SOMA: A Case Study in Artist-Run Education

SOMA: A Case Study in Artist-Run Education


October 1, 2015
Chris Sharp
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In January 2012 I was a curatorial resident at SOMA, a unique hybrid of an artist-run space, visual arts school, residency program, and discursive platform located in the neighborhood of San Pedro de los Pinos in Mexico City. During my month-long stay, in which I met with students and reviewed their portfolios, conducted studio visits with local artists, saw exhibitions around the city and got to know the art scene a little, I basically fell head-over-heels in love with the city, Distrito Federal (or “D.F.” as its known among locals). More specifically, I fell for the quality of life, which is a composite of good weather, great food, and affordable living (especially in comparison to any other Western art capital). Once my residency finished, I made a proposal to SOMA to return and lead a seminar, which they accepted. At roughly the same time, I lost my flat in Paris due to a major rent hike, and so I decided to settle in Mexico City. Soon after moving here, the artist Martin Soto Climent and myself opened up an independent space called Lulu, which has been and continues to be an adventure, with the attendant ups and downs involved in starting any new undertaking. Having been here now for almost three years, I feel obliged to qualify all of these biographical disclosures with a number of caveats. One is that despite a great deal of international buzz, Mexico City is not the new Berlin. If you want la vie bohème mixed with contemporary art, this place is not for you. While it is relatively safe (though this is debatable), as a foreigner it is a tough city to live in. For instance, there might be days when your building has no running water, at all. And you will most likely get sick more often than normal, sometimes with salmonella and parasites. What is more, for a number of reasons, ranging from the disastrous effects of NAFTA to run-of-the-mill colonial exploitation, chilangos (Mexico City inhabitants) are not necessarily interested in Europeans and Americans moving here. They have seen a lot of enthusiastic El Dorado seekers come and go, generally taking more than they leave behind, and as a consequence, they will not likely welcome you with open arms. Lastly, the current catastrophic administration of president Enrique Peña-Nieto has plunged the country into an abyss of political, economic, and cultural despair, not to mention instability. This despair is palpable; it spiritually darkens the streets. Yet life goes on. Voilà. Now that I have done my moral duty of chipping away at the international myth currently accreting around Mexico City, I can, in good conscience, return to the task at hand.

SOMA began in 2009 as a non-accredited visual arts school and has existed in its current formation since 2011, which includes two academic programs and a public program. The public program, known as Miercolés de SOMA (SOMA’s Wednesdays), are talks that take place every Wednesday evening, which are free and open to the general public. Often given by artists, these pláticas sometimes feature local and visiting writers, critics, curators, filmmakers, and other literati, in either Spanish or English. Recent visitors have included the German, London-based artist Daniel Sinsel, German writer and theorist Diedrich Diederichsen, London-based artist Ian Kiaer, and the American, San Francisco-based curator Joseph del Pesco, among many others. The pedagogical component of SOMA manifests in two distinct, yet occasionally interrelated, incarnations. The first is a two-year-long non-accredited academic program taught predominantly in Spanish; and the second is a two-month-long summer intensive, also non-accredited, known as SOMA Summer, which is taught in English. While both are essentially international, the two-year-long academic program is geared toward Mexican artists at both an undergraduate and graduate level. SOMA Summer, in contrast, tends to consist largely of Americans and Europeans who are already working at the postgraduate level. Initiated by the Mexican, New York-based artist Carla Herrera-Prats shortly after the main school’s inception, SOMA Summer consists of about thirty students and features a more international roster of visiting instructors and theory-driven curriculum. Each summer, three students from the main academic program, who speak English, are selected to participate in the summer program alongside the visiting students.

In order to begin to understand SOMA, its role in the Mexico City art scene, and ultimately its mission, it is necessary to have a sense of its origins and the gap it intends to fill. SOMA can be seen as the slightly less organic continuation of two artist-run spaces active in the 1990s in Mexico City. One was the relatively short-lived Temístocles 44, founded by artists Sofía Taboas, Abraham Cruzvillegas, and Eduardo Abaroa, in Mexico City’s Polanco neighborhood. It had and continues to maintain a reputation not merely as an exhibition space, but also as a discursive site, insofar as it functioned as a space where artists could regularly meet and discuss art. Active from 1993 to 1995, Temístocles 44 is considered crucial to both the formation and nascent exposure of numerous Mexican and Mexico City–based artists working locally and internationally today. During that time, it presented six exhibitions, most notably a solo show by the Mexican artist Daniel Guzman, while featuring exhibitions by a number of other artists including Maria Teresa Alves and Melanie Smith, along with older, more established, and influential local figures like Marcos Kurtycz, thereby establishing a cross-generational dialogue. The other space, perhaps better known to those outside of Mexico and much longer lived, was La Panedería. Located in a former bakery in La Condesa, La Panedería was founded and directed by artists Yoshua Okón and Miguel Calderón from 1994 to 2002 (Okón later went on to found SOMA). Although accounts of La Panedería vary from the laudatory to the damning, it cannot be denied that it made a significant contribution to the local and international ferment and reputation of the Mexico City art world. What is more is that it was another space run by artists for the exhibition, dissemination, and discussion of art. And this, along with the purportedly cross-generational mode of Temístocles 44, is something that SOMA has sought to preserve as its guiding spirit.

According to Yoshua Okón, “SOMA arose from the explosion of the international market in the 2000s, which marginalized real discussion and content while valorizing the commercial aspect of art.” He perceived that, along with the rise of the market, there was a tendency to privilege individualism, isolate artists within the production of their studios, and thereby atomize and break down community. For Okón, SOMA’s founder, as well as many of his collaborators in the project, the school was and continues to be an attempt to counteract this isolation, foster and maintain a sense of socially, discursively, and critically active community among, most importantly, artists as well as other cultural agents locally and abroad.

“Artist” is the operative word here. SOMA is a school founded by and run largely by artists, with the notable exception of Barbara Hernandez, who is not an artist, but is the director of the school (before SOMA, she was in charge of communication at the gallery kurimanzutto for a year, and was recruited to help structure the overall initiative by Okón, who soon thereafter asked her to become the director). SOMA’s mission is carried out by two councils, the first of which is an artist council, the second an advisory council. The artist council consists of twenty Mexican or Mexico-based artists, ranging from the likes of Carlos Amorales, Julieta Aranda, Santiago Sierra, and Francis Alÿs. Essential to the spirit, structure, and decision-making process of the place, they are its foundation. Meanwhile, the advisory council consists of foreign, non-Mexico-based artists such as John Baldessari and Paul McCarthy, as well as intellectuals, writers, and curators like the Mexican novelist Guillermo Fadanelli or the critic and educator María Minera. The responsibilities of the members of the two councils vary broadly and depend on members’ availability. Their duties include giving courses, critiques, fundraising, consultation, and participating in selection committees for incoming students, among other obligations.

The main academic program features approximately twenty-four students at any given time. Twelve are admitted each year, so like most graduate programs, the first- and second-year students overlap for one academic year. However, unlike most graduate programs, incoming students are not required to have an undergraduate degree in art or otherwise. Daniel Aguilar Ruvalcaba, who only had a high school degree before attending SOMA, stated, “One of the things I liked the most was that it was not necessary to have a college degree and it was more focused on discussion around art rather than learning skills.” This position on the part of SOMA is the byproduct of a concatenation of specific circumstances. First of all, as explained by SOMA director Barbara Hernandez, “Given that many applicants come from different parts of Mexico, where it is not even possible to have an undergraduate degree, but they might have a good portfolio, they should still be able to study.” Secondly, this decision is informed and reciprocated by an even more important decision, and that is accreditation. SOMA, as already stated, akin to the Whitney Independent Study program, is not an accredited degree program. This is a deliberate decision predicated on an ultimate unwillingness to conform to the educational standards outlined by the Secretaria de Educación Pública, which requires all graduate students to have undergraduate degrees and for all instructors to have graduate degrees. This is not always the case at SOMA, which privileges experience and commitment over academic pedigree. Indeed, it could be argued that it is precisely this eschewal of accreditation that allows SOMA to cultivate and maintain its pedagogical edge.

The main academic program itself consists of six trimesters, the last of which is dedicated to the development of the final graduate exhibition. Each trimester is dedicated to a specific theme, just as each session of SOMA Summer is also dedicated to a certain theme (this year it was Bataille’s notion of excess). The theme for the academic program, which is elected by the teaching faculty (María Minera, Sofía Táboas, Luis Felipe Ortega, Magali Lara, Minerva Cuevas, and Raul Ortega Ayala), tends to be pretty general; recent themes included “Space,” “Image,” and “Power.” In order to graduate, each student must clock in at least eighty hours of entrevistas (face-to-face time with visiting artists, curators, critics, etc.) and attend courses, the likes of which range from “Espacio inesperado y reconocido, intervenciones en sitio especifico proxímas al perímetro de SOMA” (Unexpected and familiar space, site specific interventions within the perimeter of Soma) taught by the artist Sofia Taboas, “Cultura Marginal” (Marginal Culture), taught by the writer and educator María Minera, to “Los lenguages de la exposición” (Languages of Exhibition Making) taught by curator Andrea Torreblanca. In addition to all of this, every two weeks students must make a small presentation of ongoing work in one of the two small spaces dedicated to such presentations at SOMA. These presentations are accompanied by critiques that include both first- and second-year students and two outside participants (mostly artists, with some curators and critics, all selected by the exhibiting students themselves). These presentations and subsequent critiques compensate, to a limited degree, for what is SOMA’s most glaring pedagogical lacuna, and that is its lack of studio space for students.

This gap tends to perpetuate a problem endemic to Mexican contemporary art: the belief that form is secondary to content, a position that is full of a very specific set of implications. For instance, when asked about his experience at the school, the American former SOMA student and dropout Simon Gabriel Greenberg strongly criticized how this might manifest by stating: “There’s a lot of trying to relate work to this kind of prescribed ‘Mexican’ contemporary aesthetic, where representation of some ‘thing’ is still paramount, typically a social/political concept. There’s a sort of fallback position that art is or should be a commentary, which doesn’t really apply to most of the artwork that I’m personally interested in.” That said, SOMA’s faculty is indeed aware of this problem, for when asked about their long-term goals, they clearly stated this as one of them: the construction and addition of artist studios and studio practice as an eventual and integral part of the program.

Generally speaking, most of the students I encountered seem very pleased with their experience at SOMA, and for a variety of reasons—from the relative flexibility of the academic program, insofar as the program is very much self-directed, to the open-mindedness of the school’s organizers. A major point of attraction is its tuition and funding structure. Another American student and recent graduate, Kimberlee Cordova, decided to apply to the main academic program after attending SOMA Summer in 2011. “For me the decision to leave the USA,” she writes, “and come to SOMA was rooted in looking at the landscape of MFAs in the United States and seeing that the established system was unsustainable. I couldn’t justify the absurd amount of debt that would be required to get an MFA but I wanted to continue my education, and I didn’t want to sacrifice the quality of the education either.” Indeed, compared to fees at virtually any US or UK graduate program, SOMA is downright utopian. Every student who is accepted automatically receives a scholarship, which covers eighty-five percent of their tuition. The leftover tuition comes out to approximately $1000 per academic year. (And even this, in rare and dire instances, is negotiable; for example, one student I spoke with explained how he experienced a certain economic hardship and the school responded by allowing him to conduct a seminar in order to make up for his missing funds.) This reduced tuition scheme comes from the fact that the school is subsidized largely by private donors, artists, and an annual auction, which raises a significant portion of the school’s annual budget. SOMA Summer, on the other hand, is subsidized by agreements with foreign universities sending their students or foreign governments sending their local artists. Only one-fourth of the total participants pay SOMA Summer’s full tuition, which is about $3,500.

While the auction might net a significant income for the school, SOMA still struggles to meet its own most basic needs, which are broad and rigorously ethical. (For instance, SOMA is adamant about not accepting free labor—despite its special function within the community and relatively small budget. Teachers, intervening critics, and speakers at Los Miércoles de SOMA are always remunerated.) The combination of this ethical rigor with discursive consistency adds up to a considerable financial burden. Having received to date no governmental support, the school, which is officially a nonprofit, must nevertheless pay a very high rate of taxes, 30 percent (and this in a context where only 30 percent of donations are tax deductible). Given these circumstances, the burden of the annual upkeep of SOMA is something of a battle, which is shared by a good portion of the local community; many artists donate work and in some cases, even buy it at the fundraising auctions.

When I asked the founders, Carla Herrera-Prats, Yoshua Okón, and Director Barbara Hernandez, what the ideal outcome for students was, Herrera-Prats responded in very concrete terms: “The mission is to help students grasp two very important things. First, help them understand the social and political dimension of what they produce. And secondly, allow them to find and build a peer group.” Okón’s response felt more political: “An art school,” he stated, “is nothing more than a tool. Whatever an artist wants to do with the school is entirely up to them. There are many ways of being an artist, of existing as an artist. The idea is to give tools to young artists to develop in whatever ways they think is best.” When pressed to elucidate, he added that he was not interested in quantifying success, as “there is no specific model [of success] that the institution pushes. Different people can have different ideas of what art is and what a career can look like.” While in some ways I find this statement impossible to disagree with, I am also skeptical of this stance. Whatever qualities one might wish to prescribe to it, art, barring a few highly debatable exceptions, is and has always been a fiercely competitive domain. Needless to say, this competitiveness is not limited to performance in the market place, but extends unilaterally to every aspect of cultural production. To seek to form an artist in a context that does not actively take into account these very significant pressures seems to render a potential disservice to the would-be artist.

I am not necessarily criticizing SOMA for a perceived lack of professionalization. The art world does not need another finishing school. My problems lie elsewhere. While I met some very dedicated young artists at SOMA, I often found myself surprised by the level of commitment and art historical as well as theoretical knowledge among them. Never mind that attendance to my seminar and even critiques seemed to be optional among students—knowledge of art history and theory seemed to be optional as well. For example, the young woman in a critique who presented videos of herself performing almost nude may have benefitted from knowing who Ana Mendieta, Hannah Wilke, and Carolee Schneemann were. Another student engaging in institutional critique had barely any knowledge of Michael Asher and Hans Haacke. And the list goes on. Granted, my references tend to be predominantly US-centric, but many of the elder artists involved in SOMA as well as the founders were educated in the States at a graduate level, so ignorance of its art history, which, it goes without saying, is part of a global discourse, seems to be an implausible alibi. It is precisely this relative lack of historical and theoretical rigor—what I see as blind spots in the curriculum—that could use some amending.

All that said, SOMA’s ethical stance, unique profile, and increasing importance in the local context—as a reliable meeting ground for artists and professionals and the primary discursive platform of the local art scene–convince me that SOMA has a healthy and fertile future ahead of it. And while the current interdisciplinary trend in artistic production may make a completely artist-run school somewhat reactionary or anachronistic, I do think, at the risk of sounding passé, that the more the means of production remain within the control of artists, the better this is for the entire art world. Put simply: artists are probably a lot less prone to exploit other artists while seeking to ensure that risk and experimentation remain at the center of such production. SOMA takes these risks, and for this reason, its model—which certainly leaves room for improvement—should be heeded.

—Chris Sharp

Education, Contemporary Art, Latin America
Socially Engaged Art

Chris Sharp is a writer and curator who lives between Mexico City and Los Angeles. He is the cofounder of Lulu, Mexico City, LA MAISON DE RENDEZ-VOUS, Brussels, and Feuilleton, Los Angeles.


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