‘The Cheech’, a game-changer for Chicano art, opens at Riverside
RIVERSIDE, Calif. — As a child, Cheech Marin enjoyed collecting things — baseball cards, stamps, marbles — and then obsessively arranging them.
“I had a mania for codifying them and putting them in some sort of collection or set,” said Marin, 75, who is best known as the mustachioed Chicano half of classic stoner comedy duo, Cheech & Chong. .
In the 1980s, supported by steady work in film and television, Marin’s natural inclination for collecting found full expression when he fell in love with the works of Los Angeles-based Chicano artists like John Valadez. , George Yepes and Patssi Valdez.
Their works, which synthesized Mexican and American influences and “brought news from the front lines,” were eye-opening, like “listening to the Beatles for the first time,” said Marin, who grew up in a third-generation Mexican American family in the south of Los Angeles. Angeles and the San Fernando Valley.
Since then, Marin has amassed a collection of over 700 paintings, drawings, sculptures, and mixed media works by Chicano artists, including major works by Carlos Almaraz, Frank Romero, and Judithe Hernández. In art-world circles, Marin’s Chicano Art Hoard is considered the largest such collection in the world.
Today, Marin’s collection takes up permanent residence at the Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art and Culture (known as “The Cheech”) in Riverside, California, a predominantly Latino town of about 330,000. about 55 miles east of Los Angeles in Southern California’s vast Inland Empire region.
The center, housed in the former Riverside Public Library, is perhaps the first museum in the United States dedicated to showcasing Chicano art and culture. Marin hopes the project, a public-private partnership backed by significant municipal investment, will inspire some sort of revival of Chicano art in the Inland Empire, once the birthplace of California’s citrus production and one of fastest growing and racially diverse regions.
On a recent visit to the Cheech before opening day on June 18, Marin was in good spirits. He stopped to admire the masterful brushwork of Romero’s “The Arrest of the Paleteros” and the “cannonball” of color in Almaraz’s “Sunset Crash”, of sublime nervousness.
“The story of the Cheech is one of serendipity,” said Todd Wingate, curator of exhibitions and collections at the Riverside Art Museum.
In 2017, Wingate and former Riverside Town Manager John Russo pitched Marin the idea of founding a museum based on his collection. At the time, the city was looking for a new tenant for its historic Public Library Building, a two-story buff-colored modernist edifice in the historic heart of the city. Marin’s traveling exhibition of works on paper, “Papel Chicano Dos”, had recently drawn record crowds at the Riverside Art Museum. In return for Marin donating his collection to the Riverside Art Museum, the city would cover the cost of his housing in the old library building.
“It didn’t take convincing,” Wingate said. “I think Cheech was just starting to think about where his collection should be.”
“If you think about it, a collection of the size and caliber of Cheech’s collection, few places will be able to take it all,” he added. “A lot of it just lives in storage.”
Under a 25-year partnership agreement, the Riverside Art Museum will operate the Cheech, and the city will contribute approximately $1 million annually to cover operating costs.
The Riverside Art Museum funded the approximately $13 million costs of the library building renovation, primarily through a $9.7 million state grant and private donations. The center is expected to generate $3 million in entry revenue in its first decade of operation.
Riverside Mayor Patricia Lock Dawson, who took office after the partnership with Cheech was finalized, said she was not pushed away about the investment. (A notable lob came from a local Republican National Assembly candidate who called it a “stoner art museum” on Twitter).
Mayor Dawson believes the Cheech will attract people from all walks of life, including international visitors. “I recently saw an article about it in Japanese art news,” she said. “If you’re from Southern California, you’ve experienced Chicano culture before, haven’t you? But it is also interesting for people from other parts of the world.
“All parties involved want the Cheech to be self-sustaining,” said Drew Oberjuerge, executive director of the Riverside Art Museum, who expects most revenue to come from grants, fundraising, membership sales , admission store sales and facility rentals.
For nonprofit arts organizations in the Inland Empire, a persistent challenge is the lack of public arts funding and philanthropy in the region, Oberjuerge said. State funding disproportionately favors coastal communities and major urban centers like Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego, she said. A report found that nonprofits in the Inland Empire received donor support of $25.55 per capita, compared to the state average of $262.99.
To raise the initial $3 million investment needed to start the project, the Riverside Art Museum relied on volunteers and Unidos, a local collective of Latino-focused community organizations. Their campaign has produced several Chicano-themed fundraisers, including a “Pachuco Ball,” a concert by Los Lobos (Marin’s longtime friends) in downtown Riverside, and an upcoming “Chicano Gala” downtown. local congresses. Dozens of Riversiders secured a five-year payment plan to contribute $5,000, the minimum donation to earn a spot on the center’s Founders’ Wall, said retired Riverside School Board member Ofelia Valdez-Yeager. who led the initial campaign.
Marin’s ambitions for the Cheech are only steps away from world domination, including the development of a film program, which will be helmed by director Robert Rodriguez, with whom Marin has made several films. It will train independent filmmakers in the principles of low-budget filmmaking, Marin said.
María Esther Fernández, the Cheech’s first artistic director, formerly chief curator and deputy director of the Triton Museum of Art in Santa Clara, California, said the Cheech would also stand out as a “vibrant center of science.”
“We are really at the beginning of establishing the center as a center for teaching and research, a place that will generate research on chicanx art and support this scholarship as well as emerging museum professionals,” Fernández said. . Two curatorial and curatorial fellowships designed to help increase Latinx representation in museums and archives will be housed at the center, she said.
Marin and Fernández want to position Cheech as a place for “uncontroversial dialogues” around issues of identity, representation, gender-neutral terminology, and the mother of all questions: what exactly is Chicano art? ?
“Is it a style? Marin said. “Do you have to have the right vaccines to do Chicano art? Do your parents have to be Mexican, or maybe just one? »
“I want to have this conversation,” he added.
The center’s fundamental mission, Fernández said, is to show works of art that other museums don’t show. According to a 2019 Williams College study, only 2.8% of artists in major US museum collections are Hispanic or Latino.
There are also many mid- and late-career Chicano artists who should have already had solo shows and retrospectives, she said, noting that the Cheech’s first major retrospective, scheduled for 2024, will be for the artist Judithe Hernandez.
“We show this work every day. We don’t ride it every five years,” Fernández said.
Marin, who used to fall asleep to the scent of citrus orchards as a young child in the San Fernando Valley, seems to have shone in the Inland Empire. He hopes to turn some of the region’s historic citrus-packing factories into art studios and hints at wanting to found a second museum, this one dedicated to the lowrider (car culture reigns in the Inland Empire), which Marin considers a unique Chicano. cultural product.
“Riverside has a real shot at becoming one of the most important arts centers in the United States, and maybe even the world,” Marin said.
As a native Riversider, hearing all of this makes my head spin. This is the part of California, after all, that Joan Didion called an uncultivated backwater, where the local historical society celebrates the owners of orange groves, not the people like my parents, who reaped the rewards. And where Chicano culture has existed for generations, but never in our museums.
During our visit, installation was still underway for the center’s two inaugural exhibitions, a survey exhibition titled “Cheech Collects” and the inaugural temporary exhibition, “Collidoscope,” a mid-career retrospective of the center. brother-artist team of Einar and Jamex de la Torre, produced in partnership with the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of the American Latino.
The centerpiece of the Cheech is the 26-foot-tall lenticular installation in the lobby, which was commissioned from the de la Torre brothers. Using lenticular printing technology, which transforms 2D prints into stereoscopic images, the piece projects an animated image of the burly Aztec Earth Goddess Coatlicue, who transforms into a transformer-like machine made out of Chevy Impalas lowrider. From a distance, it appears like a moving stained glass window.
“Just when you think you have a pearl on it, you take a small step to the left and it changes. It’s remarkable,” Marin said, pointing to one of the many Easter eggs hidden in billboards. – a map of the Inland Empire, stretching from East Los Angeles (a reference to Marin’s 1987 film, “Born in East LA”), east to the desert wind farms of Coachella.
In the middle of the map is Riverside. Marin, smiling, said, “It’s the center of the universe now.”
The Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art and Culture
Opens June 18, 3581 Mission Inn Ave., Riverside, CA, (951)-684-7111; riversideartmuseum.org.
Patricia Escárcega is a Los Angeles-based journalist.