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Actor Cheech Marin helps open permanent showcase of Chicano art and culture


Geoff Bennett: For many people, Cheech Marin a household name, the comedian and actor best known as part of the countercultural duo Cheech and Chong.

But also an avid collector of Chicano art and opened the first major museum entirely devoted to that two summers ago.

Jeffrey Brown visited the Cheech Art Museum for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: On a recent hot September evening in Riverside, California, a majority Latino city an hour east of Los Angeles, many families and individuals headed indoors.

And it was art, lots of it, that brought them. The Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art and Culture, known to one and all as simply The Cheech, is part of the Riverside Art Museum. Thanks to a partnership between the city, the museum and comedian and actor Cheech Marin, it's home to hundreds of works of art by dozens of Chicano artists.

And it began with Cheech's personal collection.

What do you see when you look around right now?

Cheech Marin, Art Collector: You know, I see children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, because I have been collecting for a long time.

There was no big collectors out there for Chicano art. There was nobody collecting on the scale that I was, because it was an unknown quantity.

Jeffrey Brown: What was it? I mean, what did you see?

Cheech Marin: I saw a reflection of culture, Mexican culture, in an American setting, and that was Chicano. It's the coolest art out there.

I have been smoking since I was born, man. I could smoke anything.

Jeffrey Brown: Marin gained fame in the 1970s and '80s as one-half of the comedy duo Cheech and Chong. He was a regular on TV and in films like "Born in East L.A.," which Cheech also wrote and directed.

He himself was born in South Central Los Angeles to Mexican-American parents. And from an early age, he took an interest in art.

Cheech Marin: Every Saturday, I would go to the library, look at all the art books, and, OK, that's Picasso. Is that how you say that? Picasso, OK.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Cheech Marin: And that's Michelangelo. And -- so by the time I -- in a little while, I knew a lot about art.

Jeffrey Brown: But you weren't seeing art -- you weren't seeing Chicano art in those books.


Cheech Marin: No. You were barely seeing Chicanos, much less their art.

I knew kind of what the culture was. And it was always defined from the outside, not from the inside of the culture.

Jeffrey Brown: So, he brought the art inside, over decades, amassing a collection of more than 700 pieces from a variety of artists, including now well-known L.A.-born painters Frank Romero and Patssi Valdez, Texas-based Ricardo Ruiz, and younger mixed-media artists like Shizu Saldamando.

He curated an exhibition called Chicano Vision: American Painters on the Verge that traveled to major art museums in 15 cities between 2001 and 2007. It would prove groundbreaking.

Cheech Marin: I knew it was an important moment, because I could see the reaction to not only within the community, but outside of the community, to, oh, we have never seen this art in that kind of -- we never really noticed this as art before.

And that all changed when they started opening the crates.

Jeffrey Brown: Was there a sense from you and maybe from the artists of, why did this take so long?

Cheech Marin: Well, sure.


Cheech Marin: Yes, sure, of course, because some artists had gone through their whole career and never got recognized. And they were making work that would be recognized later, but it was frustrating for them not to be -- to be turned away not only from museums, but from galleries too.

Jeffrey Brown: Seventy-five-year-old Judithe Hernandez knows that feeling all too well. She grew up in L.A. and was a leading figure in the Chicano art movement of the 1960s and '70s.

Judithe Hernandez, Artist: We didn't exist for the mainstream art world. I mean, what we do -- what we did as art wasn't considered art at all. So we made our own galleries. We had our own exhibitions.

Jeffrey Brown: It took decades, but her work was eventually acquired by institutions like the L.A. County Museum of Art and the Smithsonian.

Hernandez says progress, especially for Chicano women, has been slow.

Judithe Hernandez: For many women that I talk to these days, it hasn't changed a lot. It is still very male-dominated. Women's work still has a very hard time getting into museums, as we all know.

Jeffrey Brown: Early next year, she's finally having her first major retrospective. And it's happening at The Cheech.

In fact, hers will be the first of its kind at the new museum.

Judithe Hernandez: Having an exhibition of this size is remarkable for me. I haven't had many solo shows. I don't know what I will feel like the day that it opens. I have never seen that much of my own work in one place.


Judithe Hernandez: It is very humbling.

Jeffrey Brown: It's what Maria Esther Fernandez, the Cheech's artistic director, calls filling the education and exhibition gap.

Maria Esther Fernandez, Artistic Director, The Cheech Center: A lot of artists who are major artists in the Chicano movement that have not had solo shows, mid-career shows, much less a major retrospective now in the later years of their lives, one goal is to feature those exhibitions and have a space where we can do them regularly, not every five years.

Jeffrey Brown: And it's not just major artists that they're focused on. Upon entering The Cheech, the first pieces of art that visitors see are part of a community gallery featuring local and younger artists.

Maria Esther Fernandez: At the ethos of what Chicanx art is, is, coming out of the movement, was engaging community. And so it's important for us, if we're going to be an institution, that we not replicate some of the museum models that have historically disenfranchised our community, that we engage them, that we bring them in as part of the curatorial aims and goals.

Jeffrey Brown: Fernandez stresses that Chicano art has evolved over the years. That's on display in the museum's upstairs gallery in a traveling exhibition titled Xican-a.o.x. Body, with contemporary artists exploring the brown body in a wide variety of forms and styles.

Maria Esther Fernandez: Art tells us our history, especially for those of us who maybe aren't written into the history books. And so I think it's important for folks to also understand that this art plays that role.

Jeffrey Brown: There are still many gaps to fill. By one count, fewer than 3 percent of artists in major U.S. museum collections are Latino.

So, this museum, did it feel necessary to you in some way?

Cheech Marin: I think it felt inevitable, Not necessary.

Jeffrey Brown: How did you feel when it opened? How did you feel personally when you stood here for the first time?

Cheech Marin: You know, I felt very proud. And -- and -- and -- what's the word? It's like watching your kids go off to college.


Cheech Marin: They may come back. They may not.

If we could make it past 20 years, then we're kind of in the club. That's what they told me.


Jeffrey Brown: In the big club in the art world.

Cheech Marin: In the big club, yes, exactly.

So, OK, I hope I live that long, but it's spawning a lot of relatives all around the country now. So, now people know, oh, I know what that Chicano art is, kind of -- I have seen a couple of things. I would like to see more.

Jeffrey Brown: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at The Cheech in Riverside, California.

Geoff Bennett: That is phenomenal. I want to visit The Cheech the next time I'm in California.

Amna Nawaz: Absolutely. Count me in.

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