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El Museo Latino: A Quarter Century Strong

September 23, 2018 Leave a comment

El Museo Latino: A Quarter Century Strong

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

El Museo Latino

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Omaha’s a livelier place today than 30 years ago because Individuals noted cultural voids and put their passion, reputation or money on the line to create iconic attractions. Blue Barn Theatre, The Waiting Room, Slowdown, Film Streams, Kaneko, Holland Performing Arts Center, Union for Contemporary Art and Gallery 1516 are prime examples.

Count El Museo Latino among the signature venues in this city’s cultural maturation. Founder-director Magdalena “Maggie” Garcia noted a paucity of Latino art-culture-history displays here. Like other place-makers, she didn’t wait for someone else to do something about it. Acting on her lifelong interest in Latino heritage, she left a business career to learn about museums and in 1993 she launched her nonprofit.

El Museo Latino got its humble start in a 3,000 square foot basement bay of the Livestock Exchange Building. The stockyards were still active, making pesky flies and foul smells a gritty nuisance. Volunteers transformed the grimy old print shop space in 34 days for El Museo Latino to open in time for Cinco de Mayo festivities.

Five years later she led the move from there to the present 18,000 square foot site at 4701 South 25th Street in the former Polish Home. Growth necessitated the relocation. As the museum consolidated its niche, it expanded its number of exhibits and education programs. It hosts events celebrating traditional art, dance, music, film and ethnic food.

The museum launched amidst the South Omaha business district’s decline. It prospered as the area enjoyed a resurgence of commerce – finding community and foundation support. From 1993 till now, Garcia’s nurtured a passionate dream turned fledgling reality turned established institution. In celebration of its 25th anniversary, El Museo Latino is hosting a Saturday, October 13 Open House from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Visitors can view a special contemporary textiles exhibition by Mexican artist Marcela Diaz along with selections from the permanent collection.

A quarter century of presenting national-international traveling exhibits and bringing visiting artists, scholars and curators only happened because Garcia didn’t let anything stop her vision. She didn’t ask permission, She didn’t heed naysayers who said Omaha didn’t need another museum. She didn’t delay her dream for her board to find a more suitable space or to raise money.

“My attitude was, let’s get something established instead of waiting for funding, for a different space, for this or that. I just thought we needed to do it now – and so we went ahead, Besides, who’s going to give us the authority to say what we can have and not?”

Retired University of Nebraska at Omaha arts education administrator Shari Hofschire lays the museum’s very being at the feet of Garcia.

“Maggie Garcia’s passion is the building block of its 25 year history. She doggedly fundraised and programmed. She recognized the need for a community-cultural identity just as South Omaha was growing with new residents.”

Hofschire added the museum’s now “a catalyst for both the past traditions of Latino history and culture and future opportunities for the South Omaha community to express itself and expand its cultural narrative.”

As a founding board member, David Catalan has seen first-hand the transformation of Garcia’s idea into a full-fledged destination.

“Underlying the foundation of El Museo Latino’s success was Maggie’s leadership and outstanding credentials in the arts  Her outreach skills harvested financial support in the form of foundation grants and corporate sponsorships,” Catalan said. “Her organizational acumen created a governing board of directors, each with resources necessary for achieving strategic objectives. The museum’s programs and exhibits drew rapid membership growth as well.

“Today, El Museo Latino is a treasured anchor in the cultural and economic development of South Omaha. Another 25 years of sustainability is assured so long as Maggie Garcia continues to be the face of inspiration and guidance.”

Garcia spent years preparing herself for the job. She performed and taught traditional folk dance. She collected art. She met scholars, curators and artists on visits to Mexico. After earning an art history degree, she quit her human resources career to get a master’s in museum studies and to work in museums. Seeing no Latino art culture, history centers in the region, she created one celebrating the visual and performing arts heritage of her people.

She’s seen El Museo Latino gain national status by receiving traveling Smithsonian exhibits. One brought actor-activist Edward James Olmos for the Omaha opening. The museum’s earned direct National Endowment for the Arts support.

In 2016, Garcia realized a long-held goal of creating a yearly artist residency program for local Latino artists.

Her efforts have been widely recognized. In 2015 the Mexican Government honored her lifetime achievement in the arts.

With the museum now 25 years old and counting, Garcia’s excited to take it to new heights.

“I don’t want us to just coast. I don’t want it to get old for me. For me the excitement is learning and knowing about new things – even if it’s traditions hundreds of years old we can bring in a new way to our audiences.

“We want to continue to challenge ourselves and to always be relevant by finding what else is out there, where there is a need, where do we see other things happening. Hopefully that’s still going to be the driving force. It has to be exciting for us. We have to be passionate about it. Then how do we bring that interest, love and passion to do what we said we’re going to do and to make it grow and fulfill needs in the community.”

She cultivates exchanges with Mexican art centers and artists to enrich the museum’s offerings. A key figure in these exchanges is artist-curator Humberto Chavez.

“We have connections with artists and centers in different parts of Mexico because of him,” she said. “He’s a professor of art in Mexico City and he was head of all the art centers throughout the country. He’s very well connected. That’s a huge window of opportunity for our artists here and a real plus with our residency.

“We’re not just giving artists a place and time to work and a stipend, but trying to provide them some other opportunities they wouldn’t necessarily be able to get.”

She said she hopes “to expand our network of working with other institutions as well as other artists “

Besides exposing artists and patrons to new things, Maggie’s most pleased when art connects with youth.

“I had a group of elementary students come in to see an exhibition of traditional shawls, Some of the boys and girls said, ‘What are those things doing here?’ Then as I talked about the different fabrics and colors, how the shawls are worn, what they mean, how they’re created, all of a sudden the kids were oohing and aahing at the rainbow of materials and history..

“When we came to a map of Mexico showing where the shawls were made, the kids were asking each other, ‘Where are you from?’ One said, ‘I don’t know where I’m from, but I’m going to go home and ask.’ Another pointed at the map and said, ‘Well, I’m from that state.’ Suddenly, it was accepted by their peers and so it was okay to value who they are.

“I see that all the time here. It’s very satisfying.”

Satisfying, too, is seeing the fruition of her dream reach 25 years.

“The journey has been an adventure. It hasn’t been easy. There’ve been challenges, but I thrive on challenges. If someone says, this is the way it’s been done forever, all the more reason to say, why not make a difference.”

Visit http://www.elmuseolatino.org.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

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New Artist Residency Program at El Museo Latino supports the practice of local Latino artists

June 10, 2016 2 comments

Omaha artist residencies for area visual artists are popping up with more frequency. That’s a welcome development in a city that for a long time pretty much only offered these opportunities to visiting artists, other than those grant funded residencies in schools and such, which left locals searching for residencies elsewhere. The Union for Contemporary Art and Carver Bank opened up the local artist residency scene here and now El Museo Latino has added to the mix. As any artist will tell you, it’s important to have local residency options because artists everywhere, including here, struggle finding access to studio space, equipment and venues to show their work. A residency typically addresses all those concerns, at least temporarily, by givng the artist a concentrated period of time to focus on their practice and to grow themselves personally and professionally. If nothing else, it exposes the artist and his/her work to new opportunities, communites and networks that might lead to commissions and patrons. The barriers to practice and exhibition artists face can be even greater for artists of color and that’s why the Union, Carver and Museo artist residency programs are potential game changers for participants. The Union program is undergoing some tweaking with the organization’s move to the Blue Lion this fall. The Carver is dormant as the Bemis tries figuring out its purpose. That makes Museo’s new program even more important. Two questions I’m sure many artists are asking are, Why aren’t more arts organizations stepping up to offer artist residencies and will the same old artists get the residency slots that are available? Another question which I know fr a fact has already been asked is whether the Museo residency will be opened to non-Latinos and to non-area residents in the future.

 

New Artist Residency Program at El Museo Latino supports the practice of local Latino artists

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico (el-perico.com)

Artists are a diverse lot but a fundamental issue they all face at some point is finding space to practice their craft and showcase their work. The challenge can be greater for artists of color who may lack access to facilities and materials as well as to circles of influence. El Museo Latino is helping fill that gap with its new Artist Residency Program in support of area Latino artists.

The program builds on international residencies the museum’s hosted and it realizes a long-held dream of founder-executive director Magdalena Garcia to offer a residency for local artists.

Bart Vargas, Hugo Zamorano and Aaron Olivo, all of Omaha, comprise the first class. They will toil away at Museo in July and August during their two-month residencies. Garcia says each is at different stages in their careers and each works in different mediums. Supporting diverse artists where they are at and giving them a blank slate to create is the residency’s mission. So, too is exposing residents to seasoned art professionals with national and international resumes.

“We have a lot of talent and a lot of need in the local Latino artist community,” Garcia says. “It isn’t just about giving them the space, it’s about giving them the resources to develop their work. We want to provide them with a framework of opportunity and see where they can run with that.”

 

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Bart Vargas

 

The most established of the three, Vargas, a University of Nebraska at Omaha art educator, says, “One of the things I hope this residency does is promote awareness of Latino artists in the Omaha community. We have a thriving art scene in the metro area, but I feel Latino artists, or for that matter artists of color, are quieter or not seen as much. I hope this residency brings more visibility.” He adds, “Space, materials and time to make art are all costs to the artist. Anytime an artist is given free space and financial support, it is a blessing.

 

Hugo Zamorano

 

Zamorano, a recent UNO graduate, says, “The experience will grow me in practice because I will have a space to work in outside of home. I will also be working alongside two great artists, which I think will be great for learning off each other and talking about art. I am currently working with Aaron (Olivo) on a mural at 25th and N in La Plaza De La Raza. I have never worked with Bart directly, so I am excited for that.”

Olivo says, “El Museo Latino has been a part of our neighborhood for a long time and I have always felt a connection as an artist and South Omaha native. I am by no means a studied artist. This is a first for me, so every aspect will help me grow. Just the environment alone will broaden my view as an artist as well as someone who works directly in the neighborhood.”

 

Aaron Olivo is an Omaha born tattoo artist that works for Dr. Jacks photo by Clarissa Romero: A
 Aaron Olivo

 

Garcia has built in a mentoring component. Mexican artist, art educator and art administrator Humberto Chavez and president-founder of the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago, Carlos Tortolero, will share their expertise and experience about exhibiting and venues.

“Both guests will make studio visits with our resident artists and engage in discussions with them. Hopefully we can expand our network of working with other institutions as well as other artists,” Garcia says. “That’s a real plus with our residency. We’re not just giving you a place to work, time to work, and a stipend, but we’re trying to provide some other opportunities you wouldn’t necessarily be able to get otherwise.”

Garcia has a history of making Museo a conduit between local and visiting artists. Just last year she developed the exhibition Maiz with  Museo de Filatelia de Oaxaca (MUFI), a postage stamp museum in Oaxaca, Mexico. Twelve local artists showed work alongside that of 10 Oaxaca artists. The theme of corn was chosen due to its importance to both Nebraska and Latin America. Prints of five postage stamps depicting different varieties of corn were selected from the MUFI collection and the artists created works inspired by the images. The exhibit ran five months here and traveled to MUFI last April, where it’s on view through September. Maiz is among many cross-cultural exchanges Garcia’s organized. Her opening doors for the international community of artists of Mexican descent earned her a lifetime achievement in the arts award from the Mexican government in 2015.

Her efforts include a long association with the well-connected Humberto Chavez, whose artistic relationships extend throughout Mexico. Those ties offer the possibility for Museo resident artists to get their work seen by wider audience. “That’s a huge window of opportunity for our artists,” Garcia says.,

 

MagdalenaGarcia

Magdalena Garcia, ©photo by Bill Sitzmann

 

Other than showing up 15 hours a week, she says, “There are very few requirements with the residency. We’re giving them the freedom to create, to experiment and to explore as they see fit. We’re not demanding they have work ready to exhibit at the end. But we will accommodate their work when it’s ready.”

All three artists plan trying out new mediums or returning to mediums they used to practice in or to further projects already underway. Aaron Olivo echoes a shared sentiment by saying, “We are responsible for paving a path for artists here in South Omaha as well as the surrounding area” and for using the residency to its “full potential.”

Garcia expects the artists to be program ambassadors. It has already drawn interest from Latino and non-Latino artists around the nation, though for now it’s only for Latino artists living within a 70 mile radius of Omaha. She intends to expand the program to two or three rounds of residents in 2017. Applications for the next round open in January.

The residency is made possible in part by a $20,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant that marked the first time Museo applied for direct funding from the NEA.

“We were thrilled to receive that and hopefully people see it as a reflection of our growth and the continuation of what we started out to do 23 years ago,” Garcia says.

Visit http://www.elmuseolatino.org.

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