Filling a Void, the National Museum of Mexican Art Reaches Out to Bring Artworks to a Working Class Community Near Chicago

Aug 06, 2012

Until the National Museum of Mexican Art opened its doors twenty-five years ago in Pilsen, the heart of Chicago’s Mexican-American community, there were few places in the U.S. where people could go to experience the full range of Mexican art. And, in particular, there were few museums that were located right in the Latino community and were free of charge and accessible to all. In 1982, Carlos Tortolero, a passionate teacher, set out to create a museum that would do that by “sharing the beauty of the Mexican culture.”

Tortolero joined with four other educators and, although none had experience as museum administrators or curators, they set out to do events and exhibits throughout Chicago and in the Mexican community—and created a five-year plan to support the museum financially. They opened their doors in 1987.

Today, the NMMA is not just alive but thriving. The museum, housed in a 48,000-square-foot renovated space, has over 7000 objects in the collection. The museum defines Mexican culture as sin fronteras—without borders—and their exhibits contain work from ancient Mexico to the present that cross the genres of painting, prints, photography, sculpture, and folk art. Everything’s up for grabs in their programs which run the gamut from politically charged topics to school graduations for schools that lack auditoriums. Says Carlos, “About some of our programs, people say ‘But a museum shouldn’t do that’ to which I say ‘And why shouldn’t a museum do that?’”

The byword at the museum is accessibility, and the NMMA offers a wide range of educational programs for children and families, teens, school groups and educators. Their art exhibits, performances and educational programs are experienced by more than 200,000 visitors each year, including 60,000 students in grades k-12. The museum also hosts cultural programs, including symposia, theater, dance, music, readings and performance companies that share their vision of Mexico’s culture and heritage.

Says Tortolero, “For me, the future would be to be able to serve more people, have more people experience the art. I want people to understand that this is their museum, not the staff’s museum, not the board’s museum, but everybody’s museum. We’re trying to change the idea that the arts are for a few to that the arts are for everybody.”

For over ten years, Bank of America has been an enthusiastic supporter of the museum’s mission, with the funding to back it up. When the museum moved to an underutilized city-owned building in Pilsen, the bank was the lead corporate sponsor. And Bank of America gave the museum a two-year operating grant, to be used as the museum’s leadership best sees fit. In addition, since the museum is such a draw, many employees volunteer at the museum, and the current board chair is a bank executive. 

NMMA’s business banking team is overseen by market executive Dillon Dalton, who has been connected with the museum for the past 10 years, and calls himself not only a partner but an ambassador. His business banking team helps the nonprofit remain on a strong financial footing with construction loans, bridge loans, and cash management solutions for fundraising.

The unconventional decision to locate the new museum location in a West Side working class neighborhood has delivered an economic boost. Says Tortolero, “From day one, we wanted to locate the museum in Pilsen, Chicago’s oldest Mexican community. The museum is a draw, with increased traffic to surrounding restaurants and shops. (Two recent studies, in fact, have pegged the economic impact between $9.5 and $10 million.) Says Dillon, “Whether it’s sales of the artists’ work or visitors to the neighborhood, they’re driving business. It’s great to see that economic engine working. To have this gem in the middle of this neighborhood pays huge dividends to the community.”

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