Talking to Gregorio Luke, director of the Museum of Latin American Art, is like chatting with a cyclone. The former consul of Cultural Affairs for the Mexican government in Los Angeles caroms around the grounds of the Long Beach, California institution, pointing at contemporary pieces [post 1945] created by artists in Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean. He explains the intricacies of the museum's expansion project, and opines on subjects ranging from the future of humanity to the prose of Ernest Hemingway. As MoLAA enters the final months of its expansion project – due to wrap up in June – Mr. Luke jumps at the chance to talk about his museum.
>> Why devote an entire museum to contemporary Latin American art?
The artists are well educated and have a lot of talent, but at the same time the art is underrepresented in U.S. museums and under-recognized by the critical establishment. You have some Latin American artists that are famous – Frida Kahlo and some of the muralists – but, in general, most of the contemporary Latin American artists are not well known here. And the art is still very collectible.
>> How has the museum changed over your eight years as director?
I still remember when it was a fairly small museum. Originally, we had only two galleries. Then we added more gallery space, the collection kept growing, we added the Balboa Room for activities, we added the garden, and the last thing we're going to be doing is the entrance. But this is a process that has been developing gradually. We knew from the start where we wanted to go, and we've been achieving it. We've been growing our collection, developing our members, developing our staff, and developing what you can't see: the invisible forces that make something like this happen.
>> When planning a museum, what's more important, the art collection or the building in which the art will be showcased?
Sometimes museums begin by doing these capital campaigns and they spend much more on their buildings than on their collections. There have been places where they have this massive building, but what is inside of the museum – the art, the activity, and the membership – isn't as strong as it should be. We started with our own collection [provided by founder Dr. Robert Gumbiner] and worked from the inside out.
>> How difficult is it to keep funds rolling in to support the museum?
We have received support from different levels of government, some corporate support – not as much as we'd like, but we have received some – and the individual support is growing. We have more than 3,000 paying members and a membership-retention rate of more than 70 percent, which is one of the highest of any museum. Last year, we sold over $1 million of art [at auction], which I find significant because it shows you the credibility the museum has throughout Latin America. And, at the same time, it shows we are trusted by the American people, who are investing in artists they've been introduced to by the museum.
>> What would you say is MoLAA's biggest contribution to the American public?
Instead of building fences, we need to be building bridges, and I think our museum plays an important role in that. The people who come here can see beyond the stereotypes. You enter those galleries and immediately you realize that Latin America is a sophisticated region of the world. Most of the popular culture tends to look at the past of Latin America, but in our museum you're looking at a vision of Latin America that is very modern.
>> What kind of feeling would you like patrons to walk away with as they leave?
Through the art, I want people to fall in love with Latin America. If you're in business, I want you to walk away wanting to do business in Latin America. If you're a tourist, I want you to want to visit Latin America. Our role is to help develop an appreciation of the culture, and help build that bridge between the U.S. and Latin America.
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