The José Luis Cuevas Museum and Church of Santa Inés are located just off the Zócalo and started out as parts of the same convent complex. The museum was founded in colonial times in what was the residential portion of the convent of Santa Inés (Agnes of Rome), founded in 1600 by Don Diego Caballero and his wife Doña Inés de Velasco.
The patronage of Caballero and de Velasco was funded by their ownership of the largest sugar cane processing operation in New Spain. In colonial times, it also took in Spanish orphans who did not have a dowry. They were required to pray an hour a day for their benefactors.
The residence hall became private property, functioning mostly as tenements until artist José Luis Cuevas bought it with the intention of restoring it and establishing the current museum dedicated to his art and art of contemporary Latin America.
The order of Santa Inés was founded in 1600 by Don Diego Caballero and his wife Doña Inés de Velasco and existed until 1861, when, due to the Nationalization of Church Property Act, all convents and monasteries were disbanded. The convent was originally built to accommodate 33 nuns, equal to the number of years Christ spent on earth.
The complex suffered damage in 1624 as a result of flooding and again 15 years later due to a fire. In 1710, its single tower was built, which was tall enough to be seen from the main town plaza. Towards the end of the 18th century, its ceiling was rotten, and the church and tower were cracked. The complex was repaired under the patronage of the Marquis of La Cadena.
The convent was closed in 1861 due to the Reform Laws. The nuns were moved first to Santa Teresa La Antigua, then later to Santa Catalina de Siena. The tower was demolished, and the church and convent were separated, with the convent’s residence portion being sold into private hands due to the nationalization of Church property.
The convent and church were declared national monuments in 1932, but they remained private property as tenements until the 1980s, when the museum project began.
The entrance of the church is at 26 Moneda Street, just north-east of the main plaza of Mexico City. This church is considered to be a mix of styles between Mexican Baroque and neoclassical. It was completed in 1770. Its dome is decorated with tiles laid in a strip design and made to look like rebozos, a type of indigenous shawl.
The church has two portals, one dedicated to Saint Agnes and the other to the Apostle James. The wooden doors of this church are carved with reliefs. Some of these depict the life of Saint Agnes and others show images of the nuns of the convent with their benefactors, Don Diego Caballero and Doña Inés de Velasco. One scene depicts the Apostle James just after he is martyred by decapitation. One other shows Santiago Matamoros, a saint connected with the expulsion of the Moors from Spain. Mexican painters Miguel Cabrera and José de Ibarra are interned in the church’s altar.
By the late 1970s, artist José Luis Cuevas had gathered a large collection of modern art by Latin American artists with the aim of establishing a museum in his name. The collection was kept in the storage facilities of the Carrillo Gil Museum as Cuevas looked for a suitable location to display it.
Having been born in the heart of Mexico City, Cuevas wanted the museum to be located there. After deciding upon the old convent building and relocating the tenants that lived there in 1983, Cuevas, along with government agencies and private supporters set to restore the building and perform archaeological work, which revealed many of the older constructions of the convent.
The refurbishment was completed in 1988, and the museum opened on 8 July 1992. While it was mostly restored to its colonial appearance, Cuevas had the courtyard roofed with a plastic dome to have something contrary and modern. The entrance to the museum is located at 13 Academia Street, around the corner from the Santa Inés Church.
The convent’s patio is dominated by a tall bronze sculpture called “La Giganta” (The Female Giant). Cuevas himself created this statue for this particular space. The statue is 8 metres tall and weighs 8 tonnes. The principal exhibition rooms contain Cuevas’ own works, including one room dedicated to his and his wife’s (Bertha Cuevas) work and a Pablo Picasso room, displaying a collection of Cuevas’ drawings. The collection of the museum comprises Mexican artists such as Francisco Toledo, Juan Soriano, Vicente Rojo Almazán, Manuel Felguérez, Arnold Belkin, Gabriel Macotela, as well as some foreign artists such as Roberto Matta, Fernando de Szys-Varo, Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo.