November 29, 2013 6:26 pm

Interview: Pablo Helguera

Pablo Helguera, artist and educator, talks about Librería Donceles, his used bookstore project
Pablo Helguera©Elena Snow

Pablo Helguera brings socially engaged art to Miami

Pablo Helguera is an artist, author and educator with a particular interest in socially engaged art. Born in Mexico City in 1971, he is based in New York, where, alongside his art practice, he is director of adult and academic programmes at the Museum of Modern Art. His most recent project is Librería Donceles, a Spanish-language used bookstore that will be on show at CIFO (Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation) in Miami from December 4.

How did the Librería Donceles come about?

It began from the realisation that in New York City there are 2m Spanish speakers, nearly a quarter of the entire population, and there are no Spanish-only bookstores in Manhattan and no used Spanish bookstores anywhere in New York.

Why is it important to have such a bookshop?

Books are critical in cultural mobility and education. A used book is also a powerful vessel because of its ownership history. Each book in the bookstore has an Ex-Libris with the name of the previous owner to create a connection with the next reader.

How did you go about it?

We went to Mexico City, where I promised a small piece of my work in exchange for every 60 books. Soon we had 25,000!

Originally, you set up the bookstore in your gallery in Manhattan. How was it received?

The idea of the bookstore is that it is itinerant; while we were in that location we also went to book fairs like the Latino book fair in Harlem. We generated interest from a wide spectrum of people – from literature students to Dominican poets. I organised weekly social gatherings, or tertulias: readings, discussions, music, and many other kinds of programmes.

After Miami, you take it to downtown Phoenix, Arizona. Why there?

Arizona is perhaps the place where the conservative, anti-immigration push is felt strongest in the US. A third of the population of Arizona is Latino; there is a pushback to repress the presence of the culture that comes with it. In Tucson, for example, the state threatened to defund the school system if it continued teaching ethnic studies – thanks to pressure from the Tea Party.

We are going to open in a location that used to be a Borders bookstore. It is very important for us to be on a street-level storefront, as Librería Donceles must allow full public access to anyone in the city.

The Librería Donceles is an example of the socially engaged art which is increasingly practised by contemporary artists today. What do you think is behind this phenomenon?

In part, it is a pushback against the incredible growth in the power of the art market over the past two decades. I believe that a lot of artists today are rejecting the idea that one must depend exclusively on the market. Additionally, there is great interest in making work that has relevance in social spheres outside museums, biennials and galleries.

December 4-February 23 2014, cifo.org

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