Just across the railroad tracks, on the outskirts of San Miguel de Allende, in the state of Guanajuato, sits 94 acres of rich ranch land. From atop the hill overlooking the spread, one can make out the lay of the land, a landscape that mostly consists of sun parched soil. The ranch, while situated in the midst of sagebrush and succulent cacti, appears as an oasis in the hardened dryness of the arid climate. Irrigated parcels of fertile soil have been tilled and planted, setting off a pleasing-to-the-eyes sea of green throughout the year. Sweet alfalfa has historically been the ranch's primary crop and source of revenue, yet the owners, with the coaxing of an envisioning partner, began thinking about producing another commodity for the homestead, one more environmentally friendly and perhaps with a higher calling.
Hugo Granados, the managing partner of the junta, a gentleman rancher, lawyer, businessman and art muse, began to flash on what at first was construed as a giddy, high-flying notion. For fifteen years he had marvelled at the works produced by San Miguel artists. His dream was to open a contemporary art museum and ecological showplace, having the ranch become its permanent home.
After four years of precise planning and hard work, Granados' dream has come to fruition, with the help of financial partners, whom he refers to as the "committee." They agreed that his ambitious idea had potential value and municipal merit. With Granados as its point man and general director, the Casa Museo de Arte Contemporaneo is now open to the public.
The stately, two-story stone structure, which houses the museum's vibrant paintings and other artistic creations, has recently been refurbished. The grounds are checked with beautiful sculptures, some chiselled from marble and stone, others meticulously forged from iron and steel. All are meant to fittingly represent the wealth of talent which, in the form of artists, calls San Miguel home.
One of Granados' jobs was to choose the art for the museum's permanent exhibit. Cognizant of feelings and of fragile egos, he had to shelve sentimental temptation and take on a pragmatic sense when it came to choosing the artists. Rather than immersing himself in a shopping spree, nabbing numerous representations from as many artists, Granados decided to showcase a more sizable collection of works from fewer artists.
While the grounds were being readied, Granados visited a plethora of San Miguel galleries and art studios. He probed, asked questions and indulged in hours of conversation, inquiring about individual techniques, all the while gaining insight into the various processes. With his own cumulative knowledge and with the counsel of others, he began to narrow down the field and hand picked an eclectic collection of art and artists. Granados searched for contemporary art, pieces that brazenly stated the artists' ideas.
Word spread throughout the artistic community that an accumulating muse was cherry-picking within their midst. In a place like San Miguel, news of such an admirer can create a ruckus, if not a frenzy, especially since most town artists knew the purveyor by his first name. As he made his rounds, Granados may have felt more like a lone bitch in heat, innocently wandering into the dens of hungry wolves, than a museum director. Nevertheless, he remained on track and as objective as logic would permit. The present display is a hallmark testimonial to his resolve.
Recently, in calmer times, I sat with Hugo Granados as he unfolded the "whys" and "how comes" regarding the search. Tidbits concerning the deal have been circulating around San Miguel on the wireless tortilla for some time. Granados explained he's been in love with art all of his life. Although he has no personal desire to paint, he confesses he is intrigued by artists' perceptions and what makes them tick.
Granados predicts Casa Museo de Arte Contemporaneo and Santuario Ecologico (an ecological sanctuary) will become a placid place where both nature and art will coexist in a proper setting. He explained that the El Bajio region of Mexico, up to this point, hasn't provided such a place. He hopes that people learn to care for the environment and appreciate art at the same time.
During our conversation, Granados spoke of some of the artists chosen. He admitted he had been monitoring many for a time. Granados said that determining the candidates was a torturous process and he's still haunted that some fine artists may have felt insulted by not being chosen. "There are many fine painters here. Many are close friends. There are too many to mention; nevertheless, we had to set a plan."
Granados refrained from speaking about the specific amount of money spent to develop the project, but did say he couldn't have swung it alone. Some of his collaborators desire to remain anonymous. "It's been a joint effort, where we are all helping each other. The primary emphasis is on the artists; they're the genuine stars during this episode!"
The museum director spoke of Keith Keller, an artist whose work he has long admired. "Keith wields tremendous courage! The idea of controversy never dictates his final product. Keith's as daring as his subject matter."
San Miguel based Keller is renowned for his creation of vivacious, voluptuous vixens. He's not shy about inserting his likenesses within the sometimes more provocative scenes. Keller voiced that his work being chosen was a complete surprise. "It isn't every day an artist has multiple pieces chosen for permanent display in a credible museum."
Keller was raised in Marblehead, Massachusetts, and has been painting and drawing professionally for 30 years. Once a Peace Corps volunteer, he travelled around the mid-Atlantic states for sometime before landing in SMA. He teaches art and has had five museum shows in Mexico.
Granados described contributor J.G. Brown as a man with immense, spontaneous talent. "He's a natural. Others might be forced to bear down, or ponder; Jeffrey picks up a brush and creates. He paints like he lives, to the fullest." Brown is a painter who refuses to use a safety net, the quintessential rogue who's going to create what's on his mind. "He breeds an inner confidence, there's majestic color. Brown's technique is classic."
Born in Chicago, Jeffery Brown was raised in Wisconsin and upper New York State. Like the other artists, he has been painting most of his life. His pieces are layered with the darkness of Rembrandt, while heaps, piles and snippets of color capture one's attention.
When asking Brown how the deal with Casa Museo de Arte Contemporaneo came about, he answered, "I was showing at a local restaurant, for a charity event. Hugo strolled into the exhibit the first night. We said our hellos. On his way out he stopped and whispered into my ear, Don't sell anymore, I want them all!' Then he departed."
With no money down, just a promise, Brown put the kabash on further sales, but left the work hanging for the length of the show. It's SMA art history now Granados fulfilled his commitment. Brown didn't seemed fazed by the thin thread of the promise. Simply said, he had an unbending faith in Granados' spoken word, a concurrent sense, no doubt, since Granados solidly believes in the reverberating impact of Brown's selection of images.
Mexico City-born Mario Cabrerra is another contributor Granados overtly touted. "It's not just what he creates, but also the man's in-depth knowledge. He studied both sculpture and art in Italy. He constantly shows in Munich, fluently speaks five or six languages. He's not only a great maestro, he's thoroughly engaged in the historical aspects of art. You should speak with him sometime." I did.
Cabrerra has created a slew of royal, whimsical characters as the major players in his art. He is known for taking familiar likenesses of San Miguel townsfolk, fancifully portraying them draped in royal-court robes, tilted crowns and flamboyant head pieces. He can also produce a no-nonsense precise image, perfect in perspective. During a phone interview, in clear English but with a rich Spanish accent, Cabrerra stated, "My good friend Hugo is crazy. How does he come up with such ideas?" And when asked if he was pleased or at least excited about being a permanent part of the collection... "Hell no!" he blurted.
Much like Brown, Cabrerra said it makes him sad to see his paintings go off somewhere else. Cabrerra let the facade slip somewhat and laughed about the cavalier attitude imbuing from his patron and long-time compadre. "That Hugo thinks he can do anything but paint."
Jon Schooler, however, said he was delighted to be included in the museum's exhibit. "Just think, I don't even have to pack and ship. Hugo's a sweet guy, a real gentleman, who's rolling up his sleeves and bravely risking his own capital to provide contemporary artists their own home here in SMA." The New York-born, self-taught artist has been painting since he was a teenager.
Outside the main building is an impressive sculpture garden. Multiple representations from Japanese artists Yoshi Sekiugawa and Manalu Kanu ring the area and grace the greenery. Their marble surfaces have been sanded to an extra clean texture, smooth to the touch. Metal creations, including some mobiles, form a group of sculptures done by Chilean artist Manuel Coelho. The collection has been thoughtfully installed in a specially designed sand garden.
Inside the two-story museum structure and all throughout the property are the masterpieces of about a half dozen other San Miguel artists, such as Federico Silva, David Kestenbaum and the deceased Martin Kramer. Contributors have come from four continents. For now, the museum has its most important properties, the artwork. In time, the plan is to have the expansive ranch land become a showplace and place of study where botanical agricultural experiments will also take place.
We of course, the royal we, realize art is subjective. So is the idea of success, I suppose. Wise men have said, "Success is merely in the doing, and beyond the doing, there's no such thing as failure." Hugo Granados and his envisioning partners have placed their time, property, assets and reputations on the line. Every indication is that they are in for the duration. In Granados' case, we can be envious of a man who's on the threshold of manifesting precisely what he desires.