Cheech Marin, CSUN alumni and actor, is mostly known for his dope-smoking, comedic role in the 1970s movie, “Cheech and Chong.” What is least known about him is that he is one of the foremost collectors of Chicano art in the U.S., and his nationally-toured private collection has helped to bring Chicano artists into mainstream America.
After seven years on tour, Marin’s collection has come home to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Marin spoke passionately to a crowd of 600 people at LACMA’s Bing Theater on Sunday, June 22 about his exhibit called, “Los Angelenos/Chicano Painters of L.A: Selections from the Cheech Marin Collection.”
“I came to realize that individual artists were depicting the Chicano experience around the world, but they weren’t communicating with each other. They weren’t in museums,” Marin said. “These artists were seeing the world from Chicano eyes and from different viewpoints whether it be gender-based, religion or sociological. We put all these viewpoints together to express the feeling of what it means to be Chicano.”
Chon Noriega, who is a UCLA professor and adjunct curator for LACMA, joined Marin in the discussion in front of the large, diverse crowd. Noriega is also one of the curators for another exhibition called “Phantom Sightings: Art After the Chicano Movement,” which is being shown at LACMA at the same time as Marin’s exhibit. He told the audience that when LACMA finally agreed to do both shows, there was a sense of disbelief among the artists.
“The last Chicano show at LACMA was in 1974,” Noriega said. “When LACMA agreed to do both of our shows, there was a sense that in the next few days there would be a major earthquake or something,” he said.
Howard N. Fox, curator of contemporary art at LACMA, agreed that it took a long time to get the exhibits to LACMA, but it was not due to lack of interest.
“This isn’t unusual,” Fox said. “Whenever a curator proposes an exhibit, there is never a unanimous decision to show it right away. It usually takes two to three years to develop a show.”
In 1974, LACMA showed their first major Chicano exhibit called “Los Four,” but it was originated and organized by UC Irvine. The two current art shows marked the first time LACMA originated a Chicano art exhibit.
“We’ve had many exhibits that highlight the Chicano experience,” Fox said. “But I realized that we were showing the same artists over and over again. A lot has changed over 30 years, and I wanted to show what was happening today with emerging Chicano artists.”
Marin’s exhibit offers a bold, multi-colored imagery that embraces Chicano life. The fifty-piece collection focuses on significant works from Los Angeles-based Chicano artists such as Carlos Almaraz, Diane Gamboa and Frank Romero.
The theme of the exhibition revolves around the question, “What does it mean to be a Chicano?”
“To me, being Chicano means ‘Mexican meets American.'” Marin said. “You have to realize that 90 percent of the country does not know what a Chicano is, much less what their art looks like.”
Marin started collecting art pieces while he was traveling during the making of the “Cheech and Chong” movie. He developed an eye for art at an early age while attending Catholic school.
“I’d look at books, but then when I went to the museums and saw the actual painting, it was a whole different experience,” Marin said with enthusiasm as he spread his arms wide open and moved to the edge of his seat.
“There was something about paint that fascinated me. I just kept buying it up,” Marin said. “I knew I had a good collection when I realized that I needed storage.”
The bulk of Marin’s collection was acquired while he was working on the TV series “Nash Bridges,” which aired from 1996 to 2001. Marin said that being a celebrity helped him amass his collection.
“Being a celebrity ought to do more for you than just getting a good seat in a restaurant,” he said as the audience laughed and applauded.
Marin’s purpose for collecting art took on a deeper meaning after he discovered that Chicano art had been left out of mainstream America. He said that the inequity of Chicano representation in the art world conflicted with the recent wave of immigration across the U.S.
“Everywhere I went, I realized that we are in the middle of the biggest wave of immigration ever, and it will change most aspects of American life,” Marin said.
“These communities are not going anywhere. They can’t be ignored anymore,” Marin said.