A Claimed Space
Mexic-Arte blazed a trail in Texas by making a place for Mexican culture in a museum
– Peter Turchi, Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer, 2004
You can tell what a person values by the things they keep. A lock of hair, a lucky coin, old photos, newspaper clippings. The crumpled message from a fortune cookie, a vinyl record collection, love letters, birth certificates, comic books. Ceramic ducks, artwork created from all possible media. Whatever the item, it has meaning to the collector – and often to the person who happens upon those items, much later, either by chance or intent. The passage of time, it seems, turns the former "thing" into an "artifact." (How would a caveman react to seeing his everyday tools meticulously displayed under glass?) But it's more than time that gives things relevance. It's the deliberate decision that certain things are of enduring value.
Museums "represent history, culture, and knowledge and are trusted sources of relevant, valuable information," according to the American Association of Museums, a national advocacy organization for large and small institutions. The declaration comes from the description of its 2010 conference, Museums Without Borders, and continues: Museums "are dynamic manifestations of societal views and communities. ... [They help] visitors of all ages ... better understand one another."
Few would disagree about the value of museums. Yet there's one important question that often goes unaddressed: Who decides what is of "enduring value"? If, to reconstitute Turchi's quote above, museums are defined by what they include in their collections, what is revealed by what they exclude?
The call to value, treasure, examine, and keep starts with the claiming of space. For artists Sylvia Orozco, Pio Pulido, and Sam Coronado, the 300 square feet they claimed in 1984 to house Galería Mexico, the first incarnation of Mexic-Arte, in the former Arts Warehouse at 300 San Antonio, must have seemed quaint if not outright foolhardy to the more traditional institutions. But that first, modest footprint, that first claiming of space in a city that had never before celebrated such festivals as Día de los Muertos (now one of Mexic-Arte's biggest, grandest public events) was an important gesture in identifying what was missing in other museum spaces in Austin and Central Texas and declaring, "Mexican and Mexican-American art and culture has value, has meaning, and must be included in the larger conversation about U.S. art and culture – if not within existing institutions, then outside of them."
"Mexic-Arte is the last of the big four Latino museums, joining El Museo del Barrio in New York (1969), the Mexican Museum of San Francisco (1975), and the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago (1987)," says Eduardo Diaz, executive director of the Smithsonian Latino Center in Washington, D.C. A Texas native, Diaz was the director of San Antonio's Office of Cultural Affairs before becoming executive director of the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque. Appointed to his position at the Smithsonian in 2008, he oversees a $2 million budget to coordinate and support programs featuring Latino arts and culture throughout the nation.
"Mexic-Arte is one of the first Latino institutions in Texas to insist on a 'first voice' cultural lens and engender cultural citizenship through the establishment of space and programs," Diaz says. "For me, this is key to what Mexic-Arte has been able to accomplish over the years. Its achievement is in continually validating our cultural experience, history, and artistic expression while serving diverse constituencies. And this reflects back to the importance of Mexic-Arte as a space from which to do this."
The value of this "first voice cultural lens" is echoed by other members of the Latino museum community and is the triumph of an old struggle: the question of who has the authority to speak for whom. A flash point of this debate occurred right here in Austin when Texas' own Américo Paredes broke down barriers at the University of Texas by arguing for and winning permission to write his doctoral dissertation about Mexican and Mexican-American cultural expression along the border (i.e., the corrido and other folk ballads). At the time, projects written by ethnic minority scholars who wanted to write about their own cultures were frowned upon as being inappropriate at best, flawed and biased at worst. Paredes' success in claiming cultural authority was only one of many struggles that occurred in the academy and was one of many precursors to the turbulent social unrest of the 1960s and 1970s but one that had an explosive, enduring impact on every facet of American life, including the arts.
As products of the Seventies, fueled by cultural pride and the desire to recover a history invisible to them in mainstream institutions, three "hippy artists" (Orozco, Pulido, Coronado) began what is now a cornerstone arts institution in Austin and undeniably a beacon on the map of Mexican and Latino-themed fine arts museums nationwide. Pulido and Coronado have since left Mexic-Arte to pursue their careers as artists, but they couldn't have left Mexic-Arte in better hands. First as administrative director and now executive director of Mexic-Arte, Orozco has painstakingly built a museum that, given the odds, should have crashed and burned long ago. Similar institutions in Austin and across the nation have come and gone while Mexic-Arte persists. Located on the corner of Fifth and Congress since 1988 (in the former Sharkey's large men's clothing store), Mexic-Arte has weathered the flip-flop in political party control of the state through five governors; two recessions; the booms and busts of the savings and loan, housing, and tech industries; and a partial condemnation. (The two upper floors were declared unsafe for public occupation without major renovations and are now used only for storage.) The museum even survived 9/11.
"That was the worst time ever," Orozco says without hesitation. "The morale of the country was horrible. No one saw any reason to focus on the arts and culture. Everyone was more concerned about public safety."
Mexic-Arte was the first museum to appear in Downtown Austin at a time when very little, besides Capital Metro buses, were prowling Congress Avenue. Because of this, the museum now has a choice location from which to view the rebirth of Downtown.
"I remember coming down here on Saturdays," Orozco explains, "when Downtown was a ghost town. Now there are people everywhere. I like that we're part of the new Downtown presence."
Present From the Beginning
Although Orozco was trained as an artist, becoming the administrator of one of the nation's flagship Mexican and Mexican-American museums is anything but a consolation prize. Orozco is puzzled when asked if she regrets not working as an artist. In fact, she left the museum for a year in 1995 to follow her love interest at the time to live and work as an artist in Hawaii. She quickly discovered that her heart was still in Austin. That, and the Mexic-Arte staff couldn't quite let her go.
"They would forget that there was a time difference and call me at all hours, asking, 'Hey Sylvia, where did you put the hammer?' After a while, it made more sense to be here and answer those questions," Orozco says in her typical deadpan manner.
Orozco's path from artist to administrator is fascinating – and, in many ways, inevitable – when one learns that she did not step into a formal museum until she was in college. As a student at UT-Austin in the mid-Seventies, Orozco was actively involved in the Chicano student movement while working alongside like-minded artists, creating art infused with the fervor of the period. After receiving her bachelor's in studio art, she was granted a five-year fellowship to attend the Master of Fine Arts program at the Academy of San Carlos of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, the oldest art school in the Americas and the same school where Diego Rivera, Dr. Atl, Rufino Tamayo, and many other notable Mexican artists studied and taught. During her years at UT and in Mexico, Orozco became a passionate student of Chicano, Mexican, and Mexican-American art and culture, partly because of what she saw in traditional museums but mostly because of what she didn't see. While she quickly learned how traditional museums worked, she was keenly aware how a museum like Mexic-Arte would have to function, not only as a place to display art but as a repository of information about Mexican art and culture.
"When I visit [artist studios, other museums, or Mexico], I look at those places in multiple ways," Orozco explains. "I look at them as an artist learning about another artist. I look at them as a gatherer. I look at them as public spaces, study the flow and the arrangement of the gallery spaces. I look at how art is reflected in home spaces, how it exists in the everyday. And then, I also look at art as an educator."
Living and studying in Mexico, Orozco voraciously collected material – an extension of a lifelong habit. As a girl, she collected everything from rocks and insects to stamps and leaves. And her predilection to collect and make things was rewarded with colorful beads that she painstakingly sewed to her Camp Fire Girl vest. The daughter of a boot-maker, Orozco spent many hours watching her father ply his craft and playing with the leather scraps.
"He would make really beautiful boots," she recalls. "I think that's ... important when a child sees a grown-up putting time into something with your hands." Her mother, Aurora Orozco (who comes to the museum with her daughter every day), was a community organizer who liked to do craft projects. "[S]he would draw and then I remember her getting the shavings of the crayons and putting them in cloth and then ironing them." Anyone who has seen Orozco at any of the Mexic-Arte fundraising events will not be surprised to hear that she designed and created elegant fashion gowns for her Barbie dolls out of found material and leftover scraps from the handmade clothes that her mother made for her and her sisters. "Nobody else wanted to wear the homemade dresses but I liked them," Orozco told Cary Cordova in a 2004 interview for the Smithsonian's Recuerdos Orales project.
Today, her natural hoarding instinct and her appreciation for beautiful things, fine and folk, made by artists and artisans alike, has filled the closed floors of Mexic-Arte with art, ephemera, books, recordings, catalogs, newspapers – anything she could get her hands on to support the museum's mission to reveal the beauty, depth, and especially the history of Mexican and Mexican-American art and culture.
The first official Mexic-Arte exhibit featured works that Orozco and Pulido, who at the time were married, had gathered from Mexico's Taller de la Grafica Popular (founded in 1937). With those works, they began to establish something very important to any museum: a permanent collection, the foundation by which a museum defines itself.
Frequent trips to Mexico and Mexico City allowed them to acquire more work for Mexic-Arte, and in the process, they built relationships with "artists, artisans, art historians, collectors, and enthusiasts" who were excited by "our plans to promote Mexican art in Texas," wrote Orozco. Notable acquisitions included "important prints donated by Arturo Garcia Bustos, Arturo Estrada and Adolfo Mexiac, the pre-Columbian sculpture donated by IBM, prints and drawings by Pablo O'Higgins, paintings by Joaquin Clausell given by John Charlot, [and] masks from the state of Guerrero. In 2000 Sam Coronado made a significant contribution by naming Mexic-Arte Museum as the Official Archive of the Serie Project, [which in 2004 featured] over 150 prints of predominately Latino art. ...
"In 2003, Mexic-Arte Museum signed an agreement with the Mexican Government through the National Council on Arts and Culture ... to create a first-class collection of Mexican art for the presentation and promotion of Mexican art and culture in the State of Texas ... through a loan program ... [allowing Mexic-Arte] to exhibit some of Mexico's finest treasures and to create a meaningful cultural and educational exchange program."
In addition to its permanent collection, Mexic-Arte also houses an impressive collection of books, artifacts, slides and photos, and ephemera that made Gloria Espitia weak in the knees. Espitia, a professional librarian and the official neighborhood liaison to the Mexican-American community at the Austin History Center, caught a glimpse of the Mexic-Arte archives earlier this year.
"I was amazed with how much material they have. [Besides] a large collection of Spanish books and videotapes, I was immediately drawn to the Austin photographs from an exhibit that they had done in 1984 on Mexican-Americans in Austin." Like Mexic-Arte, Espitia is always on the lookout for materials to enrich and support her primary project – in her case, the Mexican American Oral History Project – and in turn make the experiences of the past come alive in the present.
Making History Come Alive
"The word 'museum' is a narrow label in some ways," says Mexic-Arte Education Director Toni Nelson Herrera. "We are called upon, and have the freedom, to be so much more. It's our responsibility to listen to the community and serve it with corazón. And as I learned at the Hispanic Quality of Life Initiative forums, Latinos want education that meaningfully reflects their experiences, now." (Launched by the city of Austin earlier this year, the Hispanic Quality of Life Initiative seeks to determine what issues are of prime concern to Austin Latinos. Education and cultural art, history, and enrichment are among the initiative's four themes.)
"One thing that makes us exciting and important is that we are an educational laboratory. We teach all ages about culture, traditions, and history in addition to art – things that are not well represented in the typical K-12 education," she says.
When Nelson Herrera was directed to curate the exhibit commemorating the museum's first 25 years, she welcomed the unexpected challenge.
"I knew this exhibit was important," she says, "because it was an opportunity to reflect upon the historical conditions that brought the museum into existence and consider how it has changed. It is a space for education about the intertwined Mexicano and Chicano experience that is as urgent as ever. Over 50% of the school-age population in Austin is Hispanic, and that is happening all across the country. That has serious implications. We want to partner with others who recognize and want to positively address that."
Although Nelson Herrera's background is in social, cultural, and labor history, her own predilection for creative expression is revealed in several nature studies that she has affectionately displayed above her desk. ("I always wanted my artwork to hang in a museum," she jokes.) Nelson Herrera found her curatorial bearings through the creative process of producing the exhibit, learning about the museum's holdings, and realizing that the exhibit would be able to delight as well as educate, while teaching and informing viewers that art is not created in a vacuum.
"All of this art is produced and quite often speaks to a social and political context," she explains. "When someone comes in here, we want them to understand the art – or at least be curious about it – in the larger historical context and to realize that our culture is dynamic and complex and vital in the present."
Mexic-Arte's silver anniversary exhibit, "25 Years: A Legacy of Change, Transforming the Arts in Central Texas," has five distinct touchstones: mestizaje and connections, conflict and struggle, identity and consciousness, death and rebirth, and history and memory. Pieces range from prints, paintings, artifacts, and folk art to video art, all representative of Mexic-Arte's permanent collection.
At 25, Mexic-Arte is a bona fide Austin institution, an esteemed colleague to Austin's other arts museums, and a sister institution to a handful of like-minded museums across the nation. "Understand that Mexic-Arte is a trailblazing institution," the Smithsonian's Diaz emphasizes, "that set the stage for [San Antonio's] Alameda, the Dallas Latino Cultural Center, and the National Hispanic Cultural Center, which were all created under a different sociopolitical context."
But in another sense, it's also a living portrait of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in a city that has seen its predominantly Mexican-origin, Latino population grow from 18% in the 1980s to 36% in 2009, according to city of Austin demographic figures. And like Austin's Latino population, Mexic-Arte is only going to get larger.
A $5 million beneficiary of the bond election in 2006, Mexic-Arte is currently conducting a feasibility study to determine the best way to spend those funds. Razing the current building and starting from scratch in its existing location is one option. More than likely the current building will be renovated, top to bottom, reopening the floors now closed to the public. Whatever the plan, Orozco is determined that a building of the first class is necessary to reflect the full scope of Mexic-Arte's mission and holdings assembled over its 25 years.
"Mexic-Arte is a very important player in the museum field," says Carlos Tortolero, president and founder of the National Museum of Mexican Art. "While many of our institutions have folded, Mexic-Arte has not only survived but has excelled. While it is important to acknowledge and celebrate Mexic-Arte's past 25 years, the next 25 years will be even greater."