News Column

Local Gem to National Treasure

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Five years after its opening, the National Hispanic Cultural Center of New Mexico (NHCC) finds itself a model for cultural organizations across the country. With continuing expansion, its mission is also evolving, in keeping with the Hispanic community it strives to represent.

"I view the center as essentially a civic cultural space," says Eduardo Diaz, the center's new executive director as of August 2005 – and a former director of San Antonio's Office of Cultural Affairs and the El Paso Arts Council. "The community has worked very hard to build this space, and the issues of quality and relevance are very important."

That said, the center's planners face the issue of which group it represents: the national Hispanic community, or the local/regional one.

"Initially we were talking about something local," explains Ed Romero, a founder of the National Hispanic Cultural Center Foundation, which drives funding for the center, and now chairman emeritus of the foundation's Board of Trustees. "We saw problems with youth who seemed to have no identity, no sense of pride or belonging to either the American or the Hispanic cultures," he explains. "The concept was that if we could help them identify with the food, the visual arts, the performing arts, we could give them a sense of belonging."

The center's neighborhood, Barelas, is one of the oldest sections of Albuquerque – and New Mexico is one of the oldest Hispanic areas in the United States. Spanish explorers first came to New Mexico in 1539. The first Spanish settlement was established in 1598. Santa Fe, settled in 1610, is the oldest capital in the United States. The United States claimed New Mexico in 1846 but kept it a territory until 1912.

"New Mexico was an out-of-the-way place," says Mr. Romero, a former U.S. ambassador to Spain. "It wasn't a hub for Mexico or Spain, or for the United States. The old families are still here."

But today New Mexico's population is more than 42 percent Hispanic, the highest in the nation. The combination of strong heritage and contemporary relevance make Albuquerque the perfect setting for a national center, the founders believe.

The political impetus for a cultural center began in the early 1980s, when Hispanic artists in Albuquerque formed a loose group to lobby for space to showcase their works. The artists took the idea to the state legislature. Meanwhile, an annual fair put on by the Albuquerque Hispano Chamber of Commerce and the city led in 1983 to the formation of the Hispanic Culture Foundation, which raised money to promote Hispanic art.

The foundation invited Prince Felipe de Borbon of Spain, then 14 and since named Crown Prince, to be honorary chairman of its board. "The crown then had an interest in this center, because there is nothing like it in the Americas," Mr. Romero says.

The concept took off fully in 1993, when the legislature in Santa Fe created a Hispanic Culture Division within the state's Office of Cultural Affairs. The New Mexico Hispanic Cultural Center would be its crown jewel. Legislators approved $526,000 for design and land acquisition. Funding came with a stipulation that the center be built in southwest Albuquerque.

By the late 1990s, state appropriations totaled about $20 million. The city of Albuquerque donated land and an existing building with a combined value of $4 million. New Mexico's two U.S. senators, Pete Domenici and Jeff Bingaman, worked to find federal support for the center. Congress appropriated $13.5 million for construction – and the center's name changed to the National Hispanic Cultural Center.

The Hispanic Culture Foundation was renamed, too. As the National Hispanic Cultural Center Foundation, it became the center's fund-raising arm, with the ambitious goals of collecting $10 million in construction funds and another $10 million for a programming endowment.

From the 22-acre site rose two buildings the color of New Mexico sand, connected by a plaza capable of accommodating 2,500 people. An estimated 16,000 visitors celebrated the three-day grand opening in October 2000. Crown Prince Felipe de Borbon, Prince of Asturias, and then-Governor Gary Johnson cut the ribbon. Flamenco and Aztec dancers whirled, Los Lobos rocked, and Albuquerque's visual artists showed their works in a new home.

The prince emphasized the center's international potential during his bilingual address. "In a few years' time, the United States may well overtake Spain to take second place after Mexico in the ranks of Spanish-speaking countries," he said. "We feel very close to your community, we share your hopes and aspirations, and we eagerly support your wishes to become a major contributor to the social, economic, and political achievements within the context of this great nation."

The original buildings were the Intel Center for Technology and Visual Arts and the History and Literary Arts Center. The Intel Center houses an art museum; a gift shop; a branch of the Instituto Cervantes, which is a nonprofit program created by the Spanish government and dedicated to the Spanish language; a resource center; and staff offices. The other building, a converted 1930s-era schoolhouse, contains a genealogy center and a library.

By the time the Roy E. Disney Center for the Performing Arts opened in September 2004, the property had grown to 51 acres. The new $22.5 million Disney Center, a complex of three theaters plus rehearsal space, received media coverage across the country. "The National Hispanic Cultural Center is no longer a center," Mr. Romero observes. "It's a campus."Two buildings remain to be built, with construction expected to start in 2006.

The Pete V. Domenici Education Building will include conference space and specialized classrooms for culinary arts, performing and fine arts, and social and computer sciences. Through on-site programs, video conferencing, and distance education, the center hopes to reach 4 million people a year.

The two-story Prince of Asturias Building will contain the center's international programs. The Instituto Cervantes will move there, as well as the Spanish Resource Center, another Spanish-government organization working in cooperation with the University of New Mexico to train teachers of English as a second language. Invitations have gone to Mexico to house a cultural program.

The center has assembled three high-powered boards. The advisory board includes high-profile artists and cultural figures such as Edward James Olmos, Rita Moreno, and Carlos Santana. It meets annually to advise the center's board of directors and the foundation's board of trustees. These boards draw members from all over the country and from different national origins, bringing together expertise in law, finance, business, media, and education.

"We're different from a lot of cultural institutions because the center receives state funding," says Katherine Archuleta, the foundation's executive director who served as chief of staff to Federico Peña when he was mayor of Denver and secretary of transportation. "But it's never enough – just like everywhere."

The foundation makes up the difference through individual and corporate donations from New Mexico and nationally. "We never go to a stranger to ask for a donation," Ms. Archuleta says. "We try to establish relationships.

"The first thing we have is this wonderful campus. It sells itself. The second thing is that its past is shared by tens of [thousands of] people. The excitement about the center is that it's the only place you can say 'Hispanic' and mean Puerto Rican, Cubano, Dominican – the entire Hispanic world."

And now, with Eduardo Diaz on board as the center's executive director, "it's time to go beyond the borders of New Mexico," says Ennio A. Garcia-Miera, a member of the foundation's board of trustees and vice-president of GMAC Mortgage's new markets group.

Since the Roy E. Disney Center opened, the center has tasted both national and international fame. Ms. Archuleta and Mr. Garcia-Miera now contemplate development of a national marketing plan to expand the center's audience and impact. The new education complex, with its distance-learning capabilities, could help accomplish that.

But other possibilities are on the table. Over the years, growth of the Hispanic community has brought competition in the culture market. The Smithsonian Center for Latino Initiatives organizes exhibits and research projects, and a proposal by Congressman Xavier Becerra of California seeks the creation of a Hispanic museum in Washington, D.C., with passage expected by fall 2006.

Ms. Archuleta says the prospect of another national Hispanic cultural facility opens possibilities for partnership with that museum. Also, could other partnerships be set up with cultural centers in Miami, Chicago, Los Angeles, and other cities? And could the center take some of its programs on the road, as the Smithsonian does?

Increasing donorship is yet another plan for the center. "We want to expand the opportunities for donors – not just the heavy hitters, but also for the people in the community," says Mr. Garcia-Miera.

Programming changes are afoot, too. "In the past, we've had a lot of nighttime events," Mr. Garcia-Miera explains. "One of the things we're writing into the plan is bringing free concerts to the plaza, concerts the community can attend but with nationally known entertainers."

In all this, the planners know they must work to maintain the balance between growing national prominence and the center's roots with local New Mexico artists.

"We still have a lot of work to do," Mr. Romero says, "but we're well on the way."

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