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Magdalena Garcia’s dream of a museum still thriving at 25

August 27, 2018 Leave a comment

Magdalena Garcia’s dream of a museum still thriving at 25

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the September 2018 issue of New Horizons

 

Magdalena Garcia

 

Magdalena “Maggie” Garcia has the rare opportunity this year to celebrate 25 years of a dream coming true and still going strong.

The founder-executive director of El Museo Latino in Omaha, the first Latino-Hispanic art, culture and history museum in the Great Plains, opened in 1993 because Garcia wouldn’t relinquish an idea. That idea to create a museum celebrating Latino heritage was emboldened by the empowering message conveyed by her father.

Garcia, 64, is the oldest of six sisters all born in Mexico City to Jesus and Beatriz Garcia. She did part of her growing up in Mexico, where she was exposed to fine and performing arts that inspired her.

“We returned every summer, sometimes for weeks and other times for the summer months,” she said. “Growing up I loved art and I was proud to be who I am.”

Her interest continued after she and her family moved to Omaha when Garcia was 9. She participated in traditional folk dancing from early childhood, even teaching fellow elementary school students to perform for the Our Lady of Guadalupe parish festival. She learned to make clothes from her seamstress mother. She admired her carpenter father’s handiwork restoring antique furniture. She dabbled in watercolor painting.

She comes from a family of art appreciators and creatives who all display some artistic talent.

As a young woman her life became more focused on education and employment.

“I come from a working class family. I never felt I needed anything because we had everything we needed. Always you worked toward something. It was that immigrant American Dream of if you work hard and you have a dream, it will come true,” she said.

She’s never forgotten the family patriarch’s words.

“I remember my father telling me. ‘My job is to provide everything you need – food, shelter, transportation, tuition. Your job is to do the best you can.’ He never said you have to get all As. That was never a pressure. It was just do the best you can – no skipping school, no playing hooky – that’s my expectation of you.’ Education was always very important to my parents. I don’t know how they put six girls through Catholic grade school and high school.”

Her father’s advice also drove her to follow her heart.

“When I was older, he sat me down and said, ‘You have to work, you need to be able to take care of yourself, so find something that makes you happy, that you love, that you have passion for – and go for it.’ I know that conversation happened with my sisters, too.”

The Garcia Girls are all accomplished college graduates.

“There weren’t any limitations placed on us. Starting with that belief of who you are and where you come from and that support from family was key for all of us.”

Preparing for her dream

It took her awhile to put into practice her father’s advice about heeding her heart after she was hired at Northern Natural Gas Co. through an affirmative action program

“That opened a door but that didn’t guarantee you were going to stay or advance in a career. I always felt it was important I prepare myself for any position I wanted. I checked off the requirements for education and training to make myself more qualified.”

She climbed the corporate ladder.

“My last position was as a human resources manager.”

Her passion for art still burned but was muted by the grind of a 9 to 5 workday and taking University of Nebraska at Omaah business classes at night. Still, art was as near to her office as Joslyn Art Museum across the street. An experience there rekindled her flame.

Her company made a permanent loan of its Maximilian-Bodmer Collection to the Joslyn, which in 1984 developed a national touring exhibition of these important Western art-history holdings. Garcia and some fellow employees trained as docents for the Views of a Vanishing Frontier exhibit.

“Marsha Gallagher, then-chief curator at Joslyn, welcomed us. She took us to one of the (storage) vaults. Watercolor was my passion and here were the Bodmer watercolors laying out in preparation for the exhibit. That was the moment I wanted to change careers. I said to myself, I know I need to find a way to be in a museum.'”

Garcia changed her major from business to art history.

In pursuit of her dream, she paved the way for her sisters’ higher education

“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,” said her sister Maria Vazquez, who went on to earn degrees from Metropolitan Community College and UNO. She’s now Vice President for Student Affairs at MCC.

When Northern merged with Enron, Garcia made the move to its corporate headquarters in Houston, Texas. However, the lure of working in a museum was too great and she left to embark on a two-year museum studies graduate degree at Syracuse University in New York.

To supplement her studies, she immersed herself in museums.

“I did volunteer work in a number of museums in my journey, including the Joslyn, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and the Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse.”

All of it was preparation for creating El Museo Latino.

Her journey coincided with an explosion in America’s Latino population. She observed institutions seeking to reach that demographic through programming.

“I saw where Latino art collections were located. It made me aware for the first time there were only four Latino museums (then) in the whole United States: New York City, Chicago, Austin and San Francisco.

“It made me stop and think, why not one here in the Great Plains? Why not Omaha?”

Thus, the seed for El Museo Latino was planted.

She applied for a paid internship at the Guggenheim Museum in NYC but was surprised by a full-time job offer. Though flattered, she wanted to fast-track her master’s, so she did a part-time paid internship instead at the Los Angeles County Museum, which was preparing to host a traveling Mexican art show.

“I worked in the education department putting together some of the programming and training, writing materials, teaching docents.”

That experience further stoked her desire to make a Latino museum happen here. Reinforcing that desire were state mandates to bring multiculturalism into school curricula. Nebraska put it into effect in 1993.

“All those things were on my mind,” said Garcia, who was ready to take the best art opportunity afforded her.

“I was at a time in my life when I was going to pick up and go wherever. But this was still home.”

 

An art class/workshop at El Museo Latino

 

 

Realizing the dream

She decided to share her dream with community leaders. She’d already “drafted what mission and focus such a museum would have and what it would need in terms of 501c3 status and a board.”

She approached activist-educator Jim Ramirez with her vision. He organized a meeting with other movers and shakers including then-Omaha Mayor P.J. Morgan and arts enthusiast David Catalan. She made a presentation. The group toured the site she’d fixed on – a former print shop in the Livestock Exchange Building.

Where others were cautious, she was determined.

“The expectation was we’re going to do it. Who wants to help and be part of it. I signed the first contract with the Lund Company for that Livestock Exchange space.”

She didn’t let objections to the rough shape of that 3,000 square foot space stop her.

“There were holes in the wall. There were pools of grease and ink.”

Some thought it couldn’t be a museum.

“But I thought it could be. It wasn’t much, but it was a good start.”

All the work to get it secured and cleaned happened with sweat equity. There was no budget.

South Omaha was undergoing a major transition. The South 24th Street business district was dead and the immigrant-refugee resurgence just beginning. The Big Four packing houses were long gone. The stockyards on their last legs.

“We had to put a screen door on the entrance to our museum to keep out the flies.”

It took a big effort to repurpose the old print shop.

“Everybody we could pull in pitched in. Family, friends, their friends. We’d come in in shifts.”

It was an all-day, every day push for Garcia. “I’d go home, get a shower, take a quick nap and back I went.”

Her father helped restore the huge, beautiful windows that featured oak trim and copper fixtures.

“About a week before we were scheduled to open, I get a phone call from the owner of Designer Blinds in Omaha. He asked, ‘What are you going to do about the windows?'”

Though gorgeous, the windows let in excess sunlight not safe or conducive for the display of artwork. She’d thought of painting over or covering them but it was a week before the opening and they were still exposed.

The owner wanted to send a salesman with samples but Maggie kept begging off, saying she had no budget. She finally agreed to a visit and selected a style just to be rid of him. Later that day the owner called to point out she picked a non-energy efficient model. She repeated it didn’t matter since she couldn’t afford them anyway. Then the owner revealed he was donating the blinds and their delivery and installation for free.

The blinds went up opening day. They went with the museum when it moved to its current building in 1998.

Carpeting was donated by the Nebraska Furniture Mart.

Garcia also got her former employer to donate desks, panels and partitions.

“Some we’re still using.”

To assemble the opening exhibits Garcia called on local artists and tapped her own collection of Mexican textiles cultivated on her travels.

“We opened with two exhibits. One with local art, including painting and sculpture, and the other with textiles from my travels. That was the beginning.”

The museum got the space in April and opened May 5, which is the Cinco de Mayo observance of Mexican independence. The renovation took 34 days from start to finish. Each year, El Museo Latino co-celebrates its opening with Cinco de Mayo.

The museum might have located elsewhere. Area colleges courted it for their campuses, Some pressed for an Old Market or suburban site. But she insisted it  operate independently and be situated near its base.

“We needed to be autonomous and we needed be in the Latino community of South Omaha. It should be in the community it represents and belongs to. The neighborhood doesn’t depend on the museum but there’s that support and connection, even if its just visual. The purpose of a museum is to serve its community, but I think ethnic museums have even one more connection with their community.”

The state multicultural mandate gave fledgling El Museo Latino an in with student tours. Founding board member Jim Ramirez proved a powerful ally and networker.

“He was very instrumental in getting the museum in front of superintendents and principals,” she said. “We’ve always worked with schools to get students here.”

Shes adamant about focusing on Latino art, culture, history year-round – not just for Cinco de Mayo. There’s an inexhaustible reservoir of rich material to draw on.

“If you live to be a thousand, you’ll never see everything that’s available or that you could see here.”

The museum’s built support by selling memberships and attracting grant support and donations. The Nebraska Arts Council, Humanities Nebraska and the National Endowment for the Arts are among its funders.

 

Se exhibe Arte Plumaria de docente nicolaita en Estados Unidos

El Museo Latino

 

Making the museum international

Garcia’s been intentional establishing international ties with art scholars, curators and artists in Mexico.

“That had been taking place before the museum opened. I would travel to different places to feed my interest in art. In my two years of graduate work I spent part of the summers in Mexico City at universities there meeting department heads and artists.

“In Houston, waiting to get into grad school, I took some classes at Rice University, whose gallery showed a photography exhibition curated by several artists. One of them was Cristina Kahlo (great niece of Frieda Kahlo). “That’s when i met Cristina. We corresponded and anytime I was in Mexico City we would meet. She introduced me to artists. The artists there knew what I wanted to do and were aware when the museum opened. They knew it mean exhibition opportunities.

“I did research on Mexican muralists. Over time I continued to build those connections.”

Garcia’s parlayed those connections by having Mexican artists and scholars visit. Cristina Khalo’s had several exhibits there. A frequent visitor is educator, photographer, mixed-media and installation artist Humberto Chavez. Garcia feels fortunate having a friend of the museum as well-versed and connected as Chavez is in Mexican art circles. His extensive travels and work expose him to diverse artists and art communities.

“We’ve worked with professor Chavez since ’95. Over the years we’ve had his work in a number of exhibitions. We’ve worked with artists and art organizations he’s been associated with in different parts of the country.”

Chavez said the work he’s brings to Omaha highlights different art strains in Mexico.

“We have different centers of art in different states of Mexico. I am trying to show the production of each center.”

Several years ago at El Museo Latino he curated work from the graphic workshop, La Parota, in Colima.

“It’s become very known in Mexico. In this space a lot of very important national and international artists have emerged or come there to produce different projects of graphic arts.”

Just as Garcia values this ongoing association, Chavez appreciates his Omaha ties.

“Having this new connection with artists was very important to me.”

In Omaha, he said, he’s found a kindred art family 1,500 miles from Mexico City. He looks forward to the relationship continuing.

“For all my life, I hope. Yes, I like to come, I like the artistic life in Omaha. I like for Omaha artists to come.”

El Museo Latino now operates an artist residency program that benefits form these cultural exchanges..

Chavez came from Mexico to do an extended artist-in-residence program but also to mentor to local artists.

“We also brought Carlos Tortolero, president and founder of the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago. If you’re a Latino artist, that would be one place you would want to exhibit your work. It’s an opportunity to bring our resident artists to their attention.

“These experiences expose our artists to another point of view and provide opportunities for them to grow. We’re opening windows or doors for our resident artists because of our connections in Mexico and there might be opportunities to have residencies down there.”

By sharing work, ideas, contacts, she said, “we’re helping each other,”

Connections sometimes happen in unexpected ways.

“A dance group from the University of Chihuahua traveled here under the auspices of the Mexican Consulate. They ended up coming to do a performance. Over the years that university and other universities have sent us professors to do residencies. It’s also a great opportunity for our students to go there to study. It goes both ways. Many families that have students in our programs travel back to Mexico during their vacations.

“There have been people who’ve really believed in what we’re doing and want to find ways to help us and open up doors, not only for us but for artists of whatever age and level.”

Setting down roots and growing

El Museo Latino soon outgrew its space in the Livestock Exchange Building and in 1998 moved to its current site at 4701 South 25th Street.

“We looked for about a year at different buildings,” Garcia said.

The former Polish Home became the top choice for its size (18,000 square feet), proximity and historical significance (it’s now on the National Register of Historic Places).

“I had never been in this building before,” Garcia noted.

The brick walls, red tile roof and manicured courtyard reminded her of a Mexican hacienda.

El Museo Latino at first leased only the north wing with an option to purchase the entire building. Then, “in July ’98,” Garcia said, “we exercised our option and took over the rest of the building.”

What had been the ballroom-reception hall became the main galleries. The bar became a classroom.

The museum presented a centennial anniversary look back at the 1898 Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition. That 19th century fair likely included the state’s earliest public display of Hispanic heritage. In doing research for the museum’s commemoration of the event, Garcia discovered Mexico sent a cultural exhibition and official delegation.

“The exhibit was installed in the International Building. It included Aztec things and samples of products, such as beans and gold. In addition to Mexico, other Latin countries sent things. Panama, for example, sent a replica of the canal.

“It was nice to make that connection. I’ve often wondered if everything got sent back to Mexico or if it’s sitting somewhere here in Omaha.”

 

Family Fun Day

 

Exhibitions-programs express art, culture, history

Each El Museo Latino exhibit has its own life. Whenever possible, Garcia tries having featured artists at their exhibit openings. “That’s important,” she said.

For Garcia, “a new exhibit is an opportunity to research and learn about an art form or perhaps a new approach.” Part of her role is to bring to light an exhibit’s social, cultural, historical context. “I think if you can bring more aspects of that culture, it’s richer and it becomes more aligned and true.”

Former UNO Center for Innovation in Arts Education director Shari Hofschier said the museum “provides a showcase for rich Latino heritage and traditions,” adding, “It is a regional gem in the quality of its programs and exhibitions.”

Founding board member David Catalan said the museum’s “enriched our community.” Hofschire said it not only provides a cultural background to the Latino community but to the wider community. They refer to Maggie as “the building block” and “foundation,” respectively, of the museum. Both credit her passion and leadership for its success.

Recognition has come to Garcia from various quarters. In 2015 the Mexican Government honored her lifetime achievement in the arts with an award presented locally by the Mexican Consul.

The museum’s permanent collection is mostly photographs, prints and textiles, with some sculpture. “We do have a lot of folk art,” Garcia said.

A history of Latinos in Omaha is on permanent display. Humberto Chavez made the exhibit’s photo portraits.

“He was at the end of a Bemis Center residency. I loved his work and I shared with him I wanted somehow to document Latino presence. He decided it had to be in black and white (with accompanying bios). We worked up a set of questions, many having to do with why and how immigrants came here. We made contact with people in the community. I accompanied him to the sessions.”

The project prompted Garcia to reflect on the immigrant story of her own family and other families.

“I know we ended up here because I had an aunt who moved here many years before us. Many times families will go where there’s a relative. You’re not going to be totally alone, you’re at least going to know somebody who can help you get started.”

The prevalence of meatpacking and railroad jobs here was a big draw the first two thirds of the 20th century.Many folks came escaping poverty or civil unrest.

“Some people we documented heard Omaha had jobs.Some talked about first coming to Kansas City or Chicago before settling in Omaha.”

She said Omaha came to be known as a good place to find work and to raise a family. It didn’t have the overcrowded slums of other major metropolitan areas.

“Ninety-nine percent of those who fled come for a better life – to make money, to send back or to go back.”

Some elders described the Mexican revolution. When rebels Pancho Villa or Emiliano Zapata went through a village, they took boys as soldiers to fight in the war. The guerilla armies then were similar to the ones that preceded or followed them in history.

Where home is

Something she means to document is the length of time it takes for an immigrant family to consider their new surroundings home.

“You move to America, but you always think, we’re going to go back. It’s home, but it’s home temporarily.”

She said that way station attitude was her family’s, too, “until we moved back to Mexico for a year and realized we didn’t fit there.”

“Things didn’t work out.”

When she was in her late teens she and her family made that aborted move – she completed her junior year of high school in Mexico – before deciding to return to America.

“It’s a different way of life down there. Once we came back, this was home. It’s a different mindset. We can always go back to visit – but this is home.”

 

Edward James Olmos

 

 

Always something new

El Museo annually hosts six or seven traveling exhibits.

“My new favorite is whatever I have up now,” Garcia said. “Over the years there’s been some really special ones and we’ve featured some major artists.”

The 2001 Smithsonian exhibit, Americanos: Latino Life in the United States, featured 120 photographs depicting the diversity of Latino life.

To promote the exhibit, Garcia selected “an image of this peasant man posed against a field of flowers.”

“He’s holding these beautiful yellow tulips in his huge hands. It was the most beautiful representation of who our working people are out in the fields.”

The size of the show maxed out the museum.

“We used every inch of space in our galleries. We even used the stage.”

A special added attraction with the show was the participation of actor-activist Edward James Olmos, who helped organize and promote the exhibit and appeared at each opening on its national tour.

“He was here for the opening,” Garcia said. “I got to pick him up at the airport. He was like, ‘Mija!’ – just like you saw him in Selena. It was wonderful to meet him. He spent two days here. He wanted to talk to our youth, so we contacted the Boys Club and they brought several vans full of kids. We filled a big room.”

Other notables who’ve visited include network television journalist John Quiñones and civil rights leader and former president of the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Raul H. Izaguirre. Nebraska community leaders and elected officials have also visited.

Another Smithsonian exhibit, Our journeys, Our Stories: Portraits of Latino Achievement, showed at El Museo in December 2006 through January 2007. Two of the portrait subjects attended the opening.

With whatever exhibition is up, the museum programs related workshops and events around it. For this past summer’s contemporary textiles exhibit by artist Marcela Diaz, whose work represents the traditional textile fiber art of the Yucatan Region using natural fibers of cactus and coconut, the Yucataz artist came to present a fiber art workshop. Other artists did subsequent workshops.

The Diaz textiles show continues through December 16.

The annual Day of the Dead exhibit will run from October 13 through November 17. It will be complemented by traditional paper-cut workshops,

Also showing this fall is a photo exhibit by Garcia’s old friend and colleague, Humberto Chavez, titled TESTIGOES. from October 20 through December 1.

In January, the museum presents Tintes Naturales, an exhibit of natural tints textiles from Mexico.

Whenever there’s a show related to the Mexican Revolution, dance program students learn the dances of the period and perform them to live music.

“They research how people dressed, they create costumes. It’s almost like the men and women frozen in time in photographs jump from the wall as you see the dances and hear the music of the period,” Garcia said. “All of a sudden it comes alive through several art forms. Combining them is fantastic.”

El Museo’s dance program and troupe are among ongoing activities that happen year-round.

“It has a life of its own, It’s youth and adults. When the museum opened that was one of the first programs we started with. It’s been a standing program ever since.”

 

EML

Taking stock

Institutionally, Garcia said, “we continue to grow –

maybe not as fast as we should.” “Programmatically,” she said, “there’s more requests coming in, so I’m trying to find a way to grow to the next level where we can be reaching out to the community to many more people. I want it to grow. That’s what I want.”

More staff’s needed and that means more funding.

“We can’t now go to very many schools to bring programs there. We need somebody to manage contracting and developing more outreach. It’s still a small group managing all that now.”

Things may not be as far along as she’d like, but 25 years educating and entertaining the public is no small feat. All she has to do to know the museum’s making a difference is to look at who’s enjoying it.

“This summer we had an outdoor screening of Coco and the courtyard was full of families. To plan something and then see the reaction of people is satisfying.”

Seeing visitors, especially children, walk through the galleries and respond to the work, she said, “makes the exhibit worthwhile and makes the museum worthwhile.”

“If we can only touch one student, it’s worth it.”

When school groups arrive she knows kids are not yet sold on being there. “But once you start talking to them and sharing information and they start asking questions, you’ve got them engaged, and that’s fantastic,” she said.

Tour groups are the museum’s lifeblood. Some 50,000

patrons visit the museum yearly.

“We know people are coming from all over the metropolitan area,” Garcia said. “A lot of them are coming from outside Omaha,”

Harvesting heritage

El Museo Latino is a direct expression of Garcia sharing her love of heritage with others.

“It is paying tribute, it is focusing on our culture, our traditions. It is satisfying.”

It’s also a reminder of how she never abandoned her roots. She said relatives from Mexico who’ve visited the museum told her, “When you left for the United States we thought you were going to forget about everything. How can you so far away have come full circle to have a passion for who you are and your roots when there are many of our own kids that don’t care or value it?”

Garcia is familiar with the pattern of people distancing themselves from their past.

“You see it there, you see it here,” she said. “They view it as something they left behind –  we don’t want to know anymore about it because we want to become mainstream Americans.”

But Maggie and her museum celebrate the totality of what it means to be human.

“The whole idea of this is that you can be whoever you are without forgetting where you come from and without denying this rich culture that we have. That doesn’t mean you have to choose either loving your county or loving your roots. You do both. You can be all of that.

“I’ve always been proud of my heritage. I’ve never denied coming from Mexico. At the same time, America is home.”

Her whole family’s volunteered there. Her sister Silvia Wells is managing director. As each Garcia Girl’s found success, the whole family’s shared in it. Their legacy lives on in part through the museum. 

The museum’s commemorating its 25th anniversary throughout the year, including an Open House on Saturday, October 13 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Visit http://www.elmuseolatino.org.

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

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El Museo Latino opened as Midwest’s first Latino art and history museum-cultural center

June 14, 2011 10 comments

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.

El Museo Latino opened as Midwest’s first Latino art and history museum-cultural center

©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.”

Changing Paths
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.

Magdalena-Garcia[1]
Magdalena Garcia

 

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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