Ya Era Tiempo: Chicano Art at the Museum of Latin American Art
A new exhibition has opened at the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, California. And it signals a shift in the longstanding vision and practice of the museum. When the museum opened nearly 20 years ago, its focus was on contemporary works by artists living in Latin America – to the exclusion of Latino artists from the United States. Al fin, That is changing.
Ya era tiempo.
In its 20-year history MOLAA has, without question, presented some excellent exhibitions and related events. Exhibitions of works by Frida Kahlo and Manuel Alvarez Bravo, for example. The museum is indisputably a treasure in Southern California. But it’s always forced my appreciation for it to be just a bit restrained. Why no homegrown Chicano or Latino art in its galleries? What’s up with that?
But things are changing. Ya era tiempo. The powers that be at the museum have shifted the focus of the “mission” to now include Chicano and Latino art from the United States. And the first exhibition to be mounted since that changed policy is up now at the Museum of Latin American Art.
The exhibition has the slightly whimsical name of “Somewhere Over el Arco Iris.” It’s a mini rainbow of Chicano art from the last 40 years. That’s how long it’s been since the Chicano Movement first flowered. The exhibition is unique in the history of the Museum of Latin American Art in that it is the first consciously all-Chicano exhibition at MOLAA. And all of the artists featured in the exhibition are from Southern California. Walking through the gallery recently, Exhibitions Curator Edward Hayes explained to me that most of the 25 pieces in the show are landscapes – cityscapes, really – by some of the most respected Chicano artists in this country. Individuals such as Frank Romero, John Valadez and the quixotic, wildly inventive L-A artist who calls himself Gronk.
“You’ll see a wide range of techniques and styles. Everything is from the last 40 years, so it’s a wide variety of work,” says Hayes. He goes on to describe some of the pieces that are in the exhibition of Chicano art, which runs through November 15, 2015: “It’s impossible to include everything under the sun – or over the arco iris –because there’s been so much that’s been created in the last 40 years by Chicano artists. For example, you have Chicano art that’s more conceptual. You have art that’s figurative. I mean Chicano art is a frame – it’s a frame through which you look at the art. It may be a specific term, but each artist deals with that idea of identification in their own way.”
Hayes, who is relatively new to the museum, tells me Chicano art will be an important part of MOLAA’s future. “This is MOLAA’s first all-Southern California, all-Chicano exhibition. There are artists represented here who began work in the sixties and who are very invested in what’s going on in their communities, what’s going on the terms of the labor rights struggles and the way ‘Hispanics’ or Latinos are represented in the culture.” Hayes continues, “So, what I think is important in this exhibition is that it’s about self-identification, and that it’s just the beginning of what’s to come at the museum.”
Exhibitions Curator Edward Hayes – and others who represent the Museum of Latin American Art – explained to me recently that this exhibition is a hint of what’s to come, as far as participation by Chicano artists is concerned. This process that’s underway is a result of action taken by the board of directors of the museum last year. The museum has expanded its goals to include homegrown Latino artists – not just artists from Latin America.
Those who make policy decisions for the museum were persuaded, in part, because of the perseverance and tenacity of Armando Duron, a noted collector of Chicano art. He – and other Chicanos – challenged the board of directors over its exclusion of art by United States-based Chicano/Latino artists. Duron made presentations before the board and helped convince them that inclusion of Chicano art was essential. For a variety of reasons, the board of directors agreed to shift it’s emphasis, while not changing a word of its formal “mission statement.”
Says Exhibitions Curator Edward Hayes: “And I think that for the Museum of Latin American Art – 19 years into its existence — might be a little late, but it’s happening now and we’re very excited about that.” He continued: “We’re also excited that this is being done in conjunction with Julian Bermudez who is an independent curator here in L-A and he knows many of these artists very well and uh – someone who we though could tell a good story. And he helped kick this off for us. And tell a good story about the last 40 years of Chicano art – through so many things.”
Julian Bermudez, someone quite knowledgeable about California artists, was brought aboard as the guest curator for the “Somewhere Over el Arco Iris” exhibition of Chicano art at the Museum of Latin American Art. He tells me the immediate challenge was selecting which artists would be represented. It proved to be a rather daunting task, because of the limits of the gallery space available to him.
“I wanted to show as many artists as I could in the space I was given,” he says. “There are so many artists. So, what does one do? Well, you look at the works of Chicanos over the span of 40 years and say: Who really did some – I don’t want to say seminal works – but who really stands out who creates these ‘pings’ in the timeline?” In a conversation with me at MOLAA, Bermudez added, “And, of course, you have to have some guys like Los Four and Carlos Almaraz. But then there’s also these young people like José Ramirez and Yolanda Gonzalez and it’s interesting to see how these artists fit in the timeline, because they kind of shift the paradigm of what Chicano art is supposed to be – its definition.”
The president and C-E-O of the museum sat down for a conversation with me about the new, inclusive policy. Stuart Ashman explains that the museum’s founder – the late Robert Gumbiner – had the “most honorable intentions” when he established the museum’s mission: to celebrate the art of Latin American. He consciously did not include the realm of art by Chicanos or Latinos in the United States. But it wasn’t through any desire to “exclude” any community, says Ashman. But in hindsight, it was an oversight, he concedes.
“Yes, that’s right. And so and it’s a hugely missed opportunity. I came from New Mexico and there in the museums it was important to include the community. And Santa Fe has a big artistic community. And Los Angeles has a huge artistic community, many of whom are Latinos, Chicanos – however you want to define that. In New Mexico they call themselves Hispanos. And so, whatever that definition is, it just broadened our opportunities.” Ashman headed New Mexico’s state cultural affairs department before he accepted the challenge of leading the Museum of Latin American Art.
Ashman explains that the board of directors didn’t fundamentally change its mission, it just shifted its emphasis in order to be more inclusive. “And so we’ve corrected that,” he says. “So, in the future years we’ll have programs with important Chicano artists.” For example, a big Frank Romero retrospective is in the planning stages.
Ya era tiempo.
Those who run MOLAA say the “Arco Iris” exhibition now at the Museum of Latin American Art is just the beginning. “That’s true,” says CEO Ashman. “The Arco Iris exhibit is a small sampling. It’s a cameo exhibit of what’s possible. But I think it will be important because for the first time we will have these artists come here to see their own works here. This is really their museum. There’s nothing else. Yes, you can have a show at LACMA, but that’s general. That’s just artists. You’re an artist, but you’re also a Chicano or Latino artist. It feels more like ‘home’ to them.”
Luís Torres is a veteran journalist and the author of “Doña Julia’s Children.” He teaches at Los Angeles Mission College. Art photos and photos of MOLAA courtesy of MOLAA. Photos of José
Ramirez and Frank Romero copyrighted by Barrio Dog Productions, Inc.