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In Mexico City, the richest man in the world has just opened a new museum to showcase his extensive collection of Mexican and European art. Telecommunications magnate Carlos Slim calls the museum a gift to his country. The glimmering building is already being hailed as a new landmark in Mexicos capital.

But as NPRs Jason Beaubien reports, its also being criticized by some as the pet project of a man who knows more about commerce than art.

JASON BEAUBIEN: Carlos Slims new Soumaya Museum is a windowless, metallic, six-story structure, shaped like a surrealist hour-glass. Local critics have compared the building, which was designed by Slims son-in-law, to Frank Gehry's Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain. It shimmers like the Guggenheim but its crammed in to one of Slims commercial real estate developments next to a shopping mall, an office tower for Slims cellphone company and blocks of new condominiums.

Inside a bronze cast of Rodins "The Thinker" dominates the open, airy lobby. Theres also a colorful mural by Diego Rivera pointing towards the bathrooms.

Mr. ALFONSO MIRANDA MARQUEZ (Director, Soumaya Museum): This is the last mural of Diego Rivera.

BEAUBIEN: Alfonso Miranda Marquez is the director of the Soumaya Museum. The museum is named for Slims late wife Soumaya who died in 1999. Slims collection of more than 65,000 pieces is dominated by European artists including, El Greco, Van Gogh, Matisse, Degas, Picasso.

Mr. MARQUEZ: This is for the impressionists and its very difficult to see these artists in Latin America. Its impossible to travel here, and be so close for Edouard Manet or for Renoir; this is also one of the highlights in our collection.

BEAUBIEN: Theres an entire section for religious art. A Mexican portrait of the Virgin of Guadalupe hangs next to a Spanish painting of the Virgin of Toledo. Miranda says his goal is for the museum to become a cultural icon in Mexico City and present a different side of the capital.

Mr. MARQUEZ: Okay, we have problems of pollution, we have problems of violence, but you see here, there are people living and enjoying art. We are not afraid under the bed, you know, that this is a part of culture and, you know, for Mexico, for Latin America.

BEAUBIEN: But there is some criticism that rather than representing an artistic step forward for Latin America, the museum commissioned by the richest man on the planet, instead represents part of whats wrong with the region.

Slim amassed much of his fortune after gaining control of the Mexican telephone monopoly when it was privatized in 1990. In April, Slims Telcel mobile phone company was slapped with a $1 billion fine by Mexicos anti-trust commission, the largest fine ever handed down by the agency. Telcel is appealing the matter.

James Oles, a professor of art history at Wellesley College and an expert on Mexican art, visited the Soumaya Museum last month just after it opened. He says things are displayed in the galleries simply because Slim owns them, not necessarily because theyre great works of art. For instance, theres a large bronze cast of Michelangelos Pieta on the stairs from the lobby leading up to the second level.

Professor JAMES OLES (Art History, Wellesley College): Michelangelos Pieta is a white marble sculpture. Its unclear to me why anybody would want a bronze version of it. And why you would display such a thing in an art museum, since it is neither a Michelangelo nor a close approximation of the Michelangelo.

BEAUBIEN: Oles says Slim has some fine art but he says much of Slims collection is made up of minor and mediocre pieces by big name artists. As an art collector, Slim has the same reputation that hes had in business - that hes always hunting for a bargain.

Prof. OLES: You know, hes one of the few people in the world that could actually afford great, great art at the cost of great art. I will tell you, there are many paintings and works of art hanging in the Soumaya Museum that I could afford on my professorial salary.

BEAUBIEN: He says the opportunity for Mexico to get a new art museum that rivals the best in the world, in his opinion, has been lost. While the Soumaya Museum has drawn criticism from some in the art world, its been extremely popular with ordinary Mexicans. Admission is free. And tens of thousands of people have flowed through the museums doors in the weeks since it opened.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Mexico City.

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