March 29, 2011

Museo Soumaya: Carlos Slim's Gift to Mexico and the Art World

The richest man in the world lives in Mexico. Today, he has opened up his childhood home, as a museum and art gallery, renamed in honor of his wife. The Soumaya Museum, in Mexico City, will exhibit some of the greatest artistic treasures in human history. Original works by Leonardo da Vinci, Picasso, Dali, Toulouse-Lautrec, Cezanne, Rivera, Tintoretto, Rubens, Siqueiros and Renoir will grace its hallowed halls; as well as items of historical importance, like a collection of gold coins from the 16th century Spanish vice-roys to Mexico.

Soumaya
Entrance to the Soumaya Museum, Mexico City

The man is Carlos Slim Helú, the 71 year old telecoms and investment tycoon. Last year, American business and financial magazine, Forbes, announced that Slim's personal wealth had overtaken that of Bill Gates. This year, the same publication noted that Slim's bank balance had now far outstripped Gates's. He is viewed as a man with a Midas touch. His companies alone are worth an estimated $74 billion. Then there are the shares. As well as a substantial number of them scattered throughout Mexican companies, he also owns a percentage of several American ones too. These include the New York Times and Saks.

Much of this wealth has been channelled into snapping up art treasures, as they came onto the market. Slim particularly likes Auguste Rodin. The largest private collection of Rodin pieces belongs to him. In terms of volume, it is beaten only by the public collection at the Musée Rodin, in France. Slim's collection includes one of the twelve original and authenticated versions of 'The Kiss'; and also 'Eve', which was famously sold at auction, by Christies, for a record $18,969,000, in May 2008. There is no doubt now as to who was on the other end of the telephone.

Carlos Slim
Carlos Slim with Rodin's 'The Three Shades'

The Rodin collection is just part of over 66,000 items of artistic, cultural and historical importance, which belong to Carlos Slim. Many of these are being exhibited for the first time, in his new Soumaya Museum. The homage to Rodin is even more clear in the architecture of the building. Fernando Romero, Slim's son-in-law, designed it to look like a Rodin sculpture.

Until now, Mexico City has had a lot of scattered exhibitions, but no major art gallery. The capital's major attraction for connoisseurs has been the number of Diego Rivera murals and paintings, on display in various locations around the city, as well as the Surrealist classics of his wife, Frida Kahlo. Some of these have made it into Slim's collection too. However, Slim's vision was for more. He explained, in yesterday's launch news conference, that the Soumaya Museum will allow 'Mexicans, who can't travel abroad, to physically get to know works by the greatest artists.'

Entrance, into the Soumaya Museum, is free. It covers 16,000 square meters and rises up over six storeys. The facilities are part of a massive urban development, costing US$800 million, which include conference halls, a five-star hotel and housing. As Slim put it, "It's a gift to the city and to the whole country of Mexico, to all the young kids too."

Soumaya
Red carpet outside the Soumaya Museum, Mexico City

Carlos Slim was born, in Mexico City, on January 28, 1940, as the son of Lebanese immigrants. Julián Slim Haddad, his father, was a keen businessman, who tutored all six of his children, from an early age, in the art of business. The young Carlos was a quick learner. He bought his first shares, in a Mexican bank, at the age of just twelve.

Slim trained as an engineer, with a degree at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (National Autonomous University of Mexico). His passion remained in business though and he established several real estate, engineering and mining companies. His real boom occurred during the 1980s, when a decline in Mexican industry placed several companies on the market. Slim snapped them up for bargain prices, then invested heavily to reinstate them. His personal fortune grew. He is the mogul behind Mexico's monopolizing telecoms company, Telmex.

Carlos and Soumaya
Carlos and Soumaya

Soumaya Domit Gemayel was the love of his life. He married her in 1966 and they remained deeply devoted to each other, until her death in 1999. The couple had six children. She was primarily concerned with philanthropic projects, including establishing a safe and legal way for organ donation to occur in Mexico. It is in her honor that Slim has named his landmark museum.

The Soumaya Museum's Spanish language website is here. The museum itself is located in Plaza Carso, in the Polanco district of Mexico City.

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