Colonia San Antonio, photography, San Miguel de Allende, Uncategorized, Writings

A world away, next door: Instituto Allende’s garden campus of tranquility inspires creativity

Lost and found art, seen through a workshop window near the sculpture complex.

When I first heard that the Instituto Allende and I were born in the same year I had some mixed feelings.

I mean this venerated arts center on the Ancha de San Antonio in San Miguel de Allende looks ancient. Old stone and mortar. Buildings and walls that go back centuries. An architectural graybeard.

And me, well, I’m … I’m … well, never mind.

The beautifully groomed campus is filled with art, quiet spaces, beautiful foliage, and a shady trees breeze — all at the service of inspiration.

It was indeed 1950 when Felipe Cossío del Pomar, returning to San Miguel after a long hiatus, was dismayed by the dissolute state of his beloved Escuela Universitaria de Bellas Artes (which he founded in the late-1930’s) and decided to start all over on the Ancha.

Cossío del Pomar partnered with public relations wizard, artist, and baseball champ Stirling Dickinson, as well as former Guanajuato governor Enrique Fernández Martínez and his wife, Nell Harris, to create the Institutio Allende on the sprawling property that was once the dominion of the Canal Family.

The scene around the Instituto Allende campus…

Back then, the land was cheap and readily available and the Arts Institute ballooned to fill a huge space that included the current public courtyard and the land on which the Rosewood Hotel now sits. 

A good thing, too, because the art center partnered with the University of Guanajuato and was able to grant Fine Arts degrees, as it still does today.  Among the schools growing student body were, notably, lots of World War II veterans from the U.S. who were able to use their G.I. Bill benefits for tuition. They studied Spanish and fine arts and more than a few stayed when their schooling was over.  

Instituto Allende is still an impressive and sprawling complex, perhaps quieter than in its heyday but still drawing some U.S. veterans and other ex-pats to study here.  The campus is wrapped in quietly creative and purposeful energy that puts it in a whole other universe from the world around it.

The Parroquia San Miguel Arcangel is never far from anyone’s view in this city, even here at Instituto Allende.

I swear, once you leave the to and fro frenzy of the Ancha and walk through the portal entrance to the Institutio Allende your eyes stop dilating, your ears are no longer pounding, and your blood pressure drops noticeably. This is good medicine, San Miguel-style. I’ll bet a stroll through this campus even lowers cholesterol. It is San Miguel’s own meditative and creative sea of tranquility.

I was able to take healthy doses of the “good medicine” twice in recent weeks.

I was meeting with friends Efrain Gonzalez and Scott Umstatt at Cafe Murmullo, which is carved out from the Institute property at Calle Ancha de San Antonio #24, when the institute’s director Zara Fernandez joined us for a cup of coffee. She was elated to share two new projects with us – the theatre group Teatro Caja Negra Performing Arts is taking up residency in the school’s auditorium and the popular art walk – MyStudio/Mi Estudio – will be returning to the streets of Colonia San Antonio this summer, July 16 and 17. Fernandez is the guiding force behind the two-day open house for artists.

While the auditorium undergoes some refurbishing, the Caja Negra actors recently turned the entire campus into a stage for a series of monologues “based on Shakespeare’s ‘Othello.’ ”

By the way,  Zara Fernandez is a third-generation director of the Institute. She literally grew up on the campus beside Enrique Fernández Martínez, Nell Harris, and Rodolfo Fernández. Now, with her Master’s in business arts management, she seems poised to take the Institute into a new era.

When Zara dashed off to another meeting, Efrain led Scott and me on a tour of the campus. I was unsurprised to hear that Efrain has had a long association with the Institute. One way or another, Efrain seems involved in almost everything good that happens in San Miguel!

We glimpsed inside the auditorium, inhaled that special old book air that permeates the library, peeked in the art studios, and the sculpture room where teacher Gerardo Berbera was working on one of his own pieces. Outside, student Rodrigo Miranda was shaping a block of stone into a delicate torso.

A week later, Scott and I returned and walked around the campus with the director of instruction Jesus Ibarra, also a noted author of books on Mexican movie stars.

Teacher Gerardo Berbera works on his art (left) student Rodrigo Miranda (right) creates outdoors:

Thee are currently 45 students in the degree-granting Fine Arts program, including six veterans on the GI Bill, he said. But there are many more who take advantage of the wide range of continuing art workshops in sculpture, painting, weaving, jewelry making, printmaking, and Spanish instruction. A new schedule of summer classes was recently announced. (See list below.)

There is more information on Instituto Allende’s Facebook page.

One of the Institute’s premier programs, Rodarte, sent artists into the outlying communities to set up workshops in rural schools. There were 360 Saturday workshops over eight years. Like so many good things, Rodarte was suspended during the pandemic. That is one more program that will possibly be revived in the future.

Maestro Ibarra took us to the weaving room in which 15 looms are available, two dating back 167 years. All around are piles of colored wool and a half-dozen of the looms were occupied by students.

Don Agapito Jiménez and his weaving studio:

Walking about amid all the joyous clutter is the instructor Don Agapito Jiménez. While officially the instructor of traditional Mexican weaving for four years, Don Jiménez, like Zara Fernandez, grew up on the campus.

As a nine-year-old, he left the family farm to live in Colonia San Antonio with his grandparents. Don Jiménez was only 15 years old when he began to learn the art of weaving at the Institute from such respected masters as Don Ángel Chavarría, Don Miguel Licea, and Don Porfirio López.

Today, he keeps the art alive and passes on his wealth of knowledge to new generations. Don Agapito Jiménez is only one year older than the institute itself.

Professor Iberra showed us a little-seen campus relic, the photography darkroom. While barely used since the arrival of digital photography, the room is intact and ready should someone with a desire to acquire the neglected art come calling. In fact, there is a photo darkroom techniques class listed in the new schedule.

When you walk through the entrance and onto the Instituto Allende campus, there is little doubt that you are stepping into a wonderful, creative new world:

My friend Scott, a talented professional photographer, was excited to see the room with its six developer bays. Memories of his early days as a college student were sparked by the room with its distinctive odor of the once-noxious fluids used to develop film and prints.

While there were numerous workshops going on, a live-model drawing class for one,  there was no hint of the hustle and bustle beyond the campus walls. In the fall and winter, the campus offers “lifelong learning” classes to the public. These are short, classes, often a day or two, on subjects as varied as Mexican history, opera, current events, fashion, and movies. There is also an arts outreach program that sends instructors out into the smaller and more-rural towns to expose young students to art.

One of the pillars of education at the campus is Spanish language instruction which comes in a variety of packages from conversational to intensive. You can even tailor a “total impact” plan, spending as many as six hours a day over one to four weeks on a one-to-one basis with the teacher.

The addition of Caja Negra Performing Arts promises to bring more of the public onto the campus where the sculpture-dotted, garden setting can be truly appreciated.

It would not surprise me if Zara Fernandez and the Institute staff have more developments that will bring more of the community into Instituto Allende, once again revitalizing its motto with action: “Hic Natus Ubique Notus” (“Here born and in all the world known”.) the same motto that is carved over the entrance to the Allende Family house in the Jardin.

Summer 2022 course list at Instituto Allende:


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