Celebrating Mexico at the Atrium
Now entering its 14th year, Celebrate Mexico Now is a citywide festival that highlights contemporary Mexican artists—emerging and established—across all genres: music, literature, theater, dance, film, and more. As part of this year's festival, the critically acclaimed Mexico City–based band Ampersan will make its New York City debut with a free show at the David Rubenstein Atrium (October 19), mixing traditional instruments with rock, jazz, and electronica. In advance of this year's season, Celebrate Mexico Now founder Claudia Norman answered a few questions about the history and vision of the festival, and its partnership with Lincoln Center.
Eileen Willis: First, can you give us an overview of the festival and what inspired you to start it in 2004?
Claudia Norman: I was working in a re-granting organization called Arts International as the manager of the Americas Project. My job was to promote and organize exchange programs between artists from Latin America and the United States. After many successful projects with Central and South American and Caribbean countries, we were wondering how we could create something with Mexico. This is how we called for a meeting with many New York cultural organizations and asked them three questions: 1) When was the last time that they had presented contemporary Mexican artists? 2) When was the last time that they had access to information about contemporary artists? 3) What they were planning to do?
We discovered that presenters in New York City were interested and willing to present contemporary Mexican artists, and from that meeting the Celebrate Mexico Now festival was born. Unfortunately, Arts International closed one month before the beginning of the first edition! So I decided to take on the commitment to produce the festival independently under my own company, Claudia Norman Management.
EW: I'm especially interested in the "Now" that's part of the name. What is it about "now" that you think is important to emphasize as part of the festival's ethos?
CN: We wanted to focus on what artists are doing now and not just on past iconic figures. It was important to make a platform for the creation of new work from the 21st century. Also, "now" is timeless.
The musicians are the storytellers, and in a concert you always experience a sense of community.
EW: It's been 13 years since the festival's first season. How has it changed or evolved since then?
CN: The first year, we had 100 events in one month. It was amazing, but crazy! I wanted this to be a long-term project, and I am running it with a small staff, so I decided to focus on getting all the disciplines represented (dance, music, theater, film, literature, cuisine, architecture, etc.), and downsize it to two weeks. Then, after the economic crisis in 2009, we reduced it to ten days.
EW: How do you go about curating the festival every year?
CN: The idea is that we co-curate. I want to have the expert curators from the cultural organizations involved in this process, so sometimes I bring suggestions to the table and sometimes they suggest something that they want to present. I think this has been a key element to establishing long-term relationships between the presenters and the festival: creating a partnership in the curatorial process. It's a collaborative effort.
EW: How did the collaboration with Lincoln Center and the Atrium come about?
CN: Lincoln Center Out of Doors was one of the presenters that attended the initial meeting 13 years ago, and when the Atrium first opened its doors [in 2009], we immediately had a conversation about it being the perfect space to present free music performances where we could introduce new artists to New York audiences. The Atrium is dedicated to presenting the highest-quality artists and to reflecting the many communities who make up New York City. They also partner with community organizations, and we are the only festival in the United States dedicated 100% to presenting contemporary Mexican culture, so it was the perfect match.
EW: Can you tell us a little bit about Ampersan and what audiences can expect from the show?
CN: It really impressed me how this group of young musicians and songwriters are creating a very fresh and unique Mexican music. You can recognize the traditional sounds, but you can also see their need to discover new textures and sounds.
EW: What do you hope audiences of the show at the Atrium, and of the festival in general, come away with?
CN: Every year, since the beginning, we've been able to introduce a very unique musical program. We hope that we can continue bringing these amazing groups that are independent and not yet in the commercial or concert circuit in the U.S. so that audiences have the opportunity to hear what young Mexican musicians are producing now in Mexico.
EW: How do you see the role of arts presenters in terms of shaping local and national dialogues about culture and/or policy issues like social justice, civil rights, immigrant rights, the environment, for example?
CN: I think culture is the best way to communicate and implement social justice. It has been like this for a long time. The musicians are the storytellers, and in a concert you always experience a sense of community. As songwriters, they are telling us what are their concerns, their worries, and their joys. Festival and presenting organizations are like open forums and libraries in real time.
EW: What are some of your other favorite performing arts festivals to attend, strictly as a fan?
CN: I feel lucky that I don't have to travel too far to see great performances. I feel fortunate to live in New York, and to have colleagues that are in charge of amazing programming. But I love to travel, and to visit a new country for the first time through an arts festival, I think, is the best introduction to a new place and culture. This is what we are trying to do with the Celebrate Mexico Now festival: bring to your door, here in New York, a glimpse of the diverse and fascinating Mexican culture, not necessarily from Mexico only, but from other places—like Canada, Europe, Japan, and Korea—that are influenced by this culture.
EW: Anything else you'd like to add?
CN: We are looking forward to celebrating our 15th anniversary in 2018!
Eileen Willis is Editorial Director at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.