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CULTURE MIX

Latin art museum gets a fresh look, new attitude

The bigger and bolder Long Beach facility can give exhibits the dignity and space they deserve.

June 02, 2007|Agustin Gurza | Times Staff Writer

The Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach has been like the downtrodden stepchild of Southern California's glamorous museum family -- often ignored by critics, overlooked by art elites and forced to work overtime for every scrap of credibility it can muster.

Its location hasn't helped. Far from the imposing hilltops and grand boulevards of its Los Angeles cousins, MOLAA is situated on a humble and colorless stretch of Alamitos Avenue, perhaps the last place you'd expect to find a respectable collection of fine art. Its nearby neighbors are a Laundromat, a Mexican restaurant and a Catholic Church, a mix that hasn't changed much since the art house was founded more than a decade ago in a modest building that had all the curb appeal of a community center.

This month, though, MOLAA has put on its glass slipper and is finally ready for the ball.

Expanded and remodeled with a dramatic, traffic-stopping facade, the museum is celebrating a grand reopening with a monthlong series of cultural events, including a fashion show, a family festival, a salsa dance party and a concert by critically acclaimed Mexican singer Lila Downs. The festivities kick off next Saturday with a black-tie banquet chaired and hosted by two Emmy-winning television personalities: Univision talk-show host Cristina Saralegui and CBS 2 News co-anchor Laura Diaz.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 06, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Latin art museum: An article in Saturday's Calendar section about the expansion of the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach identified Gregorio Luke as the museum's executive director. Luke is the museum's director.

The inauguration of the expanded facility marks a milestone for the museum and for the often marginalized Latin American art it was designed to showcase.

"It's an indescribable feeling of being a part of this historic moment," says Gregorio Luke, the museum's Mexican-born executive director. "I really think this museum is going to take Latin American art to a whole new level of awareness here."

You could call MOLAA the little museum that could, totally upstaging the massive metropolis to the north. It's almost a scandal that L.A. has no comparable Latino-themed museum -- not yet anyway.

MOLAA has succeeded largely due to the disciplined patronage of its founder and chief benefactor, Dr. Robert Gumbiner. But as the good doctor's right-hand man, Luke has been a linchpin in implementing the museum's mission.

Over lunch this week at his favorite steak house, Luke discussed his vision of a pan-Latin American culture that crosses national boundaries, a Bolivarian ideal he embraced only after coming to this country, ironically.

"I used to think only in terms of Mexico and Mexican culture," says Luke, former cultural attache with the Mexican Embassy in Washington, D.C. "But for me, these years at MOLAA have suddenly made me appreciate the art of Peru and Ecuador, the music of Brazil, the pupusas of El Salvador and the mate of Argentina. I think the museum is going to be able to inspire this expanded sense of identity for everybody that comes to it."

That unifying concept is captured in MOLAA's soaring new architecture, as bold as some of the art inside. The contemporary facade, designed by Mexican architect Manuel Rosen, is composed of intersecting planes lifted high off the ground, representing those cultural bridges the museum is working to create. The building is skirted by cool pools of water and hardscapes of rock and agave plants, the source of tequila, Mexico's most traditional liquor.

Luke calls it an oasis, and it's an apt term. It's hard not to feel your spirits lifted when you come upon the striking structure, set diagonally on a spacious corner lot that creates instant breathing room in its cramped urban environment. Finally, Latin American art has been given the space of beauty and dignity that it deserves. Luke hopes it will help attract a broader audience and give Latin American art an overdue recognition "as an equal partner at the table," rather than something peripheral to European and U.S. art.

I've been coming to the museum for several years now and feel a sort of homegrown affection for it. While I was dating my wife, we attended a few special events at MOLAA, dancing salsa to a band from Havana and hearing Luke's rapturous lecture on the Mexican rebozo.

Many mainstream museums feature live Latin music to attract a larger Latino audience. But at MOLAA, the music doesn't feel like a promotional hook. It feels organically integrated with its setting, since music, art, cuisine, literature and fashion all fall within its exclusively Latino cultural mission.

Yet, by its crossbred nature, Latino culture always feels inclusive, Luke notes. By definition, the mestizo essence of Latin America is an amalgam of cultures and races -- white and black, mulatto and criollo, Asian and indigenous.

"When looking at Latin American art, you never get the feeling of looking at a foreign culture," says Luke. "There's always something there that's familiar to you."

Views from both sides of the border

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