How We Got Here

The exclusion of local artists is faulted as the Latino Museum's problems, according to art collector

By Armando Dur?n
Published on LatinoLA: October 5, 2000

How We Got Here

From the Los Angeles Times, Thursday, September 28, 2000 - Gov. Gray Davis has vetoed legislation freeing up $1.6 million for the debt-ridden Latino Museum of History, Art and Culture in downtown L.A. The bill, sponsored by Assemblyman Martin Gallegos (D-Baldwin Park), would have reallocated the money for operational expenses instead of the originally intended educational and capital uses. In vetoing the bill, Davis said the measure would have set "an unacceptable precedent by allowing dollars specifically allocated for one purpose to now be used [for] museum operations." Museum officials were counting on the money to pay off several hundred thousand dollars owed to employees and creditors.
I have been following the discussion on the fate and future of the Latino Museum on Aztlannet.net? Mental Menudo list-serve http://www.egroups.com/group/AztlanNet and I thought it might be helpful to point out the following.
Any discussion on the fate and future of the museum must include a discussion of how we got here. As I understand it, the idea of a "Latino museum" took off when Dr. Antonio Rios-Bustamante first organized the Hispanic Olympians exhibition in 1984 at the Pico House. At the opening of the exhibition he proposed that a Latino museum be founded. He obtained the initial funding to develop the idea, including state funding via legislation sponsored by then-State Senator Charles Calderon.
Dr. Bustamante left California and the project floundered for several years. About 1990, funding was obtained to conduct focus groups on what kind of a museum was desirable. I was on one of those focus groups. It seemed to me at the time that the idea of a "Latino Museum of Art, History and Culture" to include the artistic, historical and cultural accomplishments of peoples from Utah to Tierra del Fuego over the course of at least the last 500 years was far more than the resources that this little venture could sustain.
Six years had passed since Dr. Bustamante had first raised the idea and it hadn't progressed very much. Many of us felt that without the expansion of the board, the support of the Chicano arts community and a place from which to begin to show some art, the museum would not succeed.
No passion for Chicano art
While the board included many prominent individuals, many of whom I knew, I was also struck at the time by the failure to include artists and Chicano art supporters. Not one person on the board at the time, or since, to my knowledge has any real knowledge or passion for Chicano art. If memory serves me correct only one had ever served on a Latino arts board previously (Mike Hernandez had served on Plaza's board). No well-intentioned effort can blossom without passionate people, especially when dealing with the arts in this city, and especially when dealing in Latino arts. You need more than prominent names. No one on the board to my recollection was sufficiently interested in Latino art to attend on a regular basis the various events that occur year around.
These shortcomings were coupled by a profound ignorance of the history of the struggle for Mexican and Chicano art in this city. There is, I contend, a great fear of the emergence of the recognition of Mexican and Chicano art, history and culture.
Again, a little history:
In 1906, Mrs. Antonio Coronel donated to the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce several hundred objects, including paintings, historical documents, pre-Columbian pieces and mission days artifacts. The collection was first shown in an exhibition room at the Chamber of Commerce building. Some time later the collection became part of the Natural History Museum collection, where some items from the collection are on display today in the history section downstairs. If you ever went on a field trip (usually in the fourth grade) to the museum you saw items from this collection. But they are not identified as coming from that first collection and there is no mention anywhere of this most important event.
Imagine what our cultural history would be like today if that collection would have formed the beginning of an art, history and culture museum that generations of Chicanos would have grown up seeing and being proud of!
Olvera Street suffering similar fate
The same sort of fate has befallen a long-suffering Mexican cultural landmark, Olvera Street. For over thirty years there has been a struggle for the cultural identity of Olvera Street. Various forces have contended for the right to control and therefore determine the "face" that the birthplace of Los Angeles will show the world as well as the Californios, Mexicanos and Chicanos who come to it.
The various forces can be divided into three main groups:
The first is the entrenched bureaucrats that run the El Pueblo Park. Their current solution is to dissipate the Mexican influence by going multi-cultural. (If you knew what kind of racists these people really are, youd think this a joke). So they convinced the Chinese-American community that the park would be a wonderful place for a Chinese museum. (The Chinese Museum will open soon.) They also pointed out that many of the pobladores were actually of African descent. That is an historical fact, but it was used to pit the Afro-American community against the Chicano community in this long struggle.
The second group is composed of those who simply want to commercialize the park as much as possible with no concern for its historical or cultural significance. The third group is composed of the Olvera Street Merchants Association and its supporters. This group wants the Mexican influence to be the focus of Olvera Street.
So far, the bureaucrats are winning. But again, imagine the pride, the sense of place that our youth would have if Olvera Street was also seen as a cultural landmark, something that gave them the feeling that their culture counts.
LA not lacking in multi-cultural institutions
It is against this background that the Latino Museum wanders into existence. That the Pico House has recently been offered to the Museum is a far cry from the struggle that took place, and was lost, to try and secure that building for the Museum in the 1980s. (By the way, that was the site of the 1984 exhibition.) In the meantime, not only is the Chinese American Museum opening soon, the beautiful Japanese American National Museum opened last year, and the California African American Museum, the Skirball Cultural Center, the Korean Cultural Center and the Museum of Tolerance all continue to thrive. Meanwhile, the Latino Museum is has no collection to speak of, has no real community support and is all but bankrupt.
The lack of understanding of how to secure arts funding, the lack of connection to the Chicano arts community and the various false starts have all contributed to the end result. The funding that has been secured has been squandered. Up to twelve people were employed even through periods when no exhibitions were mounted.
The goodwill of the Chicano arts community has also been eroded by a profound insensitivity. I could not imagine for example what compelled the museum two years ago to announce its grand opening with a show of the work of Paul Sierra, a Cuban-American artist from Chicago. As if we had no local talent in Los Angeles worthy of the honor to open the museum. And then they wonder why the Chicano arts community hasn? been supportive.
That the museum has continued to receive the public funding it has is more a function of the detachment of the politicos who have sponsored them, because if they knew that this museum is alternately a disappointment and a joke in all its aspects to those of us who know what? been going on there, they would not have stuck their necks out for this sinking ship.
Yet there is a lot of goodwill that can be tapped for a worthy cause. In 1991, the Artes the Mexico Festival raised a little more than $100,000 and spent about $500,000. How was this done? Through in-kind contributions from "corporate" Chicanos who got things printed and mailed for us, artists who donated their art and time, florists and restaurants, collectors, community groups, politicos and many others.
I believe that the Chicano community would again respond if approached by people they know to be honest and forthright about the goal of establishing a true museum that they can be proud of. True, other cultural institutions have begun to take up the slack. Some will argue that a Latino Museum is an anachronism in the 21st Century. (I would expect Gregory Rodriguez among others to chime in with this argument.)
Continued interest in Chicano art brings hope
Self-Help Graphics continues to showcase new artists and Plaza's Boathouse Gallery recently reopened. And SPARC is highlighting four veteran Chicano artists this year. LACMA is organizing an exhibition entitled "Return to Aztlan" for next year. The Santa Monica Museum is currently showing "East of the River: Chicano Art Collectors Anonymous" and even MOCA has shown a series of Latin American artists in the past three years.
But the current "East of the River" exhibition is an object lesson in how long it takes to mount a major exhibition with a Chicano point of view. Without going into another long history, the idea was first conceived in 1993.
That's why we need a major space to preserve, exhibit and decipher our art, history and culture.
In short, I hope that as you contemplate your approach to the Museum, you keep in mind the mistakes that were made by previous efforts as well as the impact your efforts will have on generations to come. Not only is a new board needed, a new director and a new direction are needed. The board needs to be broad based. The mission and goals of the museum need to be clear and reachable.
The Chicano arts community needs to be invited to give the museum another chance. People need to commit to a long-term effort, not just one meeting, or press conference. And all must work hard to see that from this pile of ashes, a cultural landmark our grandchildren can be proud of can [emerge and] be this Chicano generation? lasting legacy.
Originally published on AztlanNet's Mental Menudo Lista. Subcribe at http://www.aztlannet.com

About Armando Dur?n:

Armando Duron has been collecting Chicano art of Los Angeles for twenty years.

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