Cheech Marin talks Riverside’s soon-to-be Chicano Art Museum

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“The Cheech” Chicano Art Museum will feature pop culture legend Cheech Marin’s 700-piece art collection. With the Riverside City Council’s funding approval Jan. 19, the museum is expected to open this fall. (Photo courtesy of Yahoo Commons | Illustration by Angel Peña | Viewpoints)
By Alyssa Aldrete

For many, Cheech Marin’s name is synonymous with his comedic partner Tommy Chong and the boom of stoner comedy back in the 1970s.

Soon, however, Riverside residents may hear this name and have something entirely different come to mind – the world’s largest collection of Chicano art, right in our own backyard.

Marin, 74-year-old actor and comedian, has been in talks with the city of Riverside for years to find the permanent home for his 700-piece art collection. Several donations to the project have been made since its initial proposal, including contributions from the state of California and Altura Credit Union.

The Riverside City Council voted 4-0 Jan. 19 to go ahead with the renovations of the building on Mission Inn Avenue that formerly housed the city’s main library and convert it into the Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art, Culture and Industry. The city hopes for the center, referred to as “The Cheech” by Marin, to open some time this fall. 

In a promotional video on the website for “The Cheech,” Marin expresses his excitement to make the Inland Empire the central destination for Chicano art.

Marin studied art from the early age of 11, and over the years developed a keen eye for what he described as “exceptional talent” and “unique vision.”

As he grew older and happened upon the works of many Chicano artists, he realized that at the time, the fine art world did not see these artists like he did.

“They’re not really being let into the museum world because they don’t recognize them as fine art, they think it’s pop folk art,” Marin said in a phone interview on Feb. 3. “The more I investigated, the more I found out how unique that voice was and how far it had spread, and how long it had gone on for. If I lived 10 lifetimes, I will never be able to catch up with the whole thing.”

Marin, who has now amassed the world’s largest single collection of Chicano art, said conversations with other collectors led him to begin thinking about what he might do with this collection at the end of his life.

“I was very lucky that this prime opportunity came to me,” he said. “I didn’t understand what they were talking about when they first approached me with this project.”

He was not sure what to make of the offer when it was first presented to him. After receiving clarification that the building was being offered to house his art collection, he jumped at the idea.

Riverside’s old public library, located on Mission Inn Avenue in downtown Riverside, is set to be used as the venue for the Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art, Culture and Industry in the fall. (Angel Peña | Viewpoints)

Marin believes the final push for this idea came after his showing of select pieces at the Riverside Art Museum in January 2020, which was one of the most attended showcases of art the museum had seen to date.

“Cheech Marin’s exhibit was so well-received in its initial run that a question we would routinely get from visitors months after it was done being shown was where they could see his collection in the museum,” Antonella Guadarrama, a worker for the Riverside Art Museum’s event services, said. “It really demonstrated what kind of an impact having a Chicano art museum would make for the community in bringing us all together through art. It’s a beautiful idea to be associated with.” 

Even in its early stages, the museum’s website features a floor plan that includes multiple levels of the center, containing space for many activities aside from the permanent exhibit. One particular level is for the planned usage of an educational class space.

Being in downtown Riverside, “The Cheech” will be centralized to the surrounding local colleges and universities in the Inland Empire. Marin affirmed that plans for partnerships with the art programs of local colleges are already under discussion. 

“In each university, whether it’s the University of Riverside or Cal State San Bernardino, or any other museum we’re working with, they’re unique in what they can bring to this process,” he said. “Cal State San Bernardino has incredibly beautiful workspaces and studios, and a hot room and painting studios. Riverside, they’re very academic in pursuit of the history of the whole thing. Everybody’s going to be contributing in the way that they are most adept at.”

The City Council’s decision to move forward with the museum carries with it a 25-year operation contract, in which the city is set to pay more than a totaled $900,000 of the first year’s operation costs.

During an open discussion for public comment, several comments were made both in favor of the project and against it due to the possible worries over the city’s financial responsibility. 

Despite this voiced skepticism, Marin joins many of the community leaders that spoke in favor of the project. He expressed optimism in bringing more art and more programs surrounding the collection, to the city of Riverside, reinforcing that “the only way we go on and survive is from the support of the community, and that’s what we’re counting on.”

“I want to do this because I want these programs to happen at ‘The Cheech,’” Marin said. “You’ll have fun at this museum because I’m going to fill it with the most incredible paintings you’ve ever seen.”

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