Chicano Artists Need Not Apply

The Museum of Latin American Art (MOLAA) in Long Beach, California, is celebrating its grand reopening with a month long series of events that focus on Latino culture. Agustin Gurza of the Los Angeles Times wrote about the new MOLAA in his article, Latin American Art museum reopens with new look, attitude, but regrettably Gurza’s revealing dialog with MOLAA’s executive director Gregorio Luke, divulges not a new attitude – but the same old one. The Latin American Art museum still maintains a protracted refusal to exhibit or otherwise collaborate with Chicano/Mexican American artists.

Mr. Gurza’s article is peppered with accolades for MOLAA and Luke, who was the former cultural attaché for the Mexican Embassy in Washington, D.C. Gurza writes: “You could call MOLAA the little museum that could, totally upstaging the massive metropolis to the north. It’s almost a scandal that L.A. has no comparable Latino-themed museum — not yet anyway.” The unnamed institution Gurza refers to is the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), which has had an abysmal track record when it comes to exhibiting works by Chicano/Latino artists – but to say it’s “almost a scandal” that L.A.’s galleries and museums ignore Chicano/Latino artists is the understatement of the year.

Having long been intimately involved with L.A.’s Chicano art circles, I can personally attest to the hurt, confusion, feelings of dejection, indignation and outright anger expressed by Mexican American artists over MOLAA’s unshakable insistence on exclusively showing only Latino artists from south of the U.S.-Mexican border – as if Latino artists born within the borders of the U.S. were completely invisible and irrelevant. It is one thing to have mainstream cultural institutions in the U.S. ignore the indigenous Chicano arts movement and artists of Latin American heritage – but it is quite another to be totally disregarded by an institution claiming to speak for Latin American artists.

MOLAA’s unjustifiable stance is a slap in the face to the many talented Chicano and Latino artists who for decades have struggled within the United States to maintain and expand a distinctive cultural heritage and set of unique aesthetics. The Chicano school of art for one, is well established and recognized internationally, and it’s high time for MOLAA to acknowledge the movement as having a well deserved place in the wider family of Latin American artists.

In a March 25th, 2007 article for the New York Times titled, The Art’s Here, Where’s the Crowd?, Edward Wyatt examined Los Angeles as “the nation’s second art capital,” and he scrutinized the big players who pull the strings, particularly Eli Broad and his backing of LACMA:

“Mr. Broad (whose name rhymes with road) has generated a fair amount of resentment in some corners here for his outsized presence on the art scene. His devotion to the downtown projects have been criticized as ignoring pockets of the city that have less access to the arts, like the largely Hispanic sections of East Los Angeles and the areas south of downtown that have large African-American populations.”

It is no exaggeration to say that Chicano and Latino artists have come to expect being overlooked by the likes of Broad, LACMA – and now MOLAA. But the cultural gulf widened significantly when news spread that the new Museo Alameda Smithsonian (or MAS, “More” in Spanish) officially opened its doors on April 12th, 2007, in San Antonio, Texas. The question arises – If there is a mainstream museum dedicated to Chicano/Latino art in Texas, why is there no similar arts institution in California with its enormous Chicano/Latino population and vibrant Chicano/Latino arts community?

Gurza’s L.A. Times article quotes Gregorio Luke as saying: “I used to think only in terms of Mexico and Mexican culture, but for me, these years at MOLAA have suddenly made me appreciate the art of Peru and Ecuador, the music of Brazil, the pupusas of El Salvador and the mate of Argentina. I think the museum is going to be able to inspire this expanded sense of identity for everybody that comes to it.” But the MOLAA director’s alleged “vision of a pan-Latin American culture that crosses national boundaries” inexplicably stops short of embracing those Latinos who happen to live within the United States. Gregorio Luke takes the deplorable posture of extending consideration to Mexican artists, while absolutely denying any attention to their gifted Mexican American counterparts.

Gurza’s article makes a single oblique remark concerning MOLAA’s graceless and blinkered policy, “One important element is missing from the artistic mission of MOLAA – the art made in its own backyard.” As long as that observation remains true, the Museum of Latin American Art will remain a stunted and unfulfilled institution in contention with America’s Latino population.

UPDATE: The Museo Alameda Smithsonian closed its doors in Sept. of 2012 due to financial difficulties.

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