Brown Quarterly - Vol. 2, No. 1 (Fall 1997)

Mexic-Arte Museum: At the Heart of Austin Culture

By Beatriz de la Garza

Who says artists are impractical? Back in 1983, three Latino artists in Austin, Texas, bartered their talents and their labor for a four-year lease on a 300-square-foot studio and gallery. Sylvia Orozco, Pío Pulido, and Sam Coronado designed and proposed to paint an exterior mural at the Austin Arts Warehouse. Unfortunately the owners could not decide on the design and the mural was never painted; however, the artists were still able to acquire a venue for their work and that of fellow artists. From such mustard-seed beginnings thus grew what has become one of the most far-reaching artistic institutions in Austin: Mexic-Arte Museum.

From the earliest days, however, the three artists had a greater vision for their Galeria Mexico, the name they first gave their studio. In July of 1984 they incorporated Mexic-Arte Museum and in 1985 the museum obtained the non-profit status that facilitated fund-raising. The mid to late 1980's though were difficult economic times for Austin, particularly in the real estate area. Many buildings, including those downtown where the Arts Warehouse was located were foreclosed on or left vacant. The Arts Warehouse, too, became a casualty of the economic downturn, and it closed in late 1987.

The founders of Mexic-Arte museum turned this setback into a new opportunity, and later in 1988 they moved to larger quarters on Congress Avenue, the city's main artery which ascends imposingly from the Colorado River to the pink granite State Capitol. The Mexic-Arte Museum opened officially in September of 1988 at 419 Congress Avenue with the Austin Annual Exhibition and it has remained there since.

The mission that the Mexic-Arte Museum set for itself from its inception was to preserve culture and tradition while at the same time promoting new and contemporary art through high quality, multi-disciplinary programming, and it has remained faithful to its goal. Throughout the years, Mexic-Arte has acquired its own permanent collection which remains on exhibit, including photographs documenting the history of the Mexican people in Austin; etchings and prints by Mexican artist such as José Guadalupe Posada; masks made by the indigenous people of the state of Guerrero in Mexico; photographs of the Great Plains tribes and those taken by the renowned Mexican photographer Agustín Casasola which document the Mexican Revolution.

Since 1984 the Mexic-Arte Museum has organized an exhibition in observance of the Mexican holiday of the Day of the Dead, which follows Halloween, and both celebrations have become traditions in Austin. Emerging artists, as well as established ones, find a venue for their work at the Mexic-Arte Museum, and concerts, poetry readings and performing arts events can be found there at various times of the year. The Mexic-Arte Museum also houses a research library and a museum store that sells books and folk art on Latin America. In addition, its education programs bring school children into the museum, generating enthusiastic responses from both teachers and students.

The Mexic-Arte Museum, now under the direction of Sylvia Orozco, continues to serve an eclectic and rich feast of cultural experiences to the diverse Austin community. As a matter of fact, that is the title and theme of one of Mexic-Arte's main fund-raising projects, "Frida's Fiestas," a veritable banquet composed from Frida Kahlo's favorite recipes. The meal, prepared each year under the supervision of one of Austin's premier chefs, is held in September to coincide with the Mexican Independence festivities. (Austinites, ever ready to embrace celebrations, recall that at the time of Mexico's independence from Spain, Texas was part of Mexico; consequently, they include all Texans in on the fun of the September 16 celebration.)

Fund-raising is something that the Mexic-Arte Museum, along with most arts organizations, must engage in nowadays when funding for the arts from traditional sources has been curtailed. Just as in 1988, when as economic downturn in the Austin economy served to spur the founders to seek a larger, more visible venue, so, too, today Mexic-Arte is seeking to strengthen its presence in the Austin arts community by purchasing the building in which it is located. In attempting to purchase the four-story building in the heart of Austin which has been its home for almost ten years, the Mexic-Arte Museum would also be undertaking the preservation of a landmark that is rich in Austin history.

The building, which was completed in 1869, became the Headquarters for the Fifth Military District of the U.S. Army for part of the Reconstruction era. In the latter years of the nineteenth century, the structure became first a saloon and hotel and subsequently housed a saddle and harness business. If the success of the Museum's earlier efforts is anything to go by, then the closing years of the twentieth century will see the building at 419 Congress Avenue become the permanent home of Mexic-Arte, right in the heart of the Austin cultural scene.

*Beatriz de la Garza is the author of "The Candy Vendor's Boy and Other Stories," a collection of short stories, and "Pillars of Gold and Silver," a novel, published by Arte Público Press. Diego Rivera and the Revolution, Mexic-Arte Museum . 1993