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A Rebirth for Latino Museum

Art* The L.A. facility has a new temporary home and is paying down old debts as it refocuses.

July 12, 2002|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the last four years, leaders of the Latino Museum of History, Art and Culture have gained and lost a location, slipped deep into red ink and struggled to survive without a staff. Now, however, board members say they've cleared nearly $500,000 in debts as the first step of a "new beginning" that includes a temporary downtown exhibition space and educational programming with an Internet emphasis.

Before their next major decisions--choosing a new site and hiring a top executive--board members say they will draw on advice and funding from several leading cultural organizations that until now haven't been tapped by the fledgling institution.

"We're starting with a clean piece of paper and trying to find the best solutions," said Stan Sosa, vice president of the museum's board of trustees and president of the digital-content company Trifecta Content Group Inc.

With a permanent collection of fewer than 40 paintings, no full-time permanent staff, no high-profile donors and a board of trustees that has been dominated by professors and university administrators, the museum has struggled to find a niche, despite its status as the only institution of its kind in a major city whose population is more than 40% Latino. As the Los Angeles institution has struggled, the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach opened in 1996 and is now raising funds for an expansion.

The Latino Museum's new space (201 N. Los Angeles St., Suite 2), former home of the now-relocated city Ethics Commission, includes about 6,000 square feet and stands next to the L.A. Mall's food court, one story beneath street level. The space is open (Mondays-Saturdays, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.), but the museum will formally inaugurate it Aug. 3 with the opening of a retrospective exhibition of paintings and drawings by Chicano artist Ramses Noriega.

Foremost among the board's new advisors is Belin Consulting, a management consulting company specializing in nonprofits. The company's founder, Daniel Belin, is an attorney who serves on the boards of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the L.A. Philharmonic. Latino Museum officials said they'll rely on reports from Belin in assembling a business plan and deciding other strategies.

Among the funding sources that will pay for the consultant's work are the J. Paul Getty Trust, which in late June approved a grant of $35,000 for organizational planning; the James Irvine Foundation, which in March approved a similar grant for $25,000; and the California Community Foundation, which is expected to approve a $10,000 grant in coming weeks.

In addition, the Latino museum will continue to count on a $1-million state grant approved by the Legislature during the 2000-2001 fiscal year. That grant, aimed at teacher training, educational programming and capital outlays, is to be used this year and in 2003.

The Latino Museum's genesis came with fund-raising efforts begun in the late 1980s by founder Charles Calderon (a Democratic state senator from Whittier from 1990 to 1998). It opened as a downtown exhibition space in 1998, with Calderon serving as board chairman.

Operating in a building donated by the Bank of America, the organization drew most of its funding from Sacramento rather than private donors and had little interaction with the city, county and state agencies that traditionally evaluate museums and make arts grants. (It remains unaccredited by the Washington, D.C.-based American Assn. of Museums.)

Late in 2000, amid canceled exhibitions and claims of unpaid staff salaries and other bills, the museum closed and its board accepted Calderon's resignation and appointed several new members.

The museum, which remained closed through 2001, reopened in February with a photography exhibition about Mexicans of African heritage (which will remain on display in the new space through the end of this month), but the institution's future on Main Street was doomed by the city's downtown redevelopment ambitions.

Under a pact between the city and the state, Caltrans agreed to put up a new Los Angeles headquarters building on the block of Main Street where the Latino museum stood. Forced out by city condemnation actions, the museum's board agreed to vacate and sell the 112 S. Main St. location in May. The building was leveled earlier this month.

Under its agreement with the city--part of which is still under negotiation, as the museum seeks more compensation--the Latino Museum's board got $2.9 million for its building, plus a year's rent-free stay in the city-owned Los Angeles Mall. Even before that check came in, board President Juan Gomez-Quinones said, the institution had begun paying off debts. Now, he said, the remaining debts are down to "a few thousand dollars" owed to a handful of creditors that the museum is still trying to locate.

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