RIVERSIDE, CA — A museum of Chicano Art is one step closer to reality after California’s Governor signed a bill that makes “The Cheech,” as the center is colloquially known, even closer to its fundraising goal because of a $9.7 million grant.
The partnership between the Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art, Culture, & Industry and the Riverside Art Museum (RAM) has captured the attention of supporters and non-supporters after their plans to house the famed actor’s collection were announced, but not everyone is in favor of it. On June 29, soon after the announcement of state funding, Bill Essayli, a Republican candidate for California’s 60th Assembly District, decried the incoming cultural institution as a “stoner art museum” on Twitter. When Riverside’s Press Enterprise caught up with Essayli’s tweet, the candidate sent the local paper a statement criticizing Richard “Cheech” Marin for making millions “glorifying illicit drug use” in his films with partner Tommy Chong. He also placed a bulk of the blame for the funds on his opponent, Assemblywoman Sabrina Cervantes.
The paper reports that the Assemblywoman only voted to approve California Governor Jerry Brown’s $139 million budget bill for 2018–19, and she had no role in securing the funds, according to Cervantes’s campaign consultant Derek Humphrey. In truth, the lobbying for the grant was led by Riverside Assemblyman Jose Medina. “This Trump-ish tweet comes from a politician who’s either completely ignorant, overly divisive, or both,” Medina campaign spokesman Josh Pulliam told the regional newspaper. “Why should the Bay Area or LA suck up all of the state’s resources for the arts?”
Medina secured funding from the state legislature, which has been added to the $3 million already raised by Marin and the RAM for an arts center that will give Marin’s personal collection, which is claimed to be the largest known private collection focused on Chicano art, a home. Marin began collecting Chicano art in the 1970s and has continued ever since. Over the years, selections from the collection of 700 art objects have been on tour in over 50 museums in the United States and Europe.
The initial budget news thrilled The Cheech and RAM. “The great news of the $9.7 million sent a wave of excitement through the entire museum,” said Todd Wingate, RAM Curator of Exhibitions and Collections. “What immediately followed was the awareness that there is much work to be done, and everyone rolled up their sleeves and got back to it.”
The funding will repurpose a 60,000 square-foot building, soon to be a former library, into a museum nicknamed “The Cheech” by Marin himself. Not only will it house the actor-comedian’s collection of Chicano Art, it will also provide exhibition space and serve as a research and educational facility for the field.
Before the $9.7 million was earmarked for The Cheech as part of the state’s $139 billion general fund budget, an initial $3 million was set as a deadline-based milestone when the museum’s plans were unveiled last year. That benchmark was reached with a pledge of $600,000 by Altura Credit Union and was celebrated with a public announcement on June 7 in downtown Riverside. After several thanks and speeches, Marin also spoke and shared the story of how the city officials and the Riverside Art Museum approached him with the idea to house his collection in Riverside. “You want me to buy a building?” Marin recalled, then performing a puzzled look on his face, hands up, palms out in a ‘say what’ gesture to Drew Oberjuerge, Executive Director of Riverside Art Museum, and Riverside Mayor, Rusty Bailey. “Oh … you want to give me a building!” joked Marin.
The Cheech Marin collection has proven to be of interest to the public, and during the Papel Chicano Dos: Works on Paper exhibition in February 2017, which featured selections from the collection, the response was overwhelming and visitors queued for the chance to see the show. The exhibition proved that there was a great deal of interest in Chicano art in a region that has a large Latino population.
“We first saw it when Cheech initially loaned some of his art here to Riverside. We saw lines going out the door,” said Assemblyman Medina. “As Cheech shows us, many people go to see art, but a lot of times we are not reflected in that art. When we are, Latinos come.”
Riverside is 60 miles east of Los Angeles, in the inland region of southern California once known for its citrus industry. Riverside is also home to the Parent Washington Navel Orange Tree, which is a tree credited as being one of two from which all California Navel Oranges have descended. That tree has a particularly poignant meaning for a region where citrus farming helped create the early wealth of several early US cities in California, including Riverside, Corona, San Bernardino, Redlands, Ontario, and Pomona. These cities grew on their own and have never been suburbs of Los Angeles. As the industry grew, with it came a labor force of Mexican and Mexican-American, Japanese, and Chinese workers that settled in the area, adding to the Latino and indigenous populations that pre-date the American government’s arrival.
“Chicano art is American art. American art exists in every state in the Union, and it started in this region,” said Marin after the obligatory big check photo shoot earlier in June. “Everybody is part of this movement. Look around at the ceremony; it’s such a diverse crowd. It really represents Riverside, and it represents the Chicano community.”
Since the inland cities are somewhat isolated from Los Angeles media culture, in many ways the region carries the same burden as Mexican-American or Chicano art: it has its own identity but isn’t part of the larger cultural landscape. Marin has made that his aesthetic point when defending the vital role of the artists in his collection.
“Early in my collecting days, when I started talking to museums, they would always, immediately, classify us as Latin American art.” Marin paused, and with a subtle head shake, emphasized a point he has made to resistant curators in the past. “We are not Latin American art. We are American art. This is a part of America. It’s one of the main threads of our cultural fabric. Now it’s being recognized. And it will be more recognized.”
“Cheech’s extraordinary collection provides a strong starting point for the artistic vision of the new center. As we, with Cheech, further develop that vision, we expect to both expand the curatorial team and identify collaborators — artists, curators, performers, chefs, writers, and scholars — to help further define the direction,” Wingate explained. “In our initial explorations of what that direction might be, we have mounted several shows at RAM that we think at least begin the conversation about what kind of work, beyond Cheech’s collection, might be part of the new exhibition program.”
Two of RAM’s current exhibitions, 4 Threads: New Work by Jamie Chavez, Gerardo Monterrubio, Jaime Muñoz, and Jaime ‘GERMS’ Zacarias and Jaime Guerrero’s Contemporary Relics: A Tribute to the Makers, hint at the new direction coming to Riverside in 2020, the year The Cheech plans to open. Private fundraising efforts for the effort have not ended. RAM will be hosting a “Celebrando Chicano Art” gala at the Riverside Convention Center on Thursday, September 6. Contributions have also been made when donors text “CHEECH” to 91-999.
“My goal going forward is to expand the definition of Chicano Art, because we want more people, and more inclusiveness in this movement,” said Marin.