Breaking New Ground

When the concept of a Latino cultural center in San Antonio was hatched in 1991, many said it couldn’t done. Yet in April 2007, the Museo Alameda opened with the support of corporate sponsors such as Ford and was designated an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution.

“We’re the only cultural center in the country that has managed to strike partnerships with the Smithsonian and the Kennedy Center,” says the founder, Henry Muñoz III.

An architect and cultural activist, Muñoz served as Transportation Commissioner under Governor Ann Richards at age 29 and is the president of Kell Munoz Architects. Among his work is the Raul Ysaguirre Building in Washington, D.C., headquarters of the National Council of La Raza (NCLR).

Under his leadership, the Museo continues to break new ground with Mexico at the Museo, a three-part presentation that opened this summer and continues for seven months. One of the most significant exhibits ever to come to San Antonio, Mexico at the Museo replicates, in part, one held at the Smithsonian last year and coordinated through the Smithsonian Latino Center and the Soumaya Museum in Mexico City. The Soumaya houses the personal art collection of Carlos Slim, the Mexican media mogul and one of the richest men in the world.

“With the essence of the previous exhibit, now we are focused on the duality of Mexican roots. Having this contrast, we can conciliate the inner and external matters about life, abundance, energy, and passion---all of them pretty close to death and loneliness,” explains Hector Palhares Meza, Soumaya Museum curator.

The first phase of the exhibit, “Myths, Mortals and Immorality,” opened in June and will remain on display through January 2009. The second phase, “Escultura Social,” opened in July and remained on view through October 2008. It features the work of contemporary Mexican artists, born in the 1960s–1970s and reflects aspects of popular culture, from cupids to pin-up girls, and their influence on the international art world. The third phase, “The African Presence in Mexico,” opened in November and runs through February 2009. Curated in partnership with the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago, it’s considered the largest and most comprehensive project of its kind to examine African contributions to the Mexican culture over the last 500 years. It offers a rare opportunity for African and Mexican Americans to find common ground, beginning with the knowledge that the first free town of formerly enslaved people in the Americas was founded in Mexico.

The affiliate program evolved from a nationwide tour celebrating the Smithsonian Institute’s 150-year anniversary in 1996. The program currently includes 160 affiliates with ten in Texas and six with a Latino focus. The Museo Alameda was the first affililate outside of Washington, D.C. and is the only one in San Antonio.

“We’re a hyphenated museum, one that reflects a hybrid culture,” says Eliseo Rios, interim director of administration at the Museo. “As a Smithsonian affiliate, we can share the Latino experience in the Americas.”

Located in San Antonio’s Market Square, the Museo quickly became a favorite of tourists and locals alike. In keeping with its mission of bringing art and culture to the Latino community, the museum’s board recently voted to waive entry fees and to simply ask for a suggested donation.

“We’ve struggled with the challenges of remaining privately funded as opposed to publicly funded, and still providing easy access to our targeted audience, Latinos, shares Muñoz. We opted to challenge ourselves to find other funding sources and forego admissions fees and find the funds elsewhere in order to fully meet our mission.”

Completing the mission includes renovating the nearby Alameda Theater, built in 1949. Muñoz recently received a grant of $6 million from Bexar County for bricks and mortar. This time, no one is betting against him.

By Valerie Menard