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Head of Hispanic Center Wants It on Everybody's Must-See List

New Mexico: Tom Chavez is determined to raise the profile of the $55-million complex and make it the place for Latino arts.


ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Tom Chavez is ready to be chief lobbyist, fund-raiser and promoter of the National Hispanic Cultural Center to make it the place you've got to see.

In six weeks as director, he has brought his not-inconsiderable experience with the Museum of New Mexico system to the $55-million center in Albuquerque, which has had fewer visitors than projected since opening in October 2000.

"Right now if you drive by you wouldn't know there's anything here," Chavez said.

Chavez wants everyone to come--not just Latinos.

"You guys are Hispanic whether it's in your blood or you just eat burritos for breakfast.... This institute is everyone's," he said.

Chavez had been with the state history museum, the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe, for more than two decades when he announced his retirement last year. Offers started coming in, but figuring it was too early to decide, Chavez went off to Spain.

He returned to a full campaign to recruit him, led by the state cultural affairs secretary and by Ed Lujan, chairman of the center's board of directors.

"I had been wishing we could get Tom for a long time," Lujan said. "I'm just so excited that he's there; it's a dream come true."

Latino influence in New Mexico dates from the arrival of Spanish conquistadors in 1598. Forty percent of today's population, 650,000 people, are Latino. Chavez, who traces his family here back to 1601, was a good fit, said Tom Livesay, who headed New Mexico's museum system for 14 years before leaving in 2000.

"He's dynamic, he works well with people and should see the cultural center moving into a really new place in the hearts and minds of people of New Mexico," Livesay said. "If anybody can do it, Tom can."

Chavez, who took over April 1, said New Mexicans don't get to see what's going on in Latino arts elsewhere.

He jumps up from the four-seat conference table in his office to point out steel girders rising outside his second-story window. The performing arts center will open in September 2003 with a 300-seat film and video theater and a 730-seat arts theater, able to stage everything from lectures to music to plays.

Chavez would like to bring theater performances and festivals from throughout the Latino world--a major one each year.

"There's no limit.... We can do almost anything," Chavez said.

The performing arts center will have a television station to record performances and produce Latino-related programsHe also wants tourism groups to put the center and Albuquerque on the must-see list. Although plays, movies and other events in the center's 93-seat lecture hall regularly draw overflow crowds, its art galleries see only scattered visitors on weekdays.

"There's some kind of mental makeup in Albuquerque that you've got to go to Santa Fe to see art and if it's in Albuquerque it's not up to snuff," Chavez said. "Well, I disagree with that one.... If you're here for art and culture, we've got some things in Albuquerque that Santa Fe doesn't have."

Eventually, the 22-acre property will have an education building with classrooms and a kitchen to teach preparation of traditional dishes. Chavez also wants trails on the center's property along the adjacent Rio Grande bosque.

Ideally, Chavez said, about half the budget comes from the state, up to 10% from ticket sales and the rest from an endowment or fund-raising for specific programs. Right now, the center turns to the Hispanic Culture Foundation for needs outside the basic budget.

He jokes about the fund-raising aspects of his job--"It's called groveling"--before turning serious.

"If the director isn't going to be the chief fund-raiser, then you're not going have the staff engaged, and if they see the staff's not engaged you're not going to get the funds.

"I have no problem going out and begging for this place at all."

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