Creating a Market for Latin American Art

The sticky, sweet smell of crushed fruit emanates from La Colección Jumex, the gallery housing the private art collection of Eugenio López Alonso, heir to Mexico's multi-billion-dollar Jumex juice fortune. Open to the public, the gallery is located on the gritty outskirts of Mexico City in a compound of factories that produce juice, beans and soups under the Jumex brand. Giant silver canisters and small tractors rest in the alleyway outside the building, and cans of Jumex juice sit on the reception counter for thirsty visitors. With its airy layout and frequent films, workshops and artist lectures, the Jumex Collection has become one of Mexico City's most popular art spaces.

Three or four times a year, the gallery launches new exhibits with lavish parties that last into the wee hours, complete with art-world big shots, live music and free-flowing alcohol. They—as much as the works they celebrate—bear the distinct mark of López, a well-known man about town who happens to own one of the biggest art collections in Latin America. Estimated to be worth between $50 million and $80 million, it encompasses more than 1,800 works by such artists as Jeff Koons and Andy Warhol, as well as by established and up-and-coming contemporary Latin American artists. "I believe I did something that was never done in Latin America," says López, who began collecting in 1990 and opened his art to the public in 2001, once he'd amassed about 400 pieces. "I wanted to create an important collection for my country."

Through his private collection and joint foundation, La Fundación/Colección Jumex, López aims to put Mexican talent on the map in the United States, as well as to bring international art south of the border. Funded entirely by Grupo Jumex, the privately held Mexican company owned by his father, López's foundation backs numerous contemporary-art exhibitions in Mexico City and also gives grants to artists so they can travel outside the country to study. "I saw there were a lot of very good artists here in Mexico who had no chance to go outside," says López, 41, bouncing forward on his cowboy-boot-clad feet and running his fingers through his hair. Boyishly charming, López smiles often and is fond of repeating the line, "I don't want to sound pretentious." Despite his reputation as a party boy—his assistant had to reschedule our interview because he had not yet recovered from a late-night dinner—López is clearly committed to promoting Latin American art. He never buys just one piece from an artist he likes, and some of the names he started collecting years ago have soared to international fame. Among them: modernists Damián Ortega and Gabriel Orozco, who have gained reputations well beyond their native Mexico, even staging solo shows in Europe and America.

López has also cultivated young Mexican artists such as Gabriel Kuri, Pablo Vargas Lugo and Abraham Cruz Villegas, who all work in a variety of media and are poised to succeed in "crossing over" into the wider art world, says López. Yet he collects art only according to what he loves—not by what has the potential to make it big. In his Mexico City penthouse overlooking the smoggy skies, a giant bronze spider by Louise Bourgeois is perched on the wall between famous paintings by the likes of Paul McCarthy and Minerve Cuevas, which are changed monthly.

López, who still holds the title of marketing director at Grupo Jumex—though in name only—has devoted himself full time to collecting for the past eight years. He won't say how much seed money his father gave him to start, but he acknowledges it was initially difficult to persuade the elder López to bankroll his plan to acquire edgy art. Since then, however, his father has come around, acknowledging all the foundation has done to promote contemporary art in Mexico. "That is the thing that I felt was more important than anything: to support artists," says López.

Gregorio Luke, former director of California's Museum of Latin-American Art, says López's commitment to cutting-edge Latin American artists is already paying off. "A lot of people think that Mexican art begins and ends with Frida Kahlo and the muralists," he says. "We're beginning to see young Latin American artists included in the artistic dialogue." Tate Modern curator Jessica Morgan, who is responsible for La Coleccion's Jumex's current exhibit, "An Unruly History of the Readymade," which features modern interpretations of Marcel Duchamp's Readymades by 80 artists, credits López with putting together an "extraordinary" collection and scoffs at accusations of his dilettantism. "It's simply impossible that someone with no knowledge, taste or love of contemporary art could put that together," she says. "The collection speaks for itself."

López, who splits his time between Los Angeles and Mexico City, is on the board of both Los Angeles's Museum of Contemporary Art and New York's New Museum. He has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to both institutions to encourage the purchase of modern Latin American art. At the same time, he continues to passionately build his private collection, sometimes acquiring a dozen pieces in a month. "I want to build an incredible collection," he says, playfully knocking for luck on his wooden end table. Plans are underway to expand his gallery space by adding a new outpost in the ritzy Mexico City neighborhood of Polanco to showcase more of his works and excite greater local interest in contemporary Mexican art. López says he is currently attempting to beef up his collection of Latin American art from the 1970s and '80s. Once he has established a stable endowment for the Jumex Collection, he plans to return to the family business. For now, he jets from art capital to art capital, attending auctions, exhibits and fairs and hosting cocktails while trying not to work—and party—himself into exhaustion.