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
Now appearing in El Perico
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.”
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.
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.”
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.,
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.
Success runs in certain families and most of America loves nothing better than classic immigrant success stories. That’s what the Jesus and Beatriz Garcia family of Omaha represents. Their success starts with the now elderly but still active parents who came from Mexico to make a better life for themselves and their six girls, who were all born in Mexico but primarily raised in America. My story for El Perico focuses on how the sisters have achieved much educationally and professionally, always guided by the hard-working, aspiring example of their parents. Just as the parents are inspirations to the Garcia girls so are the sisters inspirations to each other.
The Garcia Girls
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in El Perico
When Jesus and Beatriz Garcia left Mexico for America decades ago their fervent wish was to give their family a better life. In that, there’s no doubt they succeeded. The couple captured the American Dream by working hard, owning their own home, becoming fixtures at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church and raising six girls.
The Garcias have seen their daughters, all born in Mexico, grow into accomplished women with families and careers of their own. The Garcia Girls carry on their parents’ tradition of serving others. At the 2011 Latino Heritage Awards the eldest, Magdalena “Maggie” Garcia, was honored for her work as El Museo Latino founder and executive director. Baby sister Maria Vazquez, associate vice president of student affairs at Metropolitan Community College, was named Latina of the Year.
“I’m amazed at Maggie’s and Maria’s accomplishments, and at all my other sisters.
They’re all working hard and continuing their education, and I’m doing the same thing,” says Silvia Wells, El Museo Latino managing director.
The sisters have all attended college as nontraditional students. The only one without a degree, Lori Ramirez, is working on it. Some have multiple degrees. Each has a chosen profession. It all stems from strong parental guidance. Maggie recalls, “My father sat me down and said, ‘My responsibility is to provide for you what you need. Your responsibility is to do the best you can.’ He never said you have to do this or that, he just said, you have to do the best you can. The demands were what each one of us placed on ourselves.”
Jesus and Beatriz Garcia
Education was always stressed. “They put all six of us through Catholic school. They both worked. My dad sometimes had two and three jobs,” says Maggie.
Jesus trained in fine woodworking and construction in Mexico and his expert craftsman’s skills made him employable here. He repaired furniture for Nebraska Furniture Mart. Later, he opened his own shop, Jesse Garcia‘s Repair, at 13th and Vinton Streets in South Omaha, where the Garcias are an old-line Latino family.
He also built custom display cabinets for daughter Maggie’s museum. He closed his shop last year but still keeps his hands busy for select customers.
Beatriz, who learned seamstress skills in Mexico, labored 30 years at Pendleton Woolen Mills. She started as a sewer and retired as a supervisor. A talented cook, she makes her famous enchiladas and burritos for museum and church fundraisers. She marvels at what her daughters have made of themselves.
“I’m so proud of all my girls.”
In turn, the Garcia Girls admire their parents. Beatriz “Betty” Garcia Gonzalez, a licensed clinical social worker and mental health professional with two degrees, is struck by their “humility and determination.” She and her sisters appreciate the effort their folks made taking them to Mexico every summer for two-week immersions in family, heritage and culture. They value their devotion to church and their legendary work ethic. Wells says these values are “deeply rooted” in them all.
“Those pillars of lessons” says Vazquez, shaped the Garcia Girls. That example now shapes four generations of Garcias, “Mom and Dad are still healthy and they’re still very much a part of our lives. They still encourage us,” says Patty Tello, an Educare Center of Omaha family enrichment specialist.. “They worked so hard so that we could have an education. Always in the back of my head was that I had to make them proud of me because of their sacrifice.”
“I’m very happy my parents had the desire for us to complete our education and go further than just high school,” says Wells.
Maria says, “They’re the smartest people I know. They valued education. They always certainly encouraged us to do our best and to work hard and give back, and with that foundation we were able to do anything.”
Indeed, Silvia says her folks made her feel “I’m capable of reaching any goal I wish to attain.” She can count on “always having their support.” And the support of her sisters. “It is nice to always have someone encouraging you and I think we all encourage each other.” “We’re there for sounding boards,” says Maggie.
Tello says the family always pitches in to babysit as needed.
There’s some sisterly prodding, too. “If I’m thinking, This is difficult, there’s always someone there to say, ‘I know you can do it,’ or, ‘I did it, you can do it, too,” says Silvia. Patty was inspired to go back to school after seeing Silvia do it.
“I think we’ve challenged each other,” says Betty.
The striving continues. Silvia is midday through graduate studies at Bellevue University. Patty is studying for her master’s in childhood education at Concordia (Seward, Neb.) University. Vazquez is going after her Ph.D. in educational administration at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Betty says the family’s left “a legacy.” “And there’s still more to come,” says Patty, adding, “We’re still pushing the envelope and seeing what more can we do.”
“We all try to be a part of the community we live in and make it a better place to live,” says Silvia.
As the oldest, Maggie led the way by embarking on a corporate career, then becoming the first in her family to attend college.
“Maggie was working full time and married when she started at UNO. I remember her taking me when she registered for classes. She wanted to expose me to that environment, to that other world,” says Maria, who went on to earn degrees from Metro and the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Magdalena “Maggie” Garcia, right, with her Latino Heritage Award
Maria Vazquez making her Latina of the Year acceptance speech at Latino Heritage Awardsphotos ©2007 – 2010 Barrientos Scholarship Foundation, http://www.barrientosscholarship.org
After Maggie completed her master’s at Syracuse University she was unsure what to do next. “My father told me, ‘Whatever you decide to do you have our support in whatever way we can, but find something that makes you happy and you’re passionate about.’” She fulfilled her dream opening the museum. The whole family’s volunteered there.
As each Garcia Girl’s found success, the whole family’s shared in it. The legacy lives on.
I met and profiled artist Terry Rosenberg a few years ago but I never got to meet his life partner and fellow artist, Claudia Alvarez, until quite recently. Years apart, each came to Omaha for a Bemis Center for the Contemporary Arts residency – he in 1982 and she in 2005 – and each found the city to be a nurturing place for their work. Terry made Omaha his second home, commuting between here and New York City. Then Claudia came and the two found each other. They reside in New York City now but keep a place in the Old Market in Omaha and get back enough to maintain a strong presence here. My profile of Claudia below keys off a new exhibit of her work dealing with immigration. She and Terry are among the many artists and creatives from elsewhere who have infused Omaha with talent and energy. You can find my profile of Terry and his work on this blog as well. You’ll also find a story I did on the Bemis Center. Look for a coming depth story on Bemis founders Ree (Schonlau) Kaneko and her superstar artist husband Jun Kaneko and a much shorter, sampler story about the Kanekos. Their “Open Space for Your Mind” organization, KANEKO, and the multimedia Portals project that premiered there is the subject of yet another story.
Artist Claudia Alvarez’s New Exhibition Considers Immigration
©by Leo Adam Biga
Published in El Perico
For years Claudia Alvarez has created ceramic figures of beleaguered children as a metaphor for exploring social themes of poverty and violence. For a new solo exhibition in Omaha she uses childlike images to examine the experience of immigration and migration she knows first-hand..
The Monterrey, Mexico native came to the States at age 3 with her mother and siblings. Her father preceded the family to America. She grew up in Calif., where she earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of California Davis and her master’s from California College of Arts. Working as an ambulance driver for UC Davis Medical Center, she transported seriously ill children and seniors,, who in turn inspired her ceramic figures that look old and tired, yet resilient.
A Bemis Center for Contemporary Art residency brought her to Omaha in 2005, where she met her life partner, artist Terry Rosenberg. The couple now reside in New York but they retain deep ties to Omaha, where they’ve been two of the brightest lights on the local art scene.
“We still have a place here in the Old Market and we come quite a bit and work here. There’s something about Omaha that brings us back,” says Alvarez, which is why she readily accepted an invitation to show her work at the new Gallery of Art and Design at Metropolitan Community College’s Elkhorn Valley Campus, 204th and West Dodge Road. Admission is free.
Her History of Immigration runs through April 9 and is part of a Metro residency she did. She’s previously exhibited at the Bemis and El Museo Latino in Omaha, the Sheldon Museum of Art in Lincoln and the Museum of Nebraska Art in Kearney.
“When I came to the Bemis Center it just dramatically changed my life. For the first time I had an infrastructure that really supported my work,” says Alvarez. “It was a life changing experience. Before that I was teaching at a university and when I got accepted by the Bemis I quit my job. I thought I would be staying three-four months and then move on. But I met Terry and that was it. Everything kind of worked out.”
Living in New York and having strong connections to Nebraska and California makes Alvarez bicoastal and intercoastal. As a Mexico native with a great curiosity for the world, she’s a global citizen. She exhibits widely. She did a recent residency in Puerto Vallarta. Other residencies have taken her to France, Switzerland and China. She has shows opening in Mexico City, San Diego, Brooklyn and Miami.
Residing in the cultural melting pot of New York and being so well-traveled gives her a broader view of immigration as a universal human experience. Her Omaha exhibition uses sculpted children’s shoes and waif-like immigrant figures along with paintings of her and her family’s arrival in America to express the longing and struggle of people trekking from one land to another. Bound up in the work are notions of travel, escape, exhaustion, destination, assimilation, exile, refugee. The shoes bear the worn qualities of a journey made and a life lived.
“I’m really talking about immigration on a human universal level, so that hopefully different types of people can relate to this issue. We all have our journey. There’s a history, there’s the fingerprint. When I make the shoes I make them in porcelain and with my fingers I put the indentations where the toes and the sole are. I really work intuitively and try to make them very childlike, so they evoke emotions of innocence and memory. Each shoe has had its own history or past.”
Her immigrants could be anywhere, anytime.
“One is a little girl squatting in red underwear, with about 50 shoes scattered and somehow moving in the same direction. Then there’s two standing figures that appear to be walking forward in a big open space. In the corner is a cowboy boot on its side, with holes underneath it. They all reference immigration in some way. Some of them reflect really personal things, like my own childhood memories.
“The two figures walking forward are a very subtle insinuation. It’s how the simple act of stepping forward can mean so many things. It means a lot, for example, to Mexicans, who step forward for a better life, and really to any group of people that need to step forward and move forward in some way.”
Alvarez’s two paintings are drawn from her own life. The self-portrait “Green Card” is based on a photo of herself as an American newcomer. The other is taken from a photo of her newly arrived immigrant family.
©”Green Card” by Claudia Alvarez, from her History of Immigration
Being in New York with its many vibrant, self-enclosed cultural enclaves has shown her that immigration doesn’t have to mean giving up one’s identity. As an immigrant herself she says it’s inevitable she dealt with the subject and she expects to explore the nature of ethnicity in future work.
“I’m really interested in the power of words and how one simple word like immigration is so loaded with meaning. It can bring out so many different reactions from people.”
She avoids overt images, preferring viewers to find their own meanings in her work.
“The more I simplify my work the more powerful it can be. It’s OK that people interpret it in different ways. It should evoke questions, reactions and dialogue.”
View Alvarez’s show during normal gallery hours: Monday-Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday Noon to 5 p.m. Visit her website at http://www.claudiaalvarez.org.
- Artist Vera Mercer’s Coming Out Party (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- ‘The Bagel: An Immigrant’s Story’ – Joan Micklin Silver and Matthew Goodman Team Up for a New Documentary Film (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Joan Micklin Silver’s Classic ‘Hester Street’ Included in National Film Registry (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- 20 Top Artist Residencies and Retreats (newamericanpaintings.wordpress.com)
- Timeless Fashion Illustrator Mary Mitchell: Her Work Illustrating Three Decades of Style Now the Subject of a New Book and Exhibition (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Long Live Roberto Clemente, A New Exhibit Looks at this Late King of the Latin Ball Players and Human Rights Hero
I am a moderate baseball fan at best, but I am drawn to the stories behind the game and to the figures who animate it. One of the all-time great players, Roberto Clemente, made millions take notice of his baseball skills, which earned him a well-deserved spot in Cooperstown, but what he did off the field may be what he’s ultimately best remembered for. This little story for El Perico newspaper in Omaha takes a cursory look at the impact the late Roberto Clemente still has on people nearly 40 years after he tragically died at age 38 while attempting to carry out a humanitarian mission. The occasion for the story was a touring exhibition of his life that landed at El Museo Latino, and I simply asked a few folks in the local Latin community what Clemente’s legacy means to them. The exhibition continues through July 17.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in El Perico
Beyond Baseball: The Life of Roberto Clemente continues through July 17 as part of a 20-city tour.
It’s curated by Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico with the Carimar Design and Research studio and organized for touring by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. The Smithsonian Latino Center is a sponsor.
When Pittsburgh Pirates great and Latin symbol Roberto Clemente died December 31, 1972, his native Puerto Rico wept. He was only 38. The grief extended throughout the Americas.
The first great Latino star in the big leagues, Clemente was a trailblazer who opened pathways for other Latin players to follow. He’s remembered as more than a magnificent athlete, but as a man of the people, devoted to his countrymen and Spanish-speakers worldwide.
He died when a plane he was aboard delivering relief supplies to Nicaraguan earthquake victims went down in the ocean. His body was never recovered. It was not the first time he acted as a humanitarian — he helped needy people in the United States and Central America and held free baseball clinics for children in Puerto Rico. After his death his wife and children have continued his work.
In recognition of his brilliant play in the outfield, at the plate and on the base paths, the usual five year waiting period for Hall of Fame consideration was waived and he was elected by an overwhelming majority into Cooperstown. The Roberto Clemente Award was established to salute Major League Baseball players who combine outstanding play and community service. The award, given annually since 1973, made Clemente the inaugural honoree.
His homeland is replete with stadiums and streets named after him. As a national hero, his image adorns homes of Puerto Ricans there and everywhere.
With Clemente’s legacy so strong, El Perico asked members of Omaha’s Puerto Rican community and others for lasting impressions.
Antonia Correa vividly recalls the news of his tragic death on the island, where Clemente’s aid mission to stricken Nicaraguans was well known. His sudden loss cast a pale over holiday celebrations.
“It was a major emotional thing,” she says. “It was sad twice because we lost him, someone everybody was passionate about, and because of his trip to help victims.”
Correa’s memory of Clemente is forever fixed in context of what he died doing. “I remember him as this face of humanity. I keep in my mind the face of this humble man eager to help others.”
Maria Valentin remembers “days of mourning Roberto” after his death. In life he was beloved because he never forgot his roots. “He was very proud of being a Puerto Rican,” says Valentin.
Beyond baseball success, his charitable work endeared him even more.
“He was young and he wanted to help, and he did it and we loved him in the process,” says Valentin. She notes that he’s revered as “a champion for human rights” and “a role model for kids, adding “He was ours. He created a legacy not only for him but for all of us Puerto Ricans, carrying the country along. His talent, his energy, his commitment to help people still remains within us.”
She says his example of overcoming discrimination to excel when he and other Latin and black players were treated as “second class” citizens is inspiring. “He broke barriers for the younger generation. The language, the color, the strange territory should not stop you once you have a dream, once you have a talent.”
Hector Santiago says Clemente is a rare figure who transcends eras to still inspire.
Acclaimed jazz artist Miguel Zenon, who played Omaha May 21, says Clemente’s place in history “really surpasses anything that has to do with sports or fame. He just took it to another level in terms of what he achieved as a human being.”
University of Nebraska at Omaha professor Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado says Clemente “presented for us the archetype of what we wish all humans do when given the immense gifts and skills he possessed…His dignified presence was equivalent to that of the icons of his age and his too-soon passing only served to remind us of what had been taken from us. He would have been the penultimate ambassador for sport and humanity to the Latin world.”
Special programs in conjunction with the exhibition include a lecture series, a baseball clinic and a celebration of Puerto Rican culture.
El Museo Latino is located at 4701 South 25th St. For details, call 402-731-1137 or visit http://www.elmuseolatino.org.
- El Museo Latino in Omaha Opened as the First Latino Art and History Museum and Cultural Center in the Midwest (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Review: “21”: The Story of Roberto Clemente (repeatingislands.com)
- Graphic biography of Puerto Rican Baseball great Roberto Clemente (repeatingislands.com)
Magdalena Garcia is one of those one-woman bands whose all consuming devotion to her passion, art, is so complete that one finds it hard to imagine how the museum she founded and directs, El Museo Latino in Omaha, would ever survive without her. She is hands-on involved in virtually every aspect of the place, which for its relatively small size presents a tremendous number of exhibitions and programs. The museum is a real jewel in the city and was one of the redevelopment anchors that signaled to others the promise of the South Omaha community it resides in. When she opened the museum 18 years ago South Omaha was in decline but she stuck it out, found a great new site in the heart of the South O business district and she’s seen the area around it transition from nearly a ghost town look and feel to a vibrant, bustling hub of largely Latino owned and operated businesses. I did the following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) a few years ago. Maggie, as she’s known, had already grown the museum into a first-rate arts venue of high quality exhibits and programs by that time, and she’s taken it to even greater heights since then.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
As preparations for Cinco De Mayo festivities continued earlier this month at El Museo Latino, founder and executive director Magdalena Garcia seemed to be everywhere at once in the sprawling brick building housing the museum at 4701 1/2 South 25th Street. Now in its eighth year, the museum is very much a one-woman show.
With a small staff and a meager budget its survival depends on Garcia, whose formidable drive brought it from concept to reality in five short weeks in early 1993. She does everything from unpacking crates to framing works to leading tours to presenting lectures to schmoozing at fundraisers to writing grants to giving dance lessons. She even locks up at night. It’s her baby. And, despite protests to the contrary, she would not have it any other way. Her work is her life’s mission.
“It’s definitely a passion. I’m totally immersed in it. It’s never, never boring. There’s always something new to do and learn, and that’s exciting,” said Garcia, a Mexico City native who has kept close to her heritage since emigrating with her family to Omaha in the early 1960s. Such devotion is typical for Garcia.
She had an epiphany serving as a Joslyn Art Museum Docent during a 1984 exhibition of art and artifacts from the Maximilian-Bodmer collection on permanent loan to Joslyn from her then employer, Northern Natural Gas, where she was human resources manager. Her experience then inspired a desire to dig deeper into that world and eventually led her to reorder her life around art, something she’d only dabbled in before.
“I remember thinking how wonderful it would be to be that close to real art every day. That was an exciting prospect to me. After the exhibit ended I stayed on as a volunteer in the Joslyn’s art library. Then I found myself taking vacations to see exhibits in Boston, Los Angeles, Europe. As I saw more art I found traveling to exhibitions a few days a year wasn’t enough anymore. I wanted to make art my profession. To work in a museum. I just didn’t know how I was going to get there.”
Her first step on that journey was to switch her major from business to art history while a part-time University of Nebraska at Omaha student. The next step came when her company downsized in 1988 and she accepted a severance package. She used the money to enter graduate school at Syracuse University, where she embarked on a dual master’s program in art history and museum studies. After a fateful decision to change her focus from Renaissance to Latin American art, her research on Mexican muralists took her to New York, Los Angeles (where she completed an internship at the L.A. County Museum of Art) and Mexico City. “It really brought me full circle,” she said.
When New York’s illustrious Guggenheim Museum courted her to head-up its Latin American Art Department it confirmed her marketability as a bilingual woman with art and business expertise. “That was an eye-opener,” she said. “It showed me I could be a tremendous resource to an institution wanting to reach the growing Hispanic population.” She turned the Guggenheim down, however, because she could not justify stopping short of completing the academic path she had worked so long and hard to follow.
Then, in the fall of 1992, something happened to derail her conventional museum track. While in Omaha for a one-day Hispanic Heritage program and exhibit she was struck by the “overwhelming” requests she received to speak to school and community groups and by the “need for a space where we could show art year-round.” That’s when she got the idea of starting an Omaha Hispanic museum.
Bringing a Vision to Life
Her plan from the outset was for a museum to be based in its cultural center — South Omaha. When her search for a space turned-up a former print shop in the basement of the Livestock Exchange Building, she negotiated a one-year lease with eight months free rent in lieu of her cleaning up the ink, grease and smoke-stained site.
Armed with pledges of donated supplies from individuals and businesses, work proceeded at a fever pitch, especially once Garcia and her board decided to open in a mere 34 days to kick-off that year’s Cinco De Mayo celebration. Volunteers worked day and night to convert the space, putting-on the finishing touches minutes before the doors opened at 4 p.m. on May 5, 1993. Only a few years later, with the museum having quickly outgrown its space and the future of the Livestock Exchange Building and surrounding stockyards in doubt, Garcia looked for a larger, more permanent site and found it in the former Polish Home at the corner of 25th & L, a fitting symbol for the changing makeup of South Omaha’s ethnic community. In Garcia’s mind it was providence that led her to the building, which, with its brick walls, red tile roof and U-shape design framing a courtyard, resembles a Spanish colonial structure. “It probably was meant to be,” she said.
She believes that when El Museo Latino opened in its new digs it became the first Latino art and history museum and cultural center in the Midwest.
The eclectic museum is a reflection of her wide interests in and deep feelings for Hispanic art. What it lacks in polish or panache it makes up for in serious presentations of textiles, pottery, carvings, paintings, drawings and photographs revealing the breadth and depth of a rich culture. “Hopefully, anyone who comes to the museum will get a little glimpse or flavor of how varied Latin American art is. It’s not one thing. It’s not just cactus and mariachi. It’s not just a Mexican thing. It’s a variety of periods, countries and styles,” she said. “The thing I’ve been most pleased with is sharing this diversity not just with our community, but with the rest of the community and sharing how WE see our culture rather than someone else translating it and telling us what our culture is.”
Finding a Niche
Garcia feels the museum is taking hold in the mostly Hispanic district. “I’ve noticed people taking more ownership. That this is ‘our museum’ versus, the first years, this is ‘Maggie’s museum,’ and that’s great. There’s more of a community embrace and it’s grown out of a collaborative effort. Our people look to see what’s happening here and the wider community looks to us to see what the Hispanic community is doing.”
With a broad mission of collecting and exhibiting Hispanic art from the Americas and developing education and outreach programs around all its displays, El Museo Latino has set ambitious goals. To date, it has acquired a small collection of textiles and objects and averaged eight exhibits per year. Garcia hopes to increase acquisitions and add more exhibits, but for now funds are earmarked for renovations to the turn-of-the-century building, including an overhaul of its outmoded electrical and plumbing systems, a major roof repair and the addition of an elevator and dock. Then attention will turn to fully conditioning the former social hall into museum quality classroom and gallery spaces.
To meet those needs and allow for the building’s purchase, the museum is three-quarters of the way to reaching a $1 million fund drive goal. Meanwhile, Garcia said museum-sponsored classes and workshops overflow with students learning paper cutting, weaving and mola-making. Traditional Mexican folk dancing classes are also popular. Garcia, a dancer herself, leads a youth performance dance troupe. Lectures and concerts draw well too. Combined attendance (for exhibits, classes, concerts, etc.) is also up — to 52,000 visitors last year from 17,000 three years ago.
While there is always a chance she will take one of those high-profile museum jobs she still gets offered, she’s not going anywhere soon. “I’ve made a commitment to see this museum take off and really get on solid ground. We’re still pretty new. There’s a lot of work yet to be done,” she said. Besides, she finds renewal in the endlessly rich veins of art she explores. “One of the things I find exciting is that there’s so much out there. It’s like, What do we want to exhibit this time? Every time we have something new it’s a learning process. That part keeps me fresh.”
El Museo Latino is currently presenting a traveling exhibition of Alebrijes, brightly colored wood carvings of fantastic animals from the Mexican state of Oaxaca. The show continues through August. For more information, visit http://www.elmuseolatino.org or call 731-1137.
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