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New chief has big plans for Museum of Latin American Art

Long Beach is the latest stop on Stuart A. Ashman's improbable career path, which has given him an unusual breadth of experience with museums and Latin American art.

September 24, 2011|By Suzanne Muchnic, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Stuart Ashman is the new president of the Museum of Latin American Art.
Stuart Ashman is the new president of the Museum of Latin American Art. (Gina Ferazzi, Los Angeles…)

Stuart A. Ashman wasn't looking for a job last year, when he first laid eyes on the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach. Then New Mexico's state secretary of cultural affairs, he had come to Los Angeles for the American Assn. of Museums' annual meeting and accompanied a group of Cuban museum professionals to a program at MoLAA.

Ashman got acquainted with the facilities, exhibitions and collection at the low-profile institution billed as "the only museum in the United States exclusively dedicated to modern and contemporary Latin American art." But what he saw most clearly was its potential. And now he has an opportunity to do something about it. On Sept. 6, Ashman, 63, became president and chief executive of the 15-year-old museum, charged with leading it into a bright future.

"This museum needs opening up," Ashman said in an interview at MoLAA shortly after his arrival. "I have some ideas for developing relationships to expand its reach and support."

One of the biggest challenges, he said, is "building a bridge to Los Angeles. That's where there is money and population. In New Mexico, where there are 2 million people in the whole state, we joke about the 400 people who support everything. Here there are probably more like 40,000 or 400,000. It's a matter of showing them how relevant this museum is. That should be fairly easy. In Long Beach, the Latino population is 38%. In L.A. it's a big percentage as well, and it's a diverse population, not just Mexican."

Ashman's new position is the latest stop on an improbable career path that has given him an unusual breadth of experience with museums and Latin American art. The child of Eastern Europeans who immigrated to Cuba as a steppingstone to the United States, he was born in New York — thanks to his mother's determination to have an American son — but grew up in Cuba, speaking Spanish.

"We moved to New York in 1960 when Eisenhower declared that Cubans could come on tourist visas and become permanent residents," he said. "We got to New York on a Friday. On Monday I was in school and my father went to work, just like that."

Ashman became involved in the arts at the City University of New York, moving from cinematography to photography and painting. In 1977, after working for photographer Minor White and spending a few years making art in Hawaii, he landed in Santa Fe. To supplement his income from art sales, he traveled throughout New Mexico with an artists-in-residence program and taught art in a state penitentiary.

An unexpected offer of a curatorial position at a government-operated gallery launched him into the world of arts administration. Moving up the ladder and making lots of connections along the way, he directed the Museum of Fine Arts and the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art in Santa Fe before joining Gov. Bill Richardson's administration in 2003.

In Long Beach, Ashman has taken charge of an institution with "an unusual history," as he puts it. MoLAA was founded in 1996 by Robert Gumbiner, who died in 2009. A physician and HMO pioneer who built the managed-care giant FHP International Corp., Gumbiner began acquiring Latin American art in the 1960s while doing volunteer work in Ecuador. The museum's colorful 55,000-square-foot building on Alamitos Avenue has evolved from a defunct roller rink that he transformed into a senior medical center and then a showcase for Latin American art.

An art-world outsider with a populist vision who collected Latin American artworks in proportion to the countries' populations, Gumbiner ran the museum his way. Since his death, finding the right leader for the museum has been a challenge. Ashman succeeds two short-tenured presidents. But the museum has gained considerable respect in professional circles, particularly for its exhibition program. "MEX/LA: 'Mexican' Modernism(s) in Los Angeles, 1930-85" is on view now as part of Pacific Standard Time, a Getty-sponsored celebration of Southern California's rise as an art center.

"This is a founder's museum," Ashman said of MoLAA, which is supported from the Robert Gumbiner Foundation and will have an endowment of about $25 million when Gumbiner's estate is settled. "But the message I got from the board of trustees was that they wanted to professionalize it and turn it into an independently run museum. That has its challenges because you have to raise your own money. But it's a very benevolent relationship, like having a grandfather who wants you on your own, but is there if you need him."

The museum is expected to raise just over $2 million a year, about 60% of the annual operating budget. That calls for increasing the membership, which stands at about 3,000, and the annual attendance of about 70,000. Ashman is also thinking about connecting with Los Angeles artists and presenting splashy programs to broaden the audience.

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