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A great museum grows in Pilsen

The National Museum Mexican Art 1852 W. 19th St.

The National Museum of Mexican Art, 1852 W. 19th St.

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Updated: June 4, 2012 11:38AM

I still remember the flier announcing the creation of a museum dedicated to Mexican art in Chicago 30 years ago. But I never imagined that the museum promoted in the leaflet, with a P.O. box instead of an actual address, would become the prestigious National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen.

Carlos Tortolero, the museum’s founder and president, says he believed from the beginning that an institution dedicated to Mexican art and culture located in a working class and immigrant community would be successful.

“I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I imagined all of this,” he told me. “Because Mexican culture deserves something like this.”

The National Museum of Mexican Art is celebrating its 25th anniversary since opening its current home. On Friday, it will hold a sold-out silver gala to mark the occasion.

In 1982, Tortolero and a group of fellow educators founded the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum. At first, they staged small exhibits at different locations around the city. Five years later, they moved to the museum’s current home on 19th Street next to Harrison Park. In 2006, the museum unveiled a new name, the National Museum of Mexican Art, to reflect its broader reach and diverse audience.

“El Museo,” as it is affectionately called in Spanish, has become the most important Latino cultural institution in the nation. It is the only Latino cultural organization accredited by the American Association of Museums.

That is significant because, as Tortolero said, it means that its exhibits are up to the standards of those shown in institutions such as the Guggenheim and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The Pilsen museum has impressive numbers to back up that claim. It has an annual budget of $5.5 million. In 2001, it underwent a massive expansion to a 48,000 square-foot, state-of-the-art facility that occupies two floors. It holds a 7,000-piece art collection, from pre-Columbian to contemporary art. And 20 of its shows have traveled across the United States, with six also going to Mexico.

The number of its visitors is impressive. In 2003, an exhibit about Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Mexican modern art attracted 80,000 visitors. More recently, the exhibit “The African Presence in Mexico” broke the attendance record at the museum, drawing more than 100,000 people.

When family and friends visit, I usually take them on a tour of the city that includes Pilsen and its museum. They appreciate the exhibits, the gift shop and the free admission.

Throughout the years, the National Museum of Mexican Art has shown an independent and critical vision. In 2010, an exhibit about the shocking number of women murdered in Mexico’s northern city of Juarez drew harsh criticism from the Mexican government.

In the same bold way, the popular annual exhibit of the Day of the Dead has always included a strong element of social commentary on matters such as domestic violence, the Holocaust and the plight of American Indians.

“All museums have an agenda,” Tortolero said. “If one of the large museums in the city dedicates its main floor to an exhibit of European art, is that not an agenda?”

The National Museum of Mexican Art has become a proud Chicago institution. Our city is better for it.

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