When Nancy Villafranca, director of the Chicago office of the Inter-University Program for Latino Research (IUPLR), went to the fourth Latino Art Now! Conference in Washington, D.C. in 2013, she was inspired and overjoyed by the incredible display of talented Latin-American artists from across the United States. The accompanying exhibition at the Smithsonian Institute, Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art, complemented the conference, which would discuss the work of many of the artists featured in the exhibition. Although the collection included decades of prominent Latino artists from the United States, Villafranca realized that there was only one artist from the Midwest.
“Nowadays there’s no book written about Chicago Latino artists specifically,” says Villafranca, recounting her experience of the conference. “So even though we know that production is happening, it’s not as well documented or even disseminated or shared across the country.”
Frustration over the lack of preservation and exposure of Chicago Latino art resulted in an initiative by the IUPLR and the Smithsonian Latino Center that brought this year’s Latino Art Now! Conference to Chicago. As a director of the IUPLR—self-described as “a consortium of university-based centers dedicated to the advancement of the Latino intellectual presence in the U.S.,” housed at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC)—Villafranca hopes to contribute to national conversation about the presence of Midwestern Latinos in American society.
Eric Garcia, a political artist and educator at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen, explicitly addressed the problem of visibility.
“People don’t realize that in the heart of the U.S., in the Midwest, there’s these Mexicans, these Latinos,” he said. “So I think that this conference is a big eye-opener for people who just think, ‘Oh, the Midwest, that’s a bunch of cornfields.’ They don’t think of a Latino presence being there—much less an artistic presence.”
The Latino Art Now! Conference aims to incite conversation between scholars, artists, educators, and art enthusiasts. The mission statement, according to the conference’s website, is to “explore U.S. Latino art and its relationship to contemporary American visual culture and art while advancing awareness, education, scholarship and knowledge in this emerging field of inquiry.” These three-day biennial conferences bring hundreds of scholars, artists, collectors, and curators from across the country to discuss changes in Latin-American art, as well as to share knowledge about particular artists, movements, and pieces that might not be well known—now that the conference has come to the Midwest, topics range from Latina artists in Chicago to a discussion about political art and murals in Chicago.
Besides D.C., the previous conferences took place in the usual hubs: New York City and Los Angeles. One of the reasons to bring the conference to Chicago, says Villafranca, was “to highlight Chicago Latino artistic production nationwide. … With this conference we hope to educate the curators more about the Midwest.”
Olga Herrera, who works as an art historian at the Smithsonian Latino Center in Washington, D.C., also hopes that the conference will draw the attention of more curators to these artists. “Sometimes the artists don’t have the profiles in the museum or you know, they don’t have the funds for travel, so they just concentrate in certain very small areas while they’re still growing.” This conference will bring curators and collectors from across the country, hopefully to create more visibility for local artists who hope to gain national recognition but just don’t have the resources.
Diana Solis, a prominent Chicago artist and co-founder of Pilsen Outpost, one of Pilsen’s major art galleries, believes “What the conference Latino Art Now! has done is bring a lot of the artists out of the woodwork and create pop-up studios. There were a lot of artists. There always has been, but we’ve never seen them all come out together at the same time.”
Another initiative of the IUPLR that Villafranca is heavily involved with is the Chicago Latino Artchive: a digitization of Latino artists from the past hundred years to the present. The online archive will include biographies, image galleries, and artists’ personal statements, and will even feature videos and essays for the more contemporary Chicago artists. Though an official URL has not been set, the site will be accessible through iuplr.uic.edu.
The move to accumulate all of Chicago’s Latino art history into a digital source will help the artists reach a wider audience, especially a younger and more technologically savvy demographic, and also further support the fight to place Chicago Latino art on the national spectrum. The directory will be unveiled in the fall for the beginning of the academic year.
However, collecting information on Chicago Latino artists from the past has proven to be difficult, especially for artists who have died. Garcia laments, “So in the early years of Chicago—Latinos have been in Chicago for a long time now—and in the earlier years because of them being overlooked, a lot of these Chicago Latino artists aren’t documented or aren’t on lists where we can find them: who they are, or what they were doing.”
Villafranca elaborates: “We wanted to make sure we made that connection clear. That, you know, that Chicago Latino artists have not just been producing art in the last couple of decades. It’s actually been since the early 1900s.”
One additional challenge for artists in the past, Garcia speculates, may have been a language barrier. “Artists couldn’t speak English so they couldn’t reach the gallery scene or find people to represent them in museums.”
The difficulty of trying to achieve a complete history of Chicago Latino artists has prompted Villafranca and others organizing the project to hold community meetings to try to find past artists through personal connections. In addition, they have organized teams of artists and art historians to dedicate themselves to uncovering through archives and members of the community information about Chicago Latino artists in the last hundred years.
One participant in this search is Diana Solis: she’s particularly interested in tracking down female Latin-American Chicago artists, for the Artchive as well as for the Latin American/Latin@ Cultural Activities and Studies Arena (LACASA), whose Board of Directors she is on.
The difficulty of tracking down Chicago Latina artists, Solis says, is even more pronounced.
“It’s normally only the men that get documented,” she says. “When I approached one person a few years ago, saying that there were other women artists, because I was around and I photographed them, they said, ‘Oh, but those were just the girlfriends of the guys.’ And I said, ‘No no no! They were artists in their own right.’ The attitude is that the women are just an adornment, or just hang out, or cook the beans—or whatever. So in order to track these women down, we had to go into the archives of the Art Institute to look for women artists who worked in Chicago.”
With videos and essays, the site will prominently feature contemporary artists; their biographies and online galleries will be interspersed with artists from the past. Garcia is quick to point out that the challenge of preservation does not end with artists from the past. “Even in our contemporary time, it’s hard to gather all the names of the creative Latinos who are working right now,” he says. “Chicago is just like an enormous mask, you know—how can we make sure that we get all of them? New generations are popping up all the time, so it’s almost an ongoing task.”
The project has received funding from local organizations like the Chicago Community Trust Fund (CCT), a “foundation dedicated to improving our region through strategic grant making, civic engagement and inspiring philanthropy.”
“This grant opportunity, which is called artistic and cultural diversity, is specifically to address some of the disparities which we see in our cultural ecosystem,” explains Sandra Aponte, of the CCT’s Associate Program Office for Arts and Culture. She indicated that they chose IUPLR’s project because they saw a great need to publicize the history—and the existence—of the Chicago Latino art community.
“When you think of Chicago locally and globally you think of it as a very vibrant artistic and cultural landscape,” says Aponte. “We have a lot of museums, dance companies, theaters. But that doesn’t mean art is present or emphasized in every aspect of the people’s lives.”
Though the CCT’s main role is financial support, Aponte was invited to attend some of the community meetings. As the daughter of a Wicker Park gallery owner who specialized in Puerto Rican and Caribbean artists, she could even provide names of Chicago Latino artists to include in the directory.
Aponte criticizes Chicago’s internationally recognized museums for their disconnection from the community they serve and their lack of diverse voices. Carlos Tortolero, who founded the National Museum of Mexican Art in 1982, agrees with Aponte’s criticism. Tortolero emphasizes the importance of the community and the community’s experience in his museum.
“You know what my favorite thing in the museum is?” he says. “It is not the artwork. My favorite thing is when we get a high school teenage couple on a date at the museum. I love that. That’s what it’s about to me.”
Tortolero says the city’s other major museums don’t interact enough with the diverse local community of artists. “Neither the MCA [Museum of Contemporary Art] nor the Art Institute has a gallery dedicated to Chicago artists,” he says. “One of our strengths is that we show so many local artists. We show local artists because we care, we promote them, we have them teach classes.”
The absence of similar local interaction and support from major organizations, Solis adds, is not just disappointing but ultimately inhibiting.
“The lack of national recognition is connected to the institutions,” she says. “I think that part of it is just that there has been some recognition, like Marco Raya at the MCA, but there really has not been a big digging deep in these institutions into ‘What is Latino art?’ or why Latino art is important in our communities.”
Part of the problem is the lack of Latinos in important positions at these institutions; Solis believes that if Chicago Latino art is to be given the level of attention it warrants, that would need to change. She emphasizes a few important actions for Chicago institutions to take: to demonstrate that they know who these Latino artists are and that they support them in the way that the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Smithsonian in D.C. do for their communities.
What organizers like Villafranca and Tortolero are saying—and putting into practice—is not that Chicago artists deserve more recognition because they, say, present an innovative approach to Cubism, but rather because their perspectives and experiences deserve to be treated as culturally relevant. The artists living in this city, they say, deserve to have their work catalogued, archived, discussed, and examined just as do their contemporaries in LA, Renaissance sculptors in Rome, and pottery makers in ancient Greece.
Despite lack of recognition from the Art Institute, the MCA, and other major institutions in Chicago, the Chicago Latino arts community has created its own spaces and fought for visibility—to great success. In the eyes of Professor Karen Mary Davalos of Loyola Marymount University, interest in and support of Chicago Latino art point to a promising future ahead.
Another offshoot of the Latino Art Now! Conference is a season-long event called Spring of Latino Art, also co-sponsored by the Smithsonian Latino Center and the IUPLR, which will showcase Latino art in exhibitions across forty distinct organizations in Chicago. Between March and June 2016 work will be shown in venues across the city, from DIY gallery spaces to established art centers like the Hyde Park Art Center.
In comparing LA’s recognition of Latino art with Chicago’s, Davalos focuses on similar city-wide initiatives aimed at celebrating Latino art.
“Chicago was able to collaborate across many kinds of institutions, not just community-based, not just small organizations with small budgets, but major organizations to bring Latino art to the whole city,” she said. “And that’s profound, it’s unprecedented, it’s historic. I mean, here we are in Los Angeles, jumping up and down, saying how profound and historic it is that the Getty has supported these arts exhibitions and programming about Latino art, but you know what? To be able to do it without 8.5 million dollars from a major arts institution, that’s historic. That’s unprecedented.”