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Sharing Latino arts

Special to The Times

Next to the Mexican market that lures tourists with ponchos, sombreros and jalapeno jelly, the new Museo Alameda opens today as a showcase for Latino arts, culture and history at Market Square.

The museum, a Smithsonian affiliate, offers 11 galleries exhibiting American art and artifacts “as seen through the eyes of Latinos,” said Henry Munoz III, chairman of the Alameda National Center for Latino Arts and Culture, the nonprofit behind construction of the just-under-$15-million facility.

For the record:
12:00 AM, Apr. 14, 2007 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday April 14, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Museo Alameda: An article in Friday’s Calendar section about the Museo Alameda in San Antonio identified the director of the Smithsonian Latino Center as Pilar Ruiz. The director is Pilar O’Leary.

Locals have nicknamed the museum MAS -- Museo Alameda Smithsonian -- Spanish for “more.” And with 20,000 square feet of exhibition space, it will expand the scope of Latino museums in the U.S. by stepping away from “country of origin” labels such as Mexican, Salvadoran and Cuban American, Munoz said. Although some items on display will come from the Americas outside the U.S., curators say the museum will present the “blending” experience of immigrants to the U.S.

“There is really no museum presenting the American experience as seen through the eyes of the Latino,” said Munoz, who also chairs the Smithsonian National Latino Board, charged with guiding the pan-institutional Smithsonian Latino Center in ensuring that Latino contributions to the arts, sciences and humanities are recognized. “That’s not saying there are not other fine Latino museums.”

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In a gallery walk-through Tuesday, Munoz, chief executive of Kell Munoz Architects of San Antonio, pointed out Luis Jimenez’s sculpture “Man on Fire” (1969), on loan from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the spot where Emperor Maximilian’s emerald ring, on loan from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, will be displayed. “This is the equivalent of showing the Hope diamond,” he said.

The ring appears in a gallery permanently devoted to rotating collections of works from Smithsonian Institution museums. The Alameda is a noncollecting museum, but its status as one of 152 “affiliated” institutions (in 39 U.S. states and territories) gives it access to works in the Smithsonian’s vast collections. Among initial offerings will be Columbian vessels from Peru and jewelry designs by Paloma Picasso.

In approaching the museum’s pink exterior, a visitor realizes immediately that it is Latino-themed. A large punched tin plate resembling a luminaria and representing the museum’s hojalata, a wish for good luck or money, covers one side. A two-story metal accent sculpture with symbols taken from Mexico’s flag frames the glass entrance. Within, galleries are painted in bold colors.

Other opening exhibitions include a gallery that re-creates Casa Mireles, a real botanica that existed for years on San Antonio’s west side and where family healers bought herbs and potions to cure illness or attract luck or love. In a nearby gallery is “Cantos del Pueblo,” curated by Henry C. Estrada, director of exhibitions and public programs for the Smithsonian Latino Center. The Cantos gallery celebrates such artists as San Antonio resident Jesse Trevino, known for his realistic paintings of Latino neighborhood scenes.

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“SOMOS” (we are), George Cisneros’ montage of film, photography and graphics, presented in the museum’s introductory gallery, explores themes of celebration, devotional practices, patriotism and folklore. Cisneros, also a San Antonio resident, is the brother of Henry Cisneros, the Univision vice president and former secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

Tremendo Manicure,” an interactive installation by Panamanian artist Haydee Victoria Suescum, looks at the local beauty shop, where talk mixes with the painting of fingernails and of signs on windows and shop walls to communicate a story, one that begins in the neighborhood of one’s upbringing. The installation will be active during the opening.

Alma Ruiz, associate curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, believes the Alameda faces a difficult challenge, one that all Latino museums are fighting. “I question whether we need it now,” she said, referring to such a broad-based Latino museum, because “all these other museums now are including artists from Latin America in their programs.” But if one is going to open a Latino museum, it must reach out to other populations as the only road to success: “You can’t preach to the converted, and you can’t thrive that way as a museum.”

The museum is the first of two parts of the Alameda National Center. It takes its name from Teatro Alameda, which opened in 1949 as one of the nation’s first Spanish-language movie houses and which also featured live performances by Mexican entertainers, including Cantiflas, the celebrated comic actor. When the refurbished theater reopens in 2009 as the center’s second part, it will draw on the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., for live programming.

Ruth Medellin, executive director of the Center, said the Teatro Alameda was the defining impetus not just for the museum but for the theater restoration and its educational and cultural outreach programs. “We didn’t just set out to build a museum,” she explained. “We’re building a center for Latino studies.”

Munoz worked for more than a decade to bring the center to fruition. In 1995, he hosted a daylong tour of his home city with Ira Michael Heyman, then secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and guiding force behind a self-examination project that produced “Willful Neglect,” a 1994 report detailing how the institution was failing Latinos. The report fomented activism in Latino art and culture and led to a more comprehensive approach, laid out in the 1997 report, “Towards a Shared Vision.”

“It’s a bold and exciting idea that’s long overdue,” said Harley Shaiken, chairman of the Center for Latin American Studies at UC Berkeley. “There’s a lot of experimentation that ought to be taking place in this area that isn’t. Museo Alameda is using as a point of departure a broad regional experience instead of a narrow nationalist focus” that segments “Latino” into country of origin.

Munoz says he was urged at the time to push for a national Latino museum. The Alameda project is not that but a step in that direction, he believes. (Legislation to create a national Latino museum awaits action in Congress.)

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For the Alameda, Ford Motor Co. contributed $5.5 million to the capital costs of converting the old market. Early on, Munoz enlisted SBC (now AT&T;) Chairman Ed Whitacre Jr. The company gave $2 million. Anheuser-Busch Companies contributed $1 million in capital and is funding educational outreach and emerging-artist programs.

Pilar Ruiz, director of the Smithsonian Latino Center, called the Alameda Center a unique institution with a mission that fits well into the community of San Antonio, “one of the most vibrant and growing communities in the U.S. today, not only from a broad perspective but also for the Latino community.”

Ruiz said the project demonstrates that the Smithsonian took to heart the criticism of its Latino outreach: “The institution has come a long way in representing the contributions of what’s becoming the nation’s largest population group.

“The Smithsonian has a wonderful partner in San Antonio.”


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