Mexican art museum finds room to grow in blue-collar Chicago neighbourhood

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 31 January, 2015, 11:47pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 31 January, 2015, 11:47pm

When Carlos Tortolero was starting the National Museum of Mexican Art, "there were three things people told me I was crazy for", he says. "One, doing a museum in a working-class neighbourhood; two, starting an arts museum in a working-class neighbourhood; and, three, being free. They told me that it couldn't be done."

Those three alleged insanities have since proved to be strengths, as the museum in Chicago's Pilsen neighbourhood has grown to become "the largest Latino cultural institution in the country", according to the message the museum delivers when you call.

Those three elements also define some of the distinct charm of this highly approachable museum, a celebration of the artistic output of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, from the Mayans to modern-day artists living and working in Oaxaca or Pilsen. Most of the work is painting, but there are ceramics, beadwork, tile, skeleton figurines and other folk art.

Because the museum's in the neighbourhood, a visit there is also a visit to, for many people, another culture, and the visitor who doesn't take advantage of the opportunity is himself perhaps, as people told Tortolero, a little crazy.

While the working-class Pilsen Tortolero references is still in evidence, the area is changing. An already vibrant collection of restaurants, shops and wall murals has now been augmented by hip nightspots, a fancy French bakery and art galleries.

The museum being free means a visit is a low-risk proposition. Even if it turns out you don't love vibrant, often politically charged art, Aztec figures or kinetic sculptures such as a lawn mower done up like the newest Transformer, you've spent nothing but time and, at minimum, learned something new.

Because it doesn't charge, you can just pop in and check out, for example, the new, wide-ranging permanent collection exhibition, "Nuestras Historias (Our Stories)", with art that ranges from reverent Catholic iconography from earlier centuries to a pink neon sign reading, "MAKE TACOS NOT WAR". If you do enjoy the place, as most people seem to do, then in good conscience drop what you can afford in the donation box.

But it's a small enough place that it's hard not to see the whole thing. There are, essentially, four galleries arranged along a central hallway, plus a gift shop stocked by regular buying trips to the homeland. Two of the galleries showcase items from the collection, one a current artist and one a temporary exhibition, including the museum's celebrated annual take on "Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead)".

Founded as the Mexican Fine Arts Centre Museum in 1987, it became the National Museum of Mexican Art in 2006. The building isn't fancy, but it has a little flair: decorative brickwork along the top edge of the exterior walls, insets into the floors inside. Overhead piping and ductwork are exposed.

Recognising the diversity of visitors to the museum and that this might be the first museum some people visit, the curators offer lots of explanation of the art. It's from the wall cards that you learn one contemporary artist, Luis Gonzalez, is known as "Louie the Foot" and that Gunther Gerzso was "Mexico's greatest abstract painter".

If you visit when a Day of the Dead show is up, you'll be awed by the macabre yet joyful ways artists interpret the connections between this world and the one populated by spirits, skeletons and devils.

It's a shame Tortolero isn't part of the museum's standard experience, chatting up customers and conveying his enthusiasm for this unlikely project. "Why," he asks, "does everything have to be downtown to be nice?"

The National Museum of Mexican Art, responding to the elitism that can infect, especially, art museums, answers that question.

Chicago Tribune