Last week, I spent four amazing days in Oaxaca. It was my first ever trip to this city of 400,000 people -- a city located right in the southern indigenous heartland of Mexico. In contrast with the marathon madness and 95-degree weather that I left behind in LA, Oaxaca welcomed me with mild weather and the soothing splendor of its sprawling landscapes.
I was invited to participate in The Second Triennial Oaxaca Museum Conference, with representatives from a wide variety of museums from Mexico, Venezuela, Chile, Canada and the United States. Director of USC Fisher Museum of Art, Selma Holo, and Director of the University Museum of Contemporary Art in Mexico City, Graciela de la Torre, were the brains behind the whole operation, with additional support and participation from The Alfred Harp Helú Foundation in Oaxaca.
For two days, we discussed a variety of issues that museums are dealing with today. Even more importantly, we talked about what museum leaders have to do today to remap, to recalculate, and to realign their museums for tomorrow. I had the honor of moderating one of the panel discussions, and did my best to push buttons by asking the museum directors naughty questions like: "What kind of major mistakes have you and your institutions committed? If you believe in the wisdom of never letting a crisis go to waste, what invaluable lessons have you learned from them?"
One can spend days exploring the layers of history and culture wrapping Oaxaca in the most colorful and friendly "shawl." Being busy with the conference, we had just a few hours to get to know the city. As an archaeologist by training, I've seen my fair share of ancient ruins, but Monte Albán, at a mountaintop above Oaxaca, is a particularly amazing architectural treasure. The city flourished between 600BC and 800AD. Lucky for us, we went there in the late afternoon, and were virtually the only people at this sprawling vista. I swear, we could hear the mysterious, rumbling echo of the ancient Zapotec tongue weaving ancient and modern stories of its land.
There is an interesting variety of small and medium sized museums in the city -- and most of them surprise visitors with not only a good quality collection, but also with an elegance and sophistication of presentation that some major museums can learn from. Rufino Tamayo, the great Mexican artist and one of the most famous sons of Oaxaca, gave to his city the remarkable gift -- a large, important collection of Pre-Columbian ceramics. The collection is exhibited with flair, color, and theatricality, as well as a surprising sense of restraint.
The local craftspeople demonstrated for us their skill -- passed down from generation to generation. After watching a beautiful young woman elaborately weaving colorful threads, I step outside and couldn't help but notice an outdoor plaza as Mother Nature's version of a woven tapestry with climbing plants clinging to high walls and green grass stitched into the elaborate brick pattern on the ground.
Local artists invited our group to visit their homes. And let me tell you, not many houses in Malibu or Beverly Hills can compete with what we saw there. The architecture, the landscaping, the interior planning -- all show a unique combination of modernity and historical tradition that goes centuries back.
And yes, guilty as charged, we ate a lot. After all, Oaxaca is famous for its delicious food. And it was the first time that I drank Mezcal. Boy, it's so damn strong. It makes my Russian vodka, in comparison, taste like a baby's drink...
Edward Goldman is an art critic and the host of Art Talk, a program on art and culture for NPR affiliate KCRW 89.9 FM. To listen to the complete show and hear Edward's charming Russian accent, click here.