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Issue of Latino Museum Clouds as City Mulls Funding

Times Staff Writer

If the roller-coaster efforts to create a Latino museum for California have, at moments, seemed confusing up to now--hold on.

The likelihood that the Los Angeles City Council will, in coming weeks, allocate $50,000 to create a nonprofit foundation to oversee the building of a Latino museum may well add more twists and turns to the issue by raising new questions about the project’s mission, funding and political stewardship.

Among other things, the funding proposal authored by Councilman Richard Alatorre is designed to draw more than $200,000 in private matching funds to create an executive committee to raise the millions needed to build a Latino Museum of Art and Culture in Los Angeles. The council’s finance and revenue committee, which Tuesday approved the measure, must now go to the full council for a final vote. A date has not yet been scheduled.

“What we are envisioning is a museum of the highest caliber . . . something that is going to be a treasure for people all over the city, a first-rate museum that can contribute to showcasing all aspects of Hispanics in the arts and culture,” Alatorre said.

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The problem is, the councilman isn’t the only one with a plan to build a Latino museum.

Historian Antonio Rios-Bustamante originally envisioned such a museum in 1980 and four years later created a nonprofit organization to raise money for a proposed California Museum of Latino History.

Two years later, Assemblyman Charles M. Calderon (D-Alhambra) introduced a bill to secure state funds for a Latino museum along the lines proposed by Rios-Bustamante. That effort failed, as did another last year, but in January he submitted a third measure that is now pending.

Alatorre’s plan to advance the project differs from those favored by Rios-Bustamante and Calderon in two key respects. His proposed Latino Museum of Art and Culture would broaden the historical focus envisioned by Rios-Bustamante to include the performing and fine arts. His plan also has a different method of financing the museum. It would create a permanent endowment funded by private and corporate donors, and forgo state funds altogether--an idea at odds with Calderon’s and Rios-Bustamante’s approaches.

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William Estrada, vice president of the Rios-Bustamante museum organization and dean of students at Occidental College, downplayed the significance of the differences.

“We do not see our vision being changed that dramatically,” Estrada said. “He (Alatorre) respects what we have done; he sees us as important players.”

“We just want to see our historical perspective reflected in the fine arts,” Rios-Bustamante added. “We have a 500-year history in North America. The manifestations of Latino history and culture are certainly all around us in California, and New Mexico and Florida, where they go back to the 1590s.”

The Rios-Bustamante camp’s input into Alatorre’s plan seems to have been ensured when two of its members were named to the proposed Latino Museum of Art and Culture’s inaugurating board of directors. These directors, an Alatorre aide said, can become permanent directors when and if the museum proposed by Alatorre is completed.

But Rios-Bustamante differs with Alatorre on the need for state funding. Most ethnic museums, such as the Museum of Afro-American History and Culture in Exposition Park, were founded with several million dollars of state money, he noted.

“If we really want to share our history with the entire population, then we are looking at an average operating budget of about $1 million to $2 million a year,” he said. “Private funding sources seldom want to provide funds for operating expenses.”

Robin Kramer, Alatorre’s chief of staff, said the city’s recent creation of a $20-million Los Angeles Endowment for the Arts greatly enhances the Alatorre funding strategy because it promises to generate new public and private funds for projects such as the museum.

Developing the museum as a nonprofit organization is the only pragmatic way to proceed, she said, as long as the legislature remains in a budget-cutting spirit.

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Kramer added that Alatorre’s proposed museum plan is modeled after the development strategy used for building Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art, which was housed for more than three years at the Temporary Contemporary in Little Tokyo while funds were raised for MOCA’s permanent construction.

In addition to the tactical differences toward creating the museum, there are political undercurrents that have heightened tensions between Alatorre and Calderon.

Calderon has not only acknowledged being surprised by Alatorre’s efforts to advance his own museum project, but also has said that he is not ready to give up his role as the Latino museum’s standard bearer.

“I have to deal with a lot of groups that want to go in one direction or another,” Calderon said. “I have to walk the line so that I don’t offend any one group, yet keep the legislation on course, because I am absolutely convinced I will get money for this museum.”

But some museum proponents question Calderon’s ability to carry the bill in Sacramento. The loss of faith stems from Calderon’s decision last year to throw in with the “Gang of Five,” the dissident Democrats who tried but failed to oust Assemblyman Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) from his powerful speaker’s post.

“I just wonder how (Calderon) can do it by himself given his standing in the legislature,” said a museum backer in the Rios-Bustamante camp who asked to remain unnamed.

The assemblyman has responded to these questions with a not-so-veiled threat to the Alatorre and Rios-Bustamante camps: They should not assume that they will be the beneficiaries of the $5 million he hopes the legislature will allocate for his museum project.

“Once the money is appropriated, it’s an open question where (it) goes,” Calderon said. “There will be a number of groups competing for that money. There will be a lot of people who would like to get credit for the museum.”

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Rios-Bustamante, however, remains unruffled by Calderon’s warning: “He (Calderon) just wants to avoid giving the impression that he favors one particular individual over another.” Nor should the behind-the-scenes jousting between Alatorre and Calderon be interpreted as necessarily negative, Rios-Bustamante said.

“Sure, there may be differences, but I think it’s good that there’s a diversity of opinion,” he said. “There is no one blueprint for developing the museum. Our group feels it (the competition) is very positive. We welcome the increasing number of supporters to the project.”


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