It’s no laughing matter: The debut in a few days of a museum featuring the art collection of comedian Cheech Marin could put Riverside on the map.
Famous for his role in the Cheech & Chong comedy duo that delighted millions with a unique brand of marijuana-laced humor, Marin said he started collecting works of Mexican American artists while touring the country in the 1980s.
Today, Marin’s collection numbers about 700 works of art and is believed to be one of the largest of its kind in the world.
The comedian-turned-serious-collector said he is giving the “vast majority” of the pieces — about 550 paintings, photographs, sculptures and other works — to The Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art & Culture of the Riverside Art Museum, which is poised to open Saturday, June 18.
María Esther Fernández, the center’s artistic director, said the inaugural exhibition, “Cheech Collects,” will feature nearly 100 works from 44 artists. Among them are Margaret Garcia, Wayne Alaniz Healy and Frank Romero.
Workers are putting finishing touches on “The Cheech” in anticipation of next wekend’s long-awaited debut. Its home, a remodeled two-story, 61,420-square-foot building constructed in the 1960s that formerly housed Riverside’s main library
The center’s impact is expected to be immediate.
‘Like winning the World Series’
Carlos Tortolero, president and founder of the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago, which possesses more than 18,000 pieces, said the center will raise Riverside’s profile in the art community across California and the Southwest — and for that matter, the nation.
“This is big,” Tortolero said by phone Wednesday, June 8. “This is like winning the World Series.”
“I can tell you that it is going to bring more people into Riverside, that’s for sure,” he said.
Drew Oberjuerge, Riverside Art Museum’s executive director, has said the center expects to attract 100,000 people annually, an estimate based on the existing museum’s annual attendance of about half that, as well as Marin’s celebrity and the prominence of his art collection.
Regional economist John Husing estimated, in a November 2020 report, the center will generate $20 million in new spending in the Inland Empire’s largest city in its first 12 months.
“It will make the city a U.S. destination for serious art lovers,” Husing wrote.
Husing based estimates in part on the success of a local iconic event, the Mission Inn Hotel & Spa’s Festival of Lights, which annually draws more than 500,000 visitors between Thanksgiving and early January, although its popular switch-on ceremony was canceled twice in recent years because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Mission Inn, located down the street from the art center, has been a primary Riverside draw for years. Fast-growing UC Riverside, consistently ranked among the nation’s top universities, also has put the city on regional and national maps. Los Angeles economist Christopher Thornberg said the center, which he called “a great step in the right direction,” will build on those strengths.
However, Thornberg said the center will face competition from the many other museums across Southern California.
As for the new branch of the Riverside Art Museum, it has a lot going for it, not the least of which is its celebrity association.
“Cheech is a larger-than-life person,” Tortolero said.
Changing how people feel
Husing wrote that the center is well positioned to capitalize on changing demographics that have transformed the Inland Empire region of Riverside and San Bernardino counties into a metropolis where Latinos make up more than half the population.
Riverside City Council Member Clarissa Cervantes, who was born and raised in the Coachella Valley and has Mexican American family roots, said the center will resonate across the region’s burgeoning Latino community.
“It’s going to change how they feel about themselves when they see this art because they are going to see themselves,” Cervantes said.
The council member who represents Ward 2, which takes in the city’s Canyon Crest, Eastside and University neighborhoods, said she walked through the center a couple weeks ago with many paintings already adorning gallery walls. “I was overwhelmed with emotion and pride,” Cervantes said.
Fernández, the artistic director, said the focus on Chicano art is well timed given a growing conviction that institutions need to diversify portfolios. The center, she said, will be a model for featuring the masterpieces of underrepresented artists.
Blanca Zarazua, board secretary for The Mexican Museum in San Francisco, looks forward to that.
“We’re certainly excited that there is another institution that is highlighting the artistic contributions of the Latino community,” Zarazua said.
It helps that Marin’s collection has been shown at about 50 institutions across the United States, Fernández said.
“That has brought with it unprecedented attention,” she said.
‘Next big art town’
Oberjuerge said the center is drawing attention not only from top-flight museums, but also from national media outlets such as The New York Times, NPR and Forbes magazine.
To some, it may seem the attention is aimed in an unlikely direction — yes, at the largest city in a two-county region of 4.6 million people, but also a place that long has been overshadowed by Los Angeles and Orange County.
Marin doesn’t see it that way.
“It’s actually perfectly situated,” Marin said, “because I think that Riverside is positioned to be the next big art town.”
There’s no question the project fits Riverside’s motto, oft repeated at city meetings and events.
“I think The Cheech is going to elevate what it means to be a ‘city of arts and innovation,’” Cervantes said.
Marin said he didn’t choose to showcase his collection in Riverside. “Riverside picked me,” he said.
Shortly after his traveling exhibition, “Papel Chicano Dos: Works on Paper,” landed at Riverside Art Museum in 2017, city officials approached Marin about providing a home for the pieces of art.
“I didn’t understand them at first,” Marin said. “‘You want me to buy a museum?’”
Understanding each other
He quickly warmed to the city teaming with Riverside Art Museum to create a center of Chicano art. Then promoters launched a fundraising campaign and state Assemblymember Jose Medina, D-Riverside, helped secure $10.7 million in state dollars.
In January 2021, the City Council hired Hamel Contracting of Murrieta to renovate the former library at a cost of $10.7 million, to be borne by the museum. The council committed taxpayer dollars to pay Riverside Art Museum $800,000 the first year, and $25,000 more each year after that, to manage the center.
Coupled with anual utilities and landscaping expenses of $135,800, the city is committed to providing $10.4 million over 10 years.
There have been bumps along the way. For example, supply chain issues delayed completion.
Now The Cheech is ready to open its doors.
Zarazua, the San Francisco museum board member, said it will bring people together.
“Through art, people can understand each other better,” she said.
Staff writer David Allen contributed to this report.
Name: The Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art & Culture of the Riverside Art Museum
Address: 3581 Mission Inn Ave., Riverside
Website: riversideartmuseum.org, click “visit” on “The Cheech Center”
Hours of operation: Monday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; opening until 8 p.m. on June 23, June 30, July 7 and Aug. 4; closed Tuesdays in August
Tickets: $15.95 for adults; $10.95 for seniors ages 65 and older, educators, college students; $10.95 for children ages 13 to 17; free for children age 12 and under; free for active and retired military
Opening-day tickets are sold out; tickets are available for dates between Sunday, June 19, and Aug. 31
First exhibit: “Cheech Collects,” featuring nearly 100 works from more than 40 artists, runs through December
Opening Day Celebration presented by U.S. Bank
What: Art fair featuring art, music, dance, lowriders and food
Where: Along Mission Inn Avenue in front of The Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art & Culture of the Riverside Art Museum. No ticket necessary to attend.
When: Saturday, June 18, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Source: Riverside Art Museum