The Complex Legacy and Uncertain Future of Austin’s Mexic-Arte Museum

AUSTIN, Texas — Texas is often derided as an ultra-conservative state. This is undeniably true, but it is also an oversimplification. Because of its location in the South and along the United States-Mexico border, Texas is the second most diverse state in the nation. Despite its political leanings and history of violent policies against immigrants and people of color, or perhaps because of these things, the state has a long history of activism and community organizing. Within the arts, this translates to artists of color creating venues to support artists, arts professionals, and communities of color.

Culturally specific art galleries and museums emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, with institutions such as New York’s El Museo del Barrio spurred on by the energy of the Civil Rights movement. In Texas, the Mexic-Arte Museum is the longest-standing institution dedicated to Mexican, Latinx, and Latin American art. Established in Austin in 1984 by artists Sylvia Orozco, Sam Coronado, and Pio Pulido, Mexic-Arte has been an incubator for hundreds of Latinx artists and cultural workers. Though the past four decades have shown why spaces like Mexic-Arte are essential, the organization has faced hardships that bring into sharp focus the other side of the coin concerning culturally specific institutions. Compared to predominantly White institutions, they are often underfunded, under-resourced, and over-scrutinized. And despite its legacy, Mexic-Arte has been housed in a dilapidated building for decades and, more recently, has faced allegations of discrimination.

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Orozco met Coronado while studying at the University of Texas at Austin (UT) in the 1970s. As one of few students of color in the art department, Orozco found that her professors pushed students to make abstract works rather than murals, figurative paintings, and other forms of art that explicitly addressed social and political issues. UT’s Center for Mexican American Studies was founded in 1970 and student organizations like the League of United Chicano Artists (LUChA), Mujeres Artistas del Suroeste (MAS), and Chicano Art Student Association (CASA) were prevalent, and Orozco and Coronado were among the students demanding more Chicano literature and art courses.

In 1978, Orozco participated in the Becas Para Aztlán scholarship program and studied at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in San Carlos, a renowned art school where artists including Diego Rivera, Roberto Montenegro, and José Clemente Orozco had attended. The opportunity allowed Orozco to learn more about Mexican art and culture and develop more socially conscious art. She met Pulido during her studies and the pair rented a house in Mexico City, where they opened an art school in 1980 called Centro de Información y Investigación del Arte before returning to Austin to found Mexic-Arte with Coronado.

Mexic-Arte was originally located in the now-shuttered Art Warehouse, which offered low-cost studio spaces to artists. At the time, Orozco and Pulido worked in restaurants during the day to support their burgeoning museum, rooted in a DIY approach that was in the air in the 1980s. Four years later in 1988, Mexic-Arte relocated to a 19th-century three-story building Orozco and Pulido had leased on Congress Avenue in downtown Austin, where it still resides today. In an interview with Hyperallergic, poet and performance artist Tammy Gomez, who attended the museum’s first annual Día de los Muertos celebration and has participated in other events since, endearingly described the building using the Spanish term rasquache, a word referring to a survival mindset of necessarily frugality that translates artistically into using found objects or whatever material is available.

Orozco, who serves as the museum’s executive director, told Hyperallergic that developers purchased the building and others on the same block in 2000. Worried they would lose the space, she worked with the City of Austin to develop an exchange agreement to buy the building. The contract stipulated that Mexic-Arte would provide services for 50 years such as hosting an annual exhibition for teen artists and offering free tours to Title I schools. These services would repay the city for spending $740,000 to purchase the building at the time. But that money wasn’t enough to get the building up to standard, as significant parts of the structure were unusable because of plumbing and electrical problems. This has raised ongoing concerns over Mexic-Arte’s artwork storage and display practices, including physical damage to the building such as the precarious state of the upper floors, decaying ceilings and mold, and art storage that is not in line with professional standards of care.

In 2006, the City of Austin approved a $5 million bond to support Mexic-Arte’s needed improvements, but Orozco claimed that the funds were still insufficient. The needs of the building were determined to be around $23.5 million in a report by then-interim Assistant City Manager Sara Hensley in 2018, and the museum received an additional $15 million that year, bringing the total closer to that amount. Orozco told Hyperallergic that the building’s issues stem from the historical inequity in funding Latinx and African-American cultural institutions. She added that the museum plans to temporarily relocate at the end of this year while the building undergoes a renovation funded by the two City bonds, expected to be completed in 2027 or 2028.

In recent years, the museum has also faced allegations of a toxic work environment. In May of 2022, a former employee along with some museum staff took over the museum’s social media account anonymously and launched the now-deleted Instagram account @ChangeMexicArteMuseum. Both accounts alleged a physically unsafe and discriminative work environment and provided photo documentation of the museum’s damaged storage areas. A month later, then-Board President Michael Torres and four other board members resigned. In his resignation letter, Torres expressed concerns that the issues brought up by staff would not be addressed and stated that he and other board members “felt some of the same discrimination and aggressions” from Orozco.

Earlier this year, former Mexic-Arte employee Crystal Alulema took to TikTok to share videos of the building’s condition and an audio recording of a tense conversation with Orozco about her termination. Alulema contacted the museum’s board, which has not yet responded to her, and filed complaints of employment discrimination and safety hazards with the Texas Workforce Commission and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in January, both of which were unable to investigate due to lack of jurisdiction. Orozco said that Mexic-Arte is in compliance with OSHA and has addressed all issues that the agency has requested. Alulema has not yet responded to Hyperallergic‘s request for comment.

In response to these allegations of discrimination, Orozco said, “People have their own opinions, but Mexic-Arte and myself would not be where we are today if that was true. Just yesterday, a child walked in and said his mom was an artist and she worked here, and that he loved art. Just about every day people come and talk about how we and I have touched their lives. My work speaks for itself.” 

Mexic-Arte has undeniably been an important space for Latinx artists and art professionals. MacArthur Fellow Guillermo Gómez-Peña, artistic duo Einar and Jamex De la Torre, and conceptual multimedia artist Celia Álvarez Muñoz, who referred to Orozco as a “legend” during an interview with Hyperallergic, are just a few of the creatives who have exhibited at Mexic-Arte. “Sylvia was my entrance to focusing on the Hispanic culture in my art-making,” Álvarez Muñoz continued. “She has held on and held on and transitioned [Mexic-Arte] to the next generations.” Many Latinx artists point back to the institution as a supportive place where they have received opportunities to exhibit their work and be a part of an art community.

Claudia Zapata, the inaugural curator of Latino Art at the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, told Hyperallergic that working with Mexic-Arte’s print archives paved the way for them to work as a Latinx art curatorial assistant at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and assist with the exhibition ¡Printing the Revolution! The Rise and Impact of Chicano Graphics, 1965 to Now (2020–2021).

Despite its complicated reality, Mexic-Arte still meets a need for opportunities for cultural workers and artists of color, which mainstream institutions too often fail to address.

“[At a predominately White institution], maybe you’re one of three BIPOC people, if even. There’s a lot of explaining that has to be done in other institutions,” Zapata said. “Whereas at Mexic-Arte there was a cultural ease … you don’t have to do as much code-switching. And it’s an immeasurable quality.”

Source: Hyperallergic.com

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