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Houston's economic and political ties to Latin America are clearly on the rise -- a good sign for Latin art. Thanks to the oil industry and the Port of Houston, the Hispanic population is growing wealthier and more cosmopolitan; many local leaders say Latino culture is like a keg of gunpowder waiting for a revolution.
And a few blocks down Richmond is a building devoted to making sparks.
Almost within sight of Arte Las Américas sits the scintillating Sicardi Gallery, Houston's first and best Latin American art dealer. María Inés Sicardi founded the gallery in 1994 with a focus on painters from her native Argentina but soon began showing blue-chip artists from across the subcontinent. Based on strong sales, she moved the gallery in 2001 from a house into a much larger, modernist building that feels like an annex of the MFAH.
And, in fact, in many ways it is. Last month the gallery displayed the kinetic art of Rafael Soto and Carlos Cruz-Diez, which was also on prominent display at the MFAH's "Inverted Utopias" show. A few years ago, such cooperation would have been impossible. But now, museum-related shows are Sicardi's bread and butter and a valuable privilege of Houston galleries.
In 2001, the MFAH became the first major metropolitan museum in the nation to create a department dedicated exclusively to Latin American and Latino art. As a result, the museum has dramatically surpassed its cramped, 1990s-era fixation on the Mexican Renaissance. It now regularly exhibits contemporary art from across Latin America with a frequency and level of excellence that far outstrip its size.
The new direction is a huge coup for the local Latin American arts scene. "Houston is going to become the center for Latin American art in the United States because of all the possibilities and the commitment of the museum," Sicardi says. "I think this is going to be something very big in ten years."
In addition to boosting interest in Latin American art, the exhibits are providing a sophisticated community for local Latino artists. Espada, for example, switched in 2000 from exhibiting his work at the mainstream McMurtrey Gallery to being represented by Sicardi. "I felt like it was time to do something else," he says. "And I felt like being surrounded by people I could speak the language with, it was a good thing. I could see where they are coming from in their images. I mean, I didn't feel out of place."
And for younger artists, the cultural infusion is powerful education. After the MFAH's 2002 Gego show, many students at the Glassell School of Art mimicked her wiry, geometric designs, says Glassell director Joe Havel. He estimates at least 50 percent of Glassell's young students are Latino, and says the school employs an increasing number of programs and professors with ties to Latin American and Latino art.
The museum's Latin American program is likely to make the largest educational impact at the college and graduate levels, precisely where arts education in Houston is lacking. The new department includes the ambitious International Center for the Arts of the Americas, a research body that hopes to become the premier resource in the nation for collecting, translating and disseminating texts in Latin American art.
UH professor Koontz hopes the department will be a boon to his university, where last year's course in Latin American art filled to capacity almost as soon as it opened for registration. "We are going to get people who are more and more interested in strengthening those relationships," he says, "and that is what interests us with Mari Carmen's projects: how much synergy can be developed there."
Ramirez wants the exhibits to expose Texans to a version of Latin American art that involves more than Mexico. "What we are trying to do is really show the vastness of the territory," she says, "to introduce even our Mexican population to these cultural and artistic traditions that are really so much a part of who they are and what they are about, even if they are not aware of it."
The same mission motivates Armando Palacios, the founder of Houston's newest Latin American cultural institution: the New World Museum. Born in the Rio Grande Valley, Palacios wears an orange sweater that perfectly matches the outside walls of his orange gallery. He inaugurated the space in March 2004, with a fiesta featuring art, music and a taco truck. Jack Moriniere leads the Maecenas, a group of 40 art patrons dedicated to purchasing Latin American and Latino works for the MFAH, the first group of its kind anywhere. "One of the things that has inspired me more than anything else about what the MFAH is doing is the educational aspect," he says. " [W]e are going to have, in Houston, the center for Latin American art in the United States. So that's why I got involved in it."
But the flowering interest in Latin art in Houston also poses a major problem: Many younger Latino artists don't want their work to be thought of as Latino.
Espada is a father to these young artists. Or maybe more like a mischievous older brother. His abandonment, along with Renteria's, of the overt Latino themes of the Movimiento cleared the way for younger Latino artists, such as sculptor Jason Villegas, who consciously distance their art from their ethnicity.