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Just let the art speak for itself

Times Staff Writer

For many years, museums in the United States have searched for what you might call the piñata passage into the world of fine art. In cities large and small, museum marketers have tried various tricks and techniques to grab a greater share of the Latino audience.

The Museum of Idaho in Idaho Falls, for example, offered free Mexican food and music to get Latino families to check out a 14-foot replica of a woolly mammoth. And in Colorado, the Denver Art Museum lured the Latino faithful by displaying images of the Virgin of Guadalupe on her feast day, while allowing kids to play with a 3-D Mayan puzzle. Closer to home, both the Getty and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art offer free concerts of Latino pop music, hoping fans will start a conga line into their galleries.

It’s hard to argue with the goal of democratizing museums, but some of these strategies smack of condescension. Why assume, for example, that Latinos are interested in dinosaurs only if they get free tacos? Or that they care about art only if it reflects their own most cherished religious images?

Attracting Latinos to museums, especially as permanent patrons, has proved to be an intractable problem that defies the food-and-fiesta strategies. At LACMA, for example, Latino membership hovers stubbornly at around 5%, a number that’s embarrassing both for the museum and the Latinos it aggressively tries to attract.

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The simple answers, such as providing Spanish translations for Latino-themed exhibitions, are too simple. They don’t necessarily work and they rely on stereotypes that skim over the complexity of the problem and the population.

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Is translation needed?

Recently, LACMA was criticized for failing to provide translations for the wall text describing items in its acclaimed new exhibition of colonial art, “The Arts in Latin America, 1492-1820.” The writing on the descriptive cards as well as the larger explanatory placards is all in English, creating a cultural barrier for the region’s Spanish-speaking residents, contends the LA Weekly’s Daniel Hernandez.

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The assumption, of course, is that Spanish-speaking Latinos are too clueless to enjoy an art exhibition unless it’s explained to them in their own language. But going to museums where there is little or no explanatory text on the walls happens to be in the best cultural tradition of Latin America, one expert counters.

“It’s generally in the U.S. where you get a lot of signage and a lot of information about a piece,” says former Princeton University anthropology professor Jorge Klor de Alva, who served for six years on the Smithsonian Institution Council. “It’s rarely done in Mexico, and whatever description is given tends to be minimalist. So immigrants, if they had in fact attended art exhibitions in Mexico, would not be expecting much in the way of text.”

The same is true to some extent for Spain and Western Europe, he adds, where many museums have resisted the trend toward more text as a matter of curatorial philosophy.

“Here, there’s the sense that the museum-goer needs to be instructed,” says Klor, who has curated art exhibitions in Spain. “But in Latin America and especially in Europe, there’s much more the sense that people need to be given the freedom to interpret the art on their own. The assumption is that most of the paintings speak for themselves.”

That’s particularly true of the religious art at the heart of LACMA’s colonial show. Non-Latinos may find it foreign, and even off-putting, for its severe, occasionally bloody Catholic images. But Latinos are used to seeing such icons and images in their homes and churches.

Indeed, LACMA has not received a single complaint from the public about the English-only signs, says Ilona Katzew, curator of Latin American Art. She says there wasn’t enough room on the walls to accommodate both languages, but complete bilingual information for the show was provided in the brochure, catalog and audio-tour tapes.

“It’s not just about creating exhibitions that cater to specific groups,” says Katzew, who is Mexican and bilingual. “It’s about creating bridges among different types of people through art, which is truly a universal language.”

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Museum initiative

Three years ago, LACMA launched a Latino Arts Initiative, aimed at improving community relations by developing exhibitions and educational activities in collaboration with UCLA’s Chicano Studies Research Center. Named to head the initiative was the center’s director, professor Chon A. Noriega, who is now helping prepare the initiative’s first exhibition for LACMA, a look at cutting-edge, conceptual Chicano art scheduled for April, to be followed by a show based on the Chicano art collection of Cheech Marin.

Those shows will close the circle opened with LACMA’s landmark 1975 exhibition, “Chicanismo en el Arte.”

So why, after almost four decades and multiple shows, is LACMA still struggling to connect with a Latino audience? Noriega’s answer: Latino shows are too few and far between. “It’s something that comes around on a longer arc, like Halley’s Comet,” he told me recently over burgers at LACMA’s cafe. “There’s political pressure, there are protests, whatever causes the institution at that moment to say, ‘OK, we’ll do that show.’ Then you don’t see anything for 10 years.”

Moreover, neither Latino shows nor bilingual texts guarantee a multicultural turnout. In 2005, for example, few visitors of any stripe came out for “Lords of Creation: The Origins of Sacred Maya Kingship.”

LACMA’s membership department conducts surveys of visitors. But it’s at a loss to explain the precipitous drop in Latino visitorship between 2005 and 2006, from an estimated 14% to 8% in those fiscal years. The museum’s best guess: The schedule in 2005 was “a bit more eclectic” while 2006 saw exhibitions, such as one of Austrian artist Gustav Klimt, that drew large crowds from “a more homogenous group.” (Translation: primarily whites.)

That famous poster of Klimt’s “The Kiss” was ubiquitous during my college years at UC Berkeley. As was the image of the Virgen of Guadalupe at my childhood home in San Jose, where we also had a wall-size religious painting by Mexican colonial artist Miguel Cabrera, a family inheritance.

Latinos with bicultural upbringings and college educations, like myself and Hernandez, are the museum’s most natural target audience. It’s not, as he naively suggests, the city’s monolingual, low-income immigrants who somehow thirst for “intellectual succor” after working all day cleaning houses and mowing lawns.

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This may sound elitist, but you can’t expect the poor masses to suddenly develop a sophisticated appreciation for fine art, no matter where they come from. But you can expect people of all colors and classes to care about their children -- and that is probably the real key to bringing immigrants to museums.

Many Latino immigrant parents value leisure time that is also educational for their kids, says Cecilia Garibay, a Chicago consultant who does visitor research for museums nationwide, including the Smithsonian. Education is a significant hook, she says, because studies show that people exposed to museums in childhood are more likely to become museum-goers as adults.

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But wait; count the kids

In Los Angeles, drawing Latino kids to LACMA is not a problem, notes Noriega. Whole classes are taken there as part of the museum’s education programs in the schools. But they remain under the radar, in a sense, because their visits are not officially counted.

The challenge for LACMA, says Noriega, is to reconcile the vast gap between the low Latino makeup of its members and its visiting student population, which is overwhelmingly Latino.

Manuel Reyes, a 26-year-old son of Mexican immigrants, didn’t bring his parents when he recently visited the colonial art exhibition. But the L.A. native, sporting a Rage Against the Machine T-shirt, did bring his nephew, Angel, 7, and his niece, Cindy, 13, “to get some culture.”

That’s a lesson he learned from his father, a cemetery groundskeeper, and his mother, a house cleaner, who went out of their way to expose their children to the museum experience.

“They don’t really understand the whole art culture, so they’re not going to museums for fun,” says Reyes, who holds a history degree from Cal State L.A. and is studying for his teaching credential. “But they took us so they could give us a taste of culture and educate us.”

Obviously, that works.

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Gurza covers Latino music, arts and culture. E-mail him at agustin.gurza@latimes.com with comments, events and ideas for this weekly feature.


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