Cheech Marin’s Chicano Art Museum is to open this fall

By Sarh Bahr

It was a stifling Sunday in 1950s South Central Los Angeles, when Cheech Marin, stuck at church, let his eyes drift to the ceiling.

What he saw there would spark a lifelong love of art.

“There were painted guys in long sheets walking in the clouds,” on a mural above his head, said Marin, 74, who is best known as half of the comedy team Cheech & Chong. “And then I’d look in the corner and be like, ‘Why are these guys barbecuing that other guy?’ Those two things informed my aesthetic from that point on: It had to be glorious and gory at the same time.”

In the mid-1980s, Marin, buoyed by a burgeoning film career, made the leap from merely admiring Rembrandts and Vermeers in museums to acquiring work. A third-generation Mexican American, he focuses on Chicano artists, and has amassed one of the largest such collections in the world.

Now, his more than 700 paintings, drawings, photographs and sculptures will have a permanent home in the former Riverside, California, public library. Plans and funding were approved last week by the City Council there for the Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art, Culture and Industry, which will feature works by artists including Gilbert “Magú” Luján, Frank Romero and Carlos Almaraz.

The art museum and academic center, which is slated to open this fall, is intended to be the country’s first permanent space exclusively dedicated to showcasing Mexican American art and culture — a standard-bearing role Marin doesn’t take lightly.

“People hear ‘Chicano art’ and think it’s a guy sleeping under a cactus or something,” Marin said. But for him, it’s about seeking out the “sabor” — Spanish for flavor — of Mexican American culture, in works by artists born in the United States and influenced by both their Mexican cultural heritage and their upbringing with Cheerios and Uncle Sam.

Plans for the center, which will be managed by the Riverside Art Museum, have been in the works for nearly four years. The city will contribute about $1 million per year under a 25-year agreement to cover operating costs, and the Riverside Art Museum is funding the $13.3 million renovation costs for the former library building through a $9.7 million state grant and private donations.

Riverside’s mayor, Patricia Lock Dawson, said in a statement that she looked forward to the days after the pandemic, when the institution, which will hold both traditional and contemporary art, could draw thousands of visitors to the city’s historic Mission Inn District. She also foresees the institution’s benefiting the local business community.

But though the measure to create the center passed the City Council on a 4-0 vote, three of the seven members abstained, among them Chuck Conder, who said he feared the 25-year agreement could cripple the city’s finances in the long run. He called it a “betrayal” of taxpayers at a time that the city is struggling financially and is facing potential costs of $19 million to $32 million per year as a result of a court decision on the use of public utility fees, according to the Press-Enterprise, a local news outlet.

“No matter how you slice it,” Conder said, $10 million is “a lot of money to spend on a museum that wasn’t supposed to cost us anything.”

The center is expected to generate $3 million annually for the city in its first decade of operation, based on an expected annual attendance of 100,000 visitors, according to a city report. The Riverside Art Museum currently has about 50,000 visitors a year.

Marin is particularly gratified that the institution, nicknamed “The Cheech,” will be located in Riverside, a city 55 miles east of Los Angeles with a large Latino population. The center also sits in proximity to five universities, including the University of California, Riverside, and California State University, San Bernardino, which Marin hopes will make Chicano art and culture accessible for students.

Marin has already donated 11 works from his collection and plans to donate 500 more once storage facilities are built to house them, as well as offer his other pieces on loan. His holdings, which have been showcased at more than 50 museums here and in Europe, including the Smithsonian, range from pre-Columbian art to modern lenticular pieces (“You know those images of Christ where his eyes follow you around the room?” Marin said. “That’s lenticular art.”)

Renovations to the building are expected to start in the next few months, after the library finishes moving to a new home being constructed a few blocks away. The City Council awarded a $10.7 million contract for the work, which will include a new roof and HVAC system and elevator upgrades.

Marin said the building, a sprawling space about the size of a football field, provides ample opportunity for expansion — and he plans to use it. “I want to put as much art in there as we can acquire,” he said.

He’s long said his goal was “to bring Chicano art to the forefront of the art world” — and this brings him one step closer.

“My motto has always been that you can’t love or hate Chicano art unless you see it in person,” Marin said. “And now people will have a place to always see it.”

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