When Elizabeth Gauna closed the Museo Chicano in January, it wasn’t just the end of a small Phoenix museum.
It left a city of 1.5 million people, 40 percent of them of Hispanic descent, without a Latino art museum.
While major Latino museums have sprung up in big cities, including Long Beach, Calif.; Albuquerque; and San Antonio, Phoenix has lagged behind.
An alliance of 12 Arizona arts groups has an ambitious plan to change that.
The demise of Museo Chicano has fueled an effort to create a major Latino museum and cultural center in downtown Phoenix, said Martín Moreno, a local resident and nationally known muralist.
Advocates for Latin Arts and Culture Consortium Inc. plan to begin efforts this month to raise $200,000 to open and operate a small Phoenix cultural center later this year. Five years down the road, the group envisions a $10 million facility. “It’s kind of embarrassing,” said Moreno, who sits on the consortium’s board of directors. He said Phoenix needs a center that preserves and nurtures Latino, Chicano and indigenous contributions to the arts.
“Art is that magical bridge that brings people together,” he said. “You don’t have to understand Picasso’s language to understand his work.”
Consortium members say the time has come to start a museum. The spending power of Latinos has been rising over the years, and established Arizona arts institutions are looking for partnerships. Maricopa County Latinos spend an estimated $118 million on arts and culture annually, according to a study published last year.
A Phoenix area nonprofit recently estimated that county Latino residents spend $25.5 million just on visits to museums, zoos and botanical gardens each year.
The group envisions a place where everyone is welcome; where children’s workshops, a dance production, art exhibition and tamale-cooking class could take place under one roof.
“At the end of the day, we are creating and investing in a legacy for Latino arts and culture,” said Erlinda Tórres, president of the consortium’s board. “It means enhancing the life of all Arizonans.”
Many local Latino artists can’t afford to rent the Herberger Theater Center and other major art venues in the Phoenix area, said Tórres, a master teacher of Mexican folklórico danza.
A cultural center and museum would allow artists to reach a wider audience at a lower cost.
Although the economy makes it tough for many nonprofits to raise money, there are several reasons to start now, the group said:
• There is political support. City leaders, including Councilman Michael Nowakowski, are working with the group and have discussed potential locations.
“It’s up to us to preserve our culture,” said the councilman, whose father is Polish and whose mother is from Mexico. He’d like to see a placita, or a Hispanic-themed neighborhood, downtown where people can shop, eat and listen to live music.
Several groups, including African-Americans and Irish-Americans have a much smaller presence in the Phoenix area but have local cultural centers, he added.
• Supporters can tap into existing interest. A June survey of 1,200 county Latino residents indicated that 41 percent visit history, science or children’s museums, 22 percent go to art exhibitions, and 11 percent to 14 percent attend non-Latino performing-arts events.
There are also more professionals who are interested in becoming arts patrons, said Moreno, who recently opened a gallery with a physician and an attorney.
• Veteran arts institutions are hungry for Latino visitors and are interested in partnerships with Hispanic groups, Tórres said.
There are 22 Hispanic-themed museums in the U.S., said Dewey Blanton, spokesman for the American Association of Museums, which range from the nationally known to mom-and-pop venues.
More museums are in the works. In 2008, Congress passed a law that created a commission to explore the need for a national Latino museum.
It can take years before a fledgling museum takes root, experts say. It can take even longer to transform it into an institution.
Museo Chicano’s 19-year run ended because of an expired lease, said Gauna, who ran it. The museum, which included an art gallery and gift shop, leased a city-owned space for several years at 147 E. Adams, which is directly across from the refurbished Phoenix Convention Center. Before that, it was in the Mercado, near Van Buren and Seventh streets.
The city did not renew the museum’s lease, preferring to find a stronger tenant that could pay higher rent, said Alexandria Van Haren-Pierce, a city spokeswoman.
Because of the economic downturn, the museum isn’t moving to a new location, Gauna said.
“People were sad that we are not continuing,” she said.