A Museum Comes of Age

Mexic-Arte Museum

Traditionally, in Mexico,when a señorita becomes 15, or quince años, she is considered "of age" and presented to the community in elaborate religious ceremonies and receptions. She has 14 maids and escorts and, of course, the prerequisite padrinos -- or sponsors -- for everything from seemingly insignificant details, like the young girl's shoes, to important decisions, like hiring the mariachis.

This month marks the 15th anniversary of Mexic-Arte Museum -- her quinceañera. And as with traditional quinceañeras, this one is an indicator of big changes ahead.

The brainchild of Sylvia Orozco and her ex-husband, Mexican artist Pio Pulido, Mexic-Arte has survived divorces, economic busts, and art wars. What began with a board consisting of only Orozco, Pulido, and visual artist Sam Coronado has expanded over the years to include 20 members who have guided the museum to a position as a highly visible and valuable venue for Latino artists and as a leading institution in the Austin arts scene.

For several years now, Mexic-Arte has sought to establish a permanent facility for itself, but recently that quest has hit a critical juncture. The downtown location that the museum has rented on a monthly basis for 11 years is situated on one of the last downtown blocks to be developed. Potential investors have been eyeing it hungrily, and Mexic-Arte has increasingly felt the danger of losing its coveted corner on Fifth & Congress. For the past year, Orozco and company have been working toward acquiring the property. Then last month, Civetas Investments announced plans to build a $99 million, 27-story retail and office building at Fourth & Congress. A planned entryway, connecting the old building with the new structure, would open directly into the bottom floor of the museum, thereby increasing foot traffic.

After losing a bid to be placed on last year's bond package, the Austin City Council made a commitment to help Mexic-Arte. It granted monies for a feasibility study for purchasing the facility. "The [city is] assisting many art institutions through bond money, technical assistance, or cultural contracts." says Orozco. "We're at a point in time when the city is consciously building a better city for everyone -- with all these cultural centers and institutions. This is the best City Council; they're all visionaries and care about the arts. They're taking a chance, but a wise chance because they know it's a good investment and are making sure that it's good for the people."

On June 3, Mexic-Arte had two items on the City Council agenda: one for the purchase of the building and the other for a contract to lease the building to the museum on a long-term basis. The items called for an amendment to the General Operating Fund budget by appropriating $2 million for the building purchase. Both items were sponsored by Mayor Kirk Watson and Council Member Gus Garcia and had the general support of the council, but things got stalled. Some council members questioned purchasing a building that has an estimated appraisal value of less than $500,000. Initially, there was a July 14 deadline to close on the deal, but when things didn't pan out, the deadline was abandoned.

Fortunately for Mexic-Arte, the president of the firm building at Fourth & Congress, Civetas Investments' Will Wynn, is a big fan of the museum. He and his partners continue to work on a transaction that will allow Mexic-Arte to remain at Fifth & Congress.

"We've stepped back from the actual proposal that was in front of council last month," says Wynn. "We're now working on several fronts to come up with a new transaction that works for everybody: the city, Mexic-Arte, and us. Right now it's sort of a three-legged stool. I'm really encouraged that everyone involved is showing a lot of flexibility." That flexibility has given Wynn numerous options on the development rights of the high-rise. The final structure could be built over the museum or designed around it. "We can put those development rights, that square footage, anywhere on the site that we want, within reason. So now it's a matter of choosing where on the site that square footage goes."

According to Joe Canales of the city manager's office, the initial price tag of $2 million has also been relaxed, being used instead as a "working figure." "It's been much more flexible," explains Canales. "It's still very much in the air." So far, no one, including Canales, will go on record with a specific dollar figure to which the city will commit.

One factor coming into play is the age of the building, which was built in the late 1800s. It cannot be easily torn down because of potential intervention from the Texas Historical Commission. Again, Canales could not get into specifics. However, the building's age contributes to another big money issue facing the Mexic-Arte expansion project: the cost of the extensive renovation required to bring the upper floors of the building up to safety codes. When Mexic-Arte first moved into the building, the upper floors were used by the museum and renters for performances and exhibits. Then the city declared them unstable. Mexic-Arte would require another $2 million for renovation. That, combined with the purchase price, was putting the cost of the facility at around $181 per square foot -- a little steep compared to downtown's current average of $150 per square foot.

This situation also creates a bit of a Catch-22. To secure major donors to fund the renovation, it is important for the museum to be permanent. But Mexic-Arte's permanence in the current building won't be secure unless it can fund the renovation. The difficulty in securing donors has led Mexic-Arte to retain the services of philanthropic consultants Dini Partners. The results so far have been positive. Recently, a private reception was hosted by Joe and Teresa Lozano Long (the folks behind the $25 million gift for the Palmer Auditorium renovation) so that prominent members of the Latino community could meet and network with the museum in its bid for funds. Rumor has it that certain donors may simply step forward and donate the entire purchase price for the building. "Ultimately, [Mexic-Arte] would like to own the building," says Canales. "That's one option they had asked for: help with the purchase until they could get off the ground and acquire funds. But we still don't have a final proposal to work with."

Mexic-Arte began as a tiny 300-square-foot studio/gallery in the former Arts Warehouse on Third & San Antonio streets. It was there that Orozco and Pulido started their legendary "Day of the Dead" celebrations, which took the arts community by storm. Even then, they planned big, with events spilling out of the gallery and filling the rest of the warehouse. After three years, that lease was up, and the search for another location was on. One day, while riding the bus downtown, they noticed the abandoned four-story building at Fifth & Congress. "All I remember is the yellow sign in the window," says Orozco, remembering their hesitations. "'Do we dare call? It's a big building!'" The building, which previously housed Barker's Office Furniture, among other things, had 25,000 square feet -- initially a bit overwhelming for the young artists. "'All we can do is ask,' we thought, so we asked," Orozco remembers. The owner warmed to their idea and Mexic-Arte had a new home.

Though the building was badly in need of a facelift, Orozco and Pulido remained undaunted; they saw past the dust and clutter. With countless volunteers, they spent many, many hours cleaning, painting, building, and turning the historic structure into viable gallery space and a gift shop. Many of the volunteers were Latino artists who rallied around the prospect of having a large venue downtown in which they could exhibit.

"As artists, when you see something, you visualize it [completely]," says Orozco. "You see potential. It's like when you paint: It starts as a blank canvas. That's what [the building] was when we walked in here, a blank canvas. There was old green carpet, muddy yellow walls, dark paneling, old furniture scattered, low ceilings -- things from probably the 1950s or Forties, layers of the businesses that had been here. When we pulled up the linoleum in the gift store, 20 volunteers came and helped us. The glue was so old underneath that we [needed only] vinegar and water to take it off."

And the museum has been growing ever since. From the simple premise on which it was founded -- to present and promote traditional and contemporary Mexican, Latino, and Latin American art and culture -- Mexic-Arte has gone on to establish relationships with the Mexican Consulate General of Mexico in Austin and the Diego Rivera Studio Museum in Mexico City. By bringing exhibitions from Mexico to Austin and sending these shows to other institutions for exhibition, Mexic-Arte has become an important conduit of art and energy from Mexico -- the only museum in Texas to do this, except for the Mexican Institute in San Antonio.

Currently the museum rotates about eight exhibits a year, showcasing emerging and adventurous artists, as well as masters. For a small museum, they have managed to bring in some major Latino talent, such as David Medala, Malaquias Montoya, Carmen Lomas Garza, Patrick Vilaire, and Adolfo Mexiac -- fine artists who would possibly not have exhibited in Austin were it not for Mexic-Arte. Two of the artists who have shown are MacArthur Fellows: Amalia Meza Baines, who creates works from furniture and found objects, and Guillermo Gomez-Peña, a performance artist. "We don't have the best facilities compared to a larger museum," says Orozco. "But we do the best we can. Artists always want to work with us, not only because they're willing to show here -- and we have shown some incredible, well-known artists -- but because they want to be in contact with the kind of audience that we have."

Some 50,000 to 75,000 visitors walk through Mexic-Arte's doors every year to view the exhibits and participate in workshops held at the gallery. Many of these visitors include schoolchildren. The museum's lively educational programs encourage the children's interaction. Mexic-Arte has taken this mission to heart: By exposing minority children to their culture and art, aspects of their lives are validated on museum walls. The hope is that this connection inspires them, in turn, to create.

The museum's permanent collection includes more than 30 wooden masks from Guerrero, Mexico, a library of more than 4,000 books on Latin American art and culture (most donated by the Consulate General of Mexico), photographs of the Mexican Revolution by Agustín Casasola, prints from the Taller de la Gráfica Popular in Mexico City, and photographs of early Mexican-American families who settled in Central Texas.

Mexic-Arte also serves as an umbrella organization to approximately 20 individual artists and groups funded through the city Arts Commission's Cultural Contracts Office. Aside from providing this umbrella service, the museum acts as a mentor, as well. "We share our resources, and many organizations have developed here," says Orozco. "They use our space, our library, our photocopier. We share what little we have because we support artists. If people need help, we let them use our facilities. We do our best or we refer them outside. I think that we have been able to gather community support because of this. We wouldn't be here without the artists."

The Seventies and Eighties saw a growth spurt of Latino institutions in the U.S. Four Latino museums were created nationwide: the Mexican Museum in San Francisco, the Mexican Fine Arts Center in Chicago, El Museo Del Barrio in New York City, and Mexic-Arte here in Austin. Now as the Latino population grows toward becoming the largest minority in the U.S., a new group of Latino cultural centers are developing. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, the $17 million Hispanic Foundation for the Arts is opening, and this spring, the Dallas Latino Arts Center began a fundraising campaign to build its facility.

Art centers like these have the best chance of thriving downtown, because art is central to the life of a city. The vitality and potential of a downtown, the energy of having business and cultural activities in the center of town, creates a hub that the city may revolve around. For Orozco, being downtown was part of the museum's destiny. "We were meant to be here," she explains. And she is not the only one to recognize the significance of this opportunity. "The board, staff, volunteers -- everyone [understands] the importance and has embraced it."

"Our institution is in the middle of downtown, which the council wants to develop to its full potential," says Jorge Sedeño, president of Mexic-Arte's Board. "It's a place to come to, for people to live and enjoy the cultural arts; that's why it's so important for us to be here ... If we start physically tearing down our institutions, what is this community going to look like? This is about preserving a piece of our culture, about giving back to our community. Mexic-Arte may or may not be here, but this corner will remain for the use of citizens. And what better use than the tenants who are here? We give back to this community tenfold of what we get. We do so much for so little."

When Mexic-Arte artists or volunteers walk into the museum, many of them can say, "I helped put up that light" or "I painted that wall." With every sweep of the broom or rearrangement of a wall, with every show, there flowed a little more money to improve the facility, to paint a wall or put up new lights. But gone are the days of a little paint and new lights. Now, Mexic-Arte is ready to take full advantage of the rest of the 18,000 square feet of space it currently uses for storage. Floor plans have been designed, showing a venue that will break the existing space into new galleries, an expanded gift shop and cafe, performance area, classrooms, and offices. These blueprints are complemented by new business and strategic plans to be implemented by the museum even before the launch of the capital campaign to fund its renovations.

As Austin grows, so grows its diversity; the university, computer industry, music industry, and film industry keep the development of arts and culture in line with our town's physical growth. As our Latino community continues to emerge and become an even more vital part of the city, Mexic-Arte will continue to provide a prominent central presence, symbolically and physically.

Now Mexic-Arte has come of age. With her quinceañera, she is ready to step on to center stage and be una grande, where all her hard work has placed her, ready for the next level of achievement, to be a major player in the future art scene of Austin, the state, and even the nation.

And oh, yes, having her own building would make a nice birthday present, too.

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