Austin Mayor Kirk Watson presents a check to Mexic-Arte Museum Board President Nilda de la Llata.
A Leader in Latin American Arts
by Mary Jane Garza
What began in a small 300-square-foot studio/gallery of an arts complex in Austin's warehouse district in the early 1980s has grown over the years to become not only one of the city's leading cultural institutions but is quickly becoming one of the nation's foremost Latin American arts facilities. The brainchild of Texas artist Sylvia Orozco and Mexican artist Pio Pulido, Mexic-Arte Museum is now a highly visible and valuable venue for Latino artists.
The gallery moved to its current location on Fifth and Congress eleven years ago, into what was then an abandoned four-story structure situated on one of the last downtown blocks to be developed. After renting the location on a month-to-month basis for as many years, Mexic-Arte recently almost lost the building to developers in Austin's hot real estate market. In 1999, Civetas Investments announced plans to build a $99 million, 27-story retail and office building at Fourth & Congress, making the building's future uncertain. Mexic-Arte convinced the city to acquire the 25,000 square-foot structure and donate it to the museum. Now the museum is gearing up for a capital campaign to renovate the building so that it can have full use of the facility. At first, the building was solid enough so that all four floors were used for performances and exhibits. However, the city declared the structure's upper stories unstable and currently only the bottom floor is open to the public.
"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." Floor plans have been designed, showing a venue that will break the existing space into new galleries, an expanded gift shop and cafe, performance areas, classrooms and more offices.
Orozco feels that being downtown has not only afforded the museum an unequalled opportunity to grow and expand, but that Mexic-Arte has also played a role in helping to develop cultural awareness in the city's center.
Orozco and Pulido created a non-profit organization to run the museum, and with artist Sam Coronado, were the institution's first board members. Today the board has grown to 20 constituents who guide the museum from the same simple premise on which it was founded to present and promote traditional and contemporary Mexican, Latino, and Latin American art and culture. By establishing relationships with the Consulate General of Mexico in Austin, and with the Diego Rivera Studio Museum in Mexico City, Mexic-Arte is now also able to bring many exhibits directly from Mexico to Austin. The organization acts as a conduit of art and energy, sending Latin American exhibits on to other U.S. institutions the only museum in Texas to do this except for the Mexican Institute in San Antonio.
Included among the museum's permanent collection are more than 30 wooden masks from Guerrero, Mexico, a library of 4,000 plus books on Latin American art and culture (most of which were donated by the Consulate General) photographs of the Mexican Revolution by Augustin Casasola, prints from the Taller de la Grafica Popular in Mexico City, and photographs of early Mexican-American families who settled in Central Texas. Mexic-Arte 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 talent, such as David Medala, Malaquias Montoya, Carmen Lomas Garza, Patrick Vilaire, and Adolfo Mexiac artists who possibly would not have exhibited in Texas were it not for Mexic-Arte. Two artists who have shown are MacArthur Fellows: Amalia Meza Baines, who creates works from furniture and found objects, and Guillermo Gomez-Pena, a performance artist.
"We don't have the best facility, 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 the museum's doors every year, many of whom are schoolchildren. Mexic-Arte's directors have taken to heart the mission of introducing minority children to art and culture. Their hope is to foster self-confidence through visual and historical exposure, and to inspire a generation of adolescent Latin American artists to create.
Mexic-Arte also serves as an umbrella organization and a mentor to many artists and groups seeking funding from Austin's Arts Commission. "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."
As Austin grows, so does its diversity. The university and the computer industry, as well as the music and the burgeoning film industries, keep the forward progression of all the arts in line with the city's physical growth. The scheduled restoration of Mexic-Arte's facilities signals an amplified interest in the Latin American arts scene not just for Latinos and Austin, but for everyone.
Carlos Brondo the museum´s store manager
Museum staff members Aldo Böhm and Herlinda Zamora with celebrated Oaxacan wood carver Epifanio Fuentes and wife Laurencia.