I started writing this way back in September 2006…
I was just about to give up on this post when I saw Barak Obama on Charlie Rose. He verbalized a sentiment that I have been contemplating for a long time now. Senator Obama spoke of the wanting of the younger generation to move beyond the divisive arguments made during and about the 60s and 70s. Arguments about women’s rights, civil rights, and the war. Polarizing arguments still used today, crippling our collective ability to progress.
I was going to abandon this topic on the grounds of good taste. I felt like I had waited too long to talk about this, the window of opportunity and relevance had passed. And I wondered if I’m kicking a dead horse. Am I being useful by discussing this? Or am I being a troublemaker? I guess I’ll find out.
With Coconuts at Art Palace and YLA 11 at Mexic-Arte this summer, I really scrutinized Mexic-Arte. I mean, I was already wondering why I hadn’t noticed the museum’s presence besides their Cinco de Mayo (in the spring) and Dia de los Muertos (in the fall) festivals. With prime real estate shared with AMOA and Arthouse, it was curious that the art circles made no mention of it. Was it a racial thing that both Mexic-Arte and La Pena only became recognized around holidays, fund-raisers and special events? Sadly, I believe that is the cause. Both organizations are committed to the promotion of a certain type of art. They are concerned with this “Latino” culture and created a niche market for themselves. In my study of history and just living my life, I understand the origins. The need for a presence of cultural heritage. Something that can be proudly passed on to the next generation. I understand it and agree with it.
Yet, because I have been scrutinizing, I have found its execution lacking. I mention La Pena because of its similarities in its mission, but the size and the work of the organization has been acceptable. There is no pretense in what they are. It is a small event-based operation. Whether it is music, visual art or souvenirs, La Pena presents opportunities to consider Latino culture. Simple.
Mexic-Arte has bestowed upon itself the role of institution. Not just a landmark or a mainstay in the community, but a museum. There are certain expectations that come with that. A museum should be an institution that educates the public. Like a library, it should be open and accessible to everyone. With its target subject matter it has created a presence for a demographic that has been historically underserved. That is laudable, but now it has cornered itself into an unfavorable position. The battle is now to get the public in the doors. Not just those already interested in the subject. No, trying to get the attention of someone who has no family connection to Mexico or Latin America. Someone who has never visited nor ever intends to. Of course that ‘s the goal of all museums. But by creating this reactionary “Mexican’s Club” some may be intimidated or apathetic. Separate but equal was proven not to be equal. Providing an opportunity to exhibit art but not reach out and integrate into the larger art discussion accepts the skewed perception that they do not need to be included in the larger discussion. You can have your cake and eat it at the kid’s table. In contrast, the Blanton’s decision to display both Americas’ artwork is an intelligent act that initiates a historical event. Latin American work is equal in value as other western art!
To be somewhat fair, I must admit that I rarely visit the Carver Museum. It would appear that they have the same image/operations problem. It is specific about its audience and has trouble reaching out beyond them. What about Women and Their Work? It’s true that all three were chartered under similar auspices. Yet, Women and Their Work have proven themselves as part of that greater dialogue. Their programming has been updated to match current trends, their fundraising efforts are transparently beneficial to school kids, and even though they are a “women’s” gallery, their artist registry and art sales include gasp! men.
But the Blanton deals with Modern Latin American art and WTW does not have the prestige of museum officiality. “Mexic-Arte provides hefty opportunity for young artists and arts professionals,” you might say. To have work in the Blanton is an ambitious goal, but not impossible. And the successes of WTW gives them the honor of being an institution on par with a museum. But the point is that MexicArte is no longer the pinnacle of success in Austin for a Hispanic or Latino artist. This past year  saw a flurry of spanish surnames across the city’s galleries. Even some of the newest gallery additions are run by Hispanics. Open Doors at the DAC, Art Palace, Okay Mountain, The Donkey Show, Gallery Lombardi, and Volitant all featured artists and curators con sabor picante.
This may sound arrogant of me, but I have been dropping hints about the changes I would like to see. Since I’m on the subject, let me just lay them out.
First, there’s the hours. I couldn’t help but notice the amount of people dropping in to look at the gift shop. No interest in the exhibition, just looking for souvenirs. Souvenirs? I’d venture to say that alot of tourists want to visit the official Mexican-American Fine Arts Museum of Texas. I guess that’s why the hours are 10 to 6. I work 9 to 5 in north Austin. There’s no way I will ever make downtown by 6. Weekends are split for chores and more work with church and a little family outing on Sunday (lets assume I actually do my chores). Look at the Blanton, AMOA, and Arthouse hours. Open Saturday and Sunday, closed Monday and extended hours on Thursday. Accomodate both tourists and your local community. Next, the admissions; Blanton- $5 with Thursdays FREE, AMOA- $5 with 1st Saturday pay what you wish (i.e. FREE!), Arthouse- always FREE! I’m frisky, so without the free days, I would have to pay $15 every time I visit with the family. And you know I like to visit multiple times to make sure I have a good grasp of the art! Pick a day, at least one out of the month, and let some poh’ Messicans get edumacated. I believe these are practical modifications to the current operations.
Digging a little deeper and grasping at shadows…
From what I can deduce, a strong Director of Development needs to grab fundraising, grantwriting, and operations cost and hammer out a fiscally sound business plan.
Money, money, money. Money can solve alot of problems, but not if spent unwisely. Thanks to the internet, advertising has become cheaper, with higher traffic and narrower targets. But you have to execute! Update your website. Before the show opens. If you send your press release out two weeks before the show opens, that’s when you should update your website. It would be fantastic if your site was coded properly and to current standards. At least have new information available to your regular visitors.
Then tried again in early 2008, but I will now merge these thoughts with my challenges.
Now that the Mexican American Cultural Center is open, Mexic-Arte is being challenged in their status of presenting Mexican/Chicano/Latino visual culture. But not really since the MACC has only done more in terms of supporting community-minded exhibitions, including YLA 12. So my suspicions about the Art In America article point to an irrelevance. There must be more of an effort to engage in contemporary dialogues than just YLA. The founding of Mexic-Arte was revolutionary in the early 80s, YLA was revolutionary in the 90s, it’s now 2009. We have enough symbolic gestures, let’s get some actual change going.
To bring this rant full circle, I am irked almost every time the media talks about president-elect Obama. He is usually introduced as the first African-American elected to the Presidency. He’s our first mixed race president. He isn’t Black or white. He is both. He is multi-cultural by birth and he brings a deeper and more complex perspective to discussions of race. The discussion moves beyond the old polarized arguments and is reframed for today’s challenges.
That’s what Mexic-Arte should be doing with its programming. Mexic-Arte is in position to put the Mexican/Chicano/Latino experience into context. For everyone, not just the Mexican/Mexican-American communities. Does that mean there will be one single exhibition to take on these perspectives and set the record straight? Of course not. It will take a series of exhibitions and events, kinda like how the Blanton is doing with its Latin American collection and the artists involved.
My challenge here is three-fold:
- Accessibility & Communication
- Give the public a break. At least once a month open your doors free of charge.
- Keep the website updated and get notices published at least 2 weeks before an event.
- Relevant programming
- There have been some decent shows (Ishmael Soto, Aztec and Maya Revival) but have failed to connect.
- The back gallery has extended the calendar, but it usually makes the museum cluttered. There has to be a way to streamline and present the exhibits in a more concise and direct program.
- I think Women and Their Work is a good example to look at for making a “niche” program accessible and relevant.
- New Leadership
- I would say that money is the biggest problem, because of the state of the physical space and neglect of the upper levels. But who controls the purse and who decides on spending?
- In fact, this whole boat needs to be steered in another direction. New blood should infuse enough energy.
- I’m not sure how boards are supposed to work, but I thought they are supposed to come from other sectors in order to broaden your organization’s reach. Maybe the board needs a shake up as well. One that can provide a stable financial connections to get the museum to its new location.
I say these things because I want to be proud of them. Right now, I’m not.
I’ll tell you ’bout what I sees.