The Instituto Allende: its origins

By Edgardo Kerlegand

During the third decade of the twentieth century, San Miguel de Allende, once the cradle of conspiracies for independence from the Spanish crown, was immersed in an economic recession not very different from the one which predominated in the whole Mexico.

At that time, Enrique Fernández Martínez was governor of the State of Guanajuato. A man interested in human rights, he belonged to a group of political liberal constitutionalists called “Los Verdes,” in which there were other artists and visionaries as well, like Felipe Cossio del Pomar, a Peruvian expat in our country; Stirling Dickinson, writer and philanthropist; James Pinto, of Yugoslav origin, illustrator at Disney Studios; Silvia and Fred Samuelson, owners of the renowned Galería San Miguel, which just closed in 2012; and Leonard and Reeva Brooks, among others. With the dream of building a school of arts, these people founded the University of Bellas Artes, the first private art-specialized educational institution, located in Plaza Cívica, at the current facilities of the University of León.

Intending to have their own building and with the help of the former Mexican president Lázaro Cárdenas, then Secretary of the Army, they presented the project to the President of Mexico, Manuel Avila Camacho. The government granted them the custody and use of a building, which once was the Immaculate Conception church and where Bellas Artes is located today.

The school moved to this building with the participation of artists like David Alfaro Siqueiros, Carlos Mérida, Tamayo and many others, local and expats, who, among other objectives, sought the training of craftsmen and artists.

Later, Stirling Dickinson separated from the group and was followed by 80 percent of the students and most teachers. Fernández was with him, and the school returned to the old building in the Plaza Cívica.

In the late forties, Roberto Lambarri de la Canal sold them a property called “La Huerta Grande,” once the house and eventually the mill of the de la Canal family. With this vast property, the art school had its own building at last. The first incarnation of what would become the Instituto Allende, including the current market square, the courtyard with murals and the chapel, was built.

In 1950 the Instituto joined the University of Guanajuato with an academic program also recognized by the Ministry of Education.

In those days, Time magazine published an article in which teachers at the Institute were accused of being communists, and eventually The Secretaría de Gobernación (Ministry of the Interior) of Mexico expelled some foreign teachers.

Fernández got involved and determined that all were false accusations. Eventually most of these teachers returned to Mexico and the Instituto. This misunderstanding put San Miguel Allende on the map, and the Institute as an entity was formed at the confluence of various thought ideologies. There was a plurality of teachers who taught knowledge in different areas, including philosophy.

Dickinson achieved agreements between the two countries, Mexico and the United States, to provide funding and scholarships for American and Canadian students to study at the Instituto. The flow then exceeded eight thousand students a year, setting the golden age of this institution. By then the ambitious project included a curriculum of mastery, which demanded three times more than many other existing educational projects in the country as the institute had a flexible curriculum.

By 1970 a huge migration of foreigners started coming in for a month, two months or even a year. Some of them stayed to live in our city and formed an open and diverse community.

In 1985, following the assassination of the DEA agent Enrique Camarena in Guadalajara, the State Department of the United States warned its citizens not to come to Mexico because of the drug cartels, and this naturally resulted in the significant decrease of students at the Instituto.

With this history and the concepts of openness and adaptation to modern times, the Instituto Allende continues offering, with the support of the University of Guanajuato, a visual arts degree.

The transformation of Mexico and its educational systems is strongly influenced by international standards dictated by UNESCO (the United Nations Organization for Education, Science and Culture) and other cultural and educational organizations.

Today, where gardens and workshops once were, now there are the facilities of Instituto Allende, where the current art promises of our city are born. In later writings, I will speak of these young people and their projects.

Edgardo Kerlegand is an artist and teacher at Instituto Allende.


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