María Esther Fernández on Creating a Nexus for Chicanx Art and Research

In January 2022, A.i.A. spoke with María Esther Fernández, artistic director of the Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art & Culture (aka the Cheech), which was founded by actor Cheech Marin in cooperation with the Riverside Art Museum in California. The center was born of Marin’s passion for collecting Chicanx art and his awareness of its relative lack of museum representation. The Cheech will serve as both an exhibition space and a community art center. Fernández, once an educational staffer, was most recently chief curator and deputy director of the Triton Museum of Art in Santa Clara, California, where she focused on Chicanx Bay Area artists. Below, she details her vision for the Cheech’s opening and some of the ways in which the center will operate as a nexus for Chicanx art and research.

The Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art & Culture has come to fruition in just about five years. I was hired last August, although my colleagues had been working for quite a long time before that. I’m blown away by the commitment of my fellow staff members, the city, and the community to gather the resources necessary to create and maintain this space. It’s a luxury to be able to talk about vision and mission, given all the blood, sweat, and tears that have gone into the Center’s foundation.

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Right now, the focus is on our opening, slated for June 18. Our inaugural exhibitions will feature roughly 130 works from Cheech Marin’s collection, a De La Torre Brothers retrospective curated by Selene Preciado from the Getty Trust in partnership with the Smithsonian Latino Center, and a show of local artists in our Altura Community Gallery—a dedicated space where regional artists, makers, and community groups of all levels can present their work.

The Cheech functions as both a museum and a community center, one that builds on the legacy of Chicanx arts and organizations dating back to the Chicano Movement [1940s–’70s]. There will need to be a constant dialogue about how museums can serve communities that have long been marginalized, specifically from the contemporary art system. The Cheech operates under the larger umbrella of the Riverside Art Museum, but it will function in many ways as a freestanding institution. We will have a collection that is housed here, as well as exhibitions and scholarship specific to Chicanx art, and there are also plans for reaching out to the local community.

María Esther Fernández, director of the Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art and Culture.

María Esther Fernández, director of the Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art and Culture.

I think of the Cheech as a dynamic artistic and scholarly hub, where we’re committed to redefining museum practice by centering the perspectives of a community that has been historically disenfranchised. One of the first things I did—and I continue to do—was to meet a lot of community partners, including arts and social services groups, education partners, and even health organizations, all of which are focused on the Latinx experience. It was really eye opening to realize how my practice as a museum leader plays into issues of equity.

When we consider what the Cheech will be, we’re thinking about how to fund further research into the collection, how to present a comprehensive acquisitions and exhibitions plan, and how to make this information more accessible. We also want to bring in multiple curatorial voices and perspectives by creating opportunities for guest curators, as well as nationally touring exhibitions that align with our mission. My passion, as a former museum educator and now curator, is to develop more inclusive fellowships and internships that will train students in equitable collections management and curatorial practices, in order to make an impact on the future of the museum profession. We’ve already fundraised for our first fellowship, and we are in conversations with local universities to start a program.

We’re also creating an advisory committee, one that is overseen by but separate from our board. It will comprise museum professionals, Chicanx scholars and artists, and community members. We want to be accountable to the experts in our communities.


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