Cheech's Museum Completes His Arc From Pothead Icon To Chicano Art Champion
Actor Cheech Marin is a longtime champion of Chicano art who has spent nearly four decades collecting work and advocating for the inclusion of Chicano artists at U.S. museums.
Marin rose to fame as a comedy star with partner Tommy Chong, their material built around a love of marijuana. Along with developing a diverse range of roles as an actor in the decades since, he also amassed a huge private collection. He’s now sharing it through the Riverside Art Museum’s new Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art and Culture — or simply, “The Cheech.”
The 61,420-square-foot center — formerly Riverside's main city library — now houses one of the largest permanent collections of Chicano art in the world. Chicano is a term that became popular in the 1960s among Mexican Americans and Latinos to describe themselves as politicized.
We got a preview this week (keep reading for more images). You can also check out our live coverage of the Cheech’s dedication ceremony here.
The grand opening this Saturday is a big day for Latino art in the U.S. The Molina Family Latino Gallery also opens Saturday at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.
The gallery is currently within the Museum of American History and marks the first physical presence for the upcoming National Museum of the American Latino. It was created with the help of a $10 million gift from a Southern California family — the sons and daughters of Dr. C. David Molina, founder of Molina Healthcare in Long Beach.
Why The Inland Empire Makes A Perfect Home For This Collection
Giving this collection a permanent home in the Inland Empire “was an opportunity that was meant to happen,” Marin told LAist. “People were ready for this message, they were ready to see this — and they had kind of seen it before, because I had been touring the collection in one form or another for many years.”
He’s held other shows at the Riverside Art Museum, as well as across the country and in Europe. The first one broke attendance records for the museum, according to Marin — as his Chicano art did elsewhere, including breaking a 25-year record at the Smithsonian.
Marin started looking into the makeup of the local Riverside community, which is more than 50 percent Latino according to census data. The Cheech expects more than 100,000 visitors each year.
“Even the naysayers really quickly came on board, because you have to see Chicano art in order to appreciate it — and they started appreciating it,” Marin said.
Whether they’re Chicanx/Latinx or not, Center Artistic Director María Esther Fernández said, she’s hopeful about the impact this art will have on audiences.
“I hope … that they’re moved to learn about their neighbors, that they’re moved to see a group of people that have helped build this country,” Fernández said.
A Mania For Chicano Art
Marin credits his ex-wife, painter Patti Heid, for taking him to galleries and helping him fill the gap in his knowledge around contemporary art.
He was drawn to three artists early on: George Yepes, Frank Romero, and Carlos Almaraz.
“I was struck immediately by how good they were, what great painters they were, and the things that they were talking about,” Marin said. “This obviously was about my community, and the people that I grew up with — my family, my relatives.”
His passion came from that, combined with the artistic roots that he saw in the work.
“It was also art history that I understood, because all these artists were either art school and/or university-trained,” Marin said. “So they weren’t naive backyard artists that did it on weekends — these are really serious artists that were influenced by world art.”
For Marin, seeing that artwork was like hearing the Beatles for the first time, he said. He noted how the Beatles filtered American music through a British lens, while this is world art being filtered through a Chicano perspective.
He started dabbling in the collecting world by purchasing small pieces, beginning around 1985 — but it became an obsession.
“It quickly turned into a mania,” Marin said, laughing. “All my spare cash — and even my non-spare cash —was put to that use, to put together this collection.”
Marin’s collected around 700 works of Chicano art, he said.
“Well, you’re not really a collector until you have storage,” Marin added.
Only about a seventh of his vast collection is on display at The Cheech — 96 works are currently displayed in the Cheech Collects exhibition — but he’s gifted the museum 500 pieces in total, including paintings, sculptures, and photography. There are plans for future iterations of the display, rotating in more of the pieces gifted by Marin.
Inspiring Chicano Artists Of The Future
Chicano art has now established itself enough to be an influence for younger artists, Marin said, with the work speaking to them in a similar way to how it affected him.
Marin is hopeful about the message the new space sends to young people.
“It puts before them the possibility that they could be hanging in their museum one day, that there is a museum that’s for them,” Marin said.
This art can help young people dream, Fernández said.
“I mean, that’s what art is about. It shows you who you are, it inspires you,” Fernández said. “I’m the daughter of immigrants. Growing up, you don’t see yourself reflected in the mainstream community — it’s important to see yourself, to feel validated, to have your stories told.”
Marin sees his center as something that could help Chicano art get more representation in other museums.
“There’s a scramble for the paintings of all those artists,” Marin said. “And virtually all the artists — even the OG artists, like John Valadez — they’re working at the top of their form right now, and they’re making wonderful, beautiful art. And so, there’s a replenished supply for the consuming audience.”
The Cheech in Riverside is expected to be a hub for Chicano and Latino art in Southern California.
“Yes, maybe we’re not in L.A., and maybe we’re not San Francisco or New York, but Riverside is where it’s at — and all of these other regional museums are where it’s at as well. We’re putting the work in,” Fernández said.
There are hopes for the museum to be in conversation with other marginalized communities as well, according to Fernández.
Marin expressed appreciation for local officials, as well as prominent members of the culture scene, for supporting the creation of this new space.
“[They] realized that there’s a community here in need to have their work showcased and featured, not just for themselves, but for the broader community to learn about our cultural contributions,” Fernández told LAist.
Marin was given a key to the city during the Thursday dedication ceremony in front of a 26-foot-tall piece of lenticular art, created by brothers Einar and James de la Torre. It’s yet another sign of the close collaboration in creating the Cheech, a public-private partnership between the Riverside Art Museum, the city of Riverside, and Marin himself.
Inside the museum’s doors, you’ll find two large exhibitions: Collidoscope: de la Torre Brothers Retro-Perspective on the second floor, which features more than 70 mixed-media works including that giant lenticular piece, and Cheech Collects on the first floor, following Marin’s decades-long history as a collector of fine art.
The Cheech opens its doors to the public on Saturday, June 18
- Daily hours 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (Note: Opening day admissions are sold out)
- Tickets (including admission to the Riverside Art Museum) are currently available for this Sunday through Aug. 31.
- Adult tickets are $15.95, with discounts for seniors, educators, college students, and teens — children under 12 and veterans can get in for free
Janet Watt, one of the Molina siblings who gave a combined $10 million to the Smithsonian, is on the board of Southern California Public Radio, which operates LAist.