December 3, 2022

It was a crushing Sunday in South Central Los Angeles in the 1950s when Cheech Marin, stuck in the church, looked up at the ceiling.

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

“There were painted guys in long sheets walking in the clouds,” said Marin, 74, best known as half of the Cheech & Chong comedy team. “And then I’d look in the corner and say, ‘Why are these guys barbecuing this other guy?’ These two things shaped my aesthetic from this point on: It had to be gorgeous and bloody at the same time. “

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

Now his 700+ paintings, drawings, photographs, and sculptures will have permanent homes in the former Riverside, California public library. Plans and funding were approved by the local council last week for the Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art, Culture and Industry at the Riverside Art Museum, which exhibits works by artists such as Gilbert “Magú” Luján, Frank Romero and Carlos Almaraz.

The art museum and academic center, slated to open this fall, are slated to be the country’s first permanent space devoted solely to showcasing Mexican-American art and culture – a role Marin does not take lightly.

“People hear ‘Chicano Art’ and think it’s some guy who’s sleeping under a cactus or something,” Marin said. For him, however, the aim is to seek the “sabor” – Spanish for taste – of Mexican-American culture in the works of US-born artists who are influenced by both their Mexican heritage and their upbringing with Cheerios and Uncle Sam .

Plans for the center, managed by the Riverside Art Museum, have been in the works for nearly four years. The city will contribute approximately $ 1 million annually to operating costs under a 25-year contract, and the Riverside Art Museum is funding a government funded $ 13.3 million renovation costs for the former library building $ 9.7 million grant and private donations.

Riverside Mayor Patricia Lock Dawson said in a statement she looked forward to the post-pandemic days when the institution, which will host both traditional and contemporary art, attract thousands of visitors to the city’s historic Mission Inn District could. It also provides for the institution to benefit the local business community.

The measure to create the center was passed 4-0 by the city council. Two council members resigned and one council member, Chuck Conder, abstained. Conder said he feared the 25-year deal could cripple the city’s finances in the long run. He called it a “betrayal” of taxpayers at a time when the city is struggling financially and faces a potential cost of $ 19 million to $ 32 million a year, according to the press, due to a court ruling over the use of public utility fees – Enterprise, a local news agency.

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

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

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

Marin has already donated 11 works from his collection and plans to donate another 500 once storage spaces are built to house them and offer his other pieces on loan. His holdings, exhibited in more than 50 museums here and in Europe, including the Smithsonian, range from pre-Columbian art to modern lenticular pieces (“You know the images of Christ with his eyes following you across space?” Marin said, “This is lenticular art.”).

Renovation work on the building is expected to begin over the next few months after the library moves to a new home that is being built just 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 upgrades to elevators.

Marin said the building, a sprawling space the size of a soccer field, offers ample opportunity for expansion – and he plans to use it. “I want to use as much art there as we can get,” he said.

He has long said his goal is “to bring Chicano art to the forefront of the art world” – and that brings him one step closer.

“My motto has always been that you can only love or hate Chicano art if you see it in person,” said Marin. “And now people have a place where they can always see it.”