GREGORIO LUKE approaches with a contented grin, reaches into the vest pocket of his black business suit and hands me a business card as if we had never met before. "It's something very special," says the former director of the Museum of Latin American Art, whom I've known for almost a decade.

It's a plain white card with his name in black ink. No title, no logos, no affiliations. "It's taken me 25 years to get a card like that, just me, not associated with anybody," says the one-time Mexican diplomat. "It's taken me 25 years to have the courage to reclaim my freedom and my identity."

A dramatic entrance is expected of Luke, one of the most dynamic and interesting figures in the local Latino arts scene with a reputation as a charismatic lecturer. During his tenure at MOLAA in Long Beach, he became the museum's most visible promoter and often its main attraction, especially with his popular multimedia presentations on Mexican painters, "Murals Under the Stars." After he resigned last year to take his show on the road, the museum started seeming a little more sedate.

This month marks the formal coming out, you could say, of the new Gregorio Luke. He was recently hired as a part-time curator for the struggling Latino Museum of History, Art and Culture in downtown Los Angeles. He quickly organized his first show, which opens Aug. 23, featuring works by contemporary Mexican sculptor José Sacal. He has also been invited back to MOLAA to reprise his outdoor mural extravaganzas, this time with live music accompanying the mural-sized projections of works by Rufino Tamayo and Miguel Covarrubias, scheduled for Sunday and Aug. 24. He's also exploring a possible role in finally preparing for public viewing the hidden Olvera Street mural “America Tropical” by David Alfaro Siqueiros, one of his lecture subjects.

But it may be easier to raise Siqueiros from the dead than to breathe new life into the Latino Museum. After 11 years of planning, the museum opened in 1998 in the old Bank of America building at 1st and Main, only to close two years later, deeply in debt and unable to meet payroll or raise funds due to gross mismanagement.

The museum found a new permanent home and a new lease on life recently when it became part of the New LATC at the refurbished Los Angeles Theatre Center on Spring Street, where it's a co-tenant with the Latino Theater Company, which operates the city-owned facility. The museum has a low profile but a sizable collection, a $3-million endowment and a reconstituted board, which includes President Steve Loza, a UCLA ethnomusicologist who recruited Luke.

"The Latino Museum doesn't have a consistent track record but Steve Loza does," says UCLA film and TV professor Chon Noriega, citing his colleague's ambitious public arts programs on campus. "This could be a very good combination. You've got two very good people and everybody's looking to see what they'll be able to make of it."

Part of the plan is for the museum to focus more on community events in outlying venues, under the leadership of current general manager Jaime Cruz. Meanwhile, Luke says he hopes to create exhibitions in the main gallery that will draw diverse audiences. He's got his sights set, for example, on poet Carlos Pellicer Lopez, who makes fabulous Nativity scenes, and two others from Tijuana, Alfredo Gutierrez and Ignacio Hadrica, who do evocative paintings of immigrants and the homeless.

Among the Latino Museum's most high-profile recent events was a June concert it co-sponsored at Disney Hall featuring the Mexico City Philharmonic Orchestra and L.A.'s Mariachi Los Camperos. The centerpiece was an original work titled "America Tropical," a multimedia interpretation of the 1931 mural with a score by Loza, digital projections by artist Judy Baca and a dramatic narrative directed by Jose Luis Valenzuela, artistic director of the Latino Theater Company and director of the New LATC.

But a museum doesn't live by special events alone. It needs ongoing programs, exhibitions and a creative director. Luke was courted for the permanent post, which has been vacant, but turned it down. "I don't want to have a 9 to 5 job," he says.

It's always been a bit of a mystery why Luke resigned from MOLAA, where he had worked for almost 10 years. Insiders say he was caught in a management shuffle as the museum dramatically expanded, and he felt unappreciated. All Luke will say is that it was time for him to make his move. "I love MOLAA," he says, "and I'm happy to be back. But this is something I wanted to do for me."

There's a rich résumé behind that plain business card. Luke's father is a U.S. engineer of German ancestry; his mother is Mexican choreographer Gloria Contreras. After they divorced, he grew up in Mexico City surrounded by artists, which explains his fear of becoming one of them.

"I made a promise to myself that I would never be like those dancers, those painters, those writers who were always starving and living from job to job. Since I was a teenager, I made this decision that I was going to be a professional."

After managing his mother's career, he took a job at a major bank, Nacional Financiera. ("I never lost the look," says Luke, who showed up for lunch at Olvera Street with that black suit, white shirt and red tie.) At the bank, he met the late Gustavo Petricioli, who would become ambassador to the United States in 1989. The diplomat brought Luke to Washington, D.C., to spearhead a cultural PR effort on behalf of Mexico during its negotiations over NAFTA, the free trade agreement.

Luke's role as cultural ambassador continued after being transferred to the Mexican consulate in Los Angeles in the mid-'90s. One challenge was his assignment to build bridges between Mexicans and Mexican Americans, themselves divided by class and culture.

Those internal rifts and rivalries are part of the reason that Latino arts organizations have struggled to carve out their place in Los Angeles, he says. But he still believes the city needs ethnic-based arts institutions.

"I'm obviously in favor of including Latino artists in mainstream museums, and it's something we should see more of," he says. "But one thing that I learned at MOLAA is that you have to define your mission. If you're able to specialize, you can do the job better."

His work hasn't been easy. Last year, he had just celebrated the birth of his second child when he decided to quit. He says his wife thought he had lost his middle-aged mind.

He had no speaking gigs in January and is living the artist's life he always feared, with its feast-or-famine cycles. "I eat what I can hunt," he says.

So why does he seem so exhilarated?

"I had to risk it all," says Luke, who turns 48 next week. "If I wanted to take this to another level, I could not continue playing it safe. The goal of my life is not to become the director of a museum. I want to be Mick Jagger."

"José Sacal, Contemporary Sculpture from Mexico" runs Aug. 23 through Sept. 26 at the Latino Museum of History, Art and Culture, 514 S. Spring St., Los Angeles. Tue.-Sun., 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For information, contact Ana Pescador at (213) 590-8727 or e-mail pca.acv @gmail.com.

agustin.gurza@latimes.com