One of the most anticipated history museums of the year will have a Latina at the helm of its artistic direction. The Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art & Culture announced that Maria Esther Fernández would be its inaugural artistic director beginning in August.
The Chicano art center — which will include painting, sculpture, photography, and video art — will open this year in a new mid-century space. The Cheech is conceived as an institution that explores Chicano culture from the barrio to the Bay Area, from the Cholos to Cesar Chavez, and from pre-Columbian to modern murals.
The center will be located next to the historic Mission Inn in a 64,420-square-foot facility, originally opened to the public as the Riverside Public Library in 1964.
As its website explains, the Cheech is a seamless adaptive reuse of space, historical, and period features, which will be preserved in its transformation from library to museum and cultural center.
Maria Esther Fernández will be one of the most important figures in charge. As the inaugural Artistic Director of The Cheech, Fernández will lead the national center’s curatorial vision and programming direction starting August 2021.
As Art News explained, Fernández has been chief curator and deputy director of the Triton Museum of Art in Santa Clara, California, which focuses on Bay Area artists. There she has often focused on Chicano artists.
In a statement, Marin said, “Esther brings a wealth of experience and expertise in Chicano art history that aligns well with The Cheech. I look forward to supporting her in this integral leadership role as Artistic Director, which will shape our strategic curatorial and programmatic vision for years to come.”
Fernández was born in Chicago and grew up in Inglewood, California. She studied at the University of California, Berkeley where she majored in Chicana/o Studies and Ethnic Studies, which she says provided her with the “critical framework for understanding inequality and how communities are disenfranchised.”
At Berkeley, Fernández was also mentored by artists who had been active since the Chicano Movement, including Celia Herrera Rodriguez and Yolanda Lopez. After college, Fernández was hired as a curator of education at the Triton. She later moved to the curatorial department and eventually rose to the position of chief curator, which she held from 2017 to 2020.
In an interview with Art News, Fernández said, “In the development of innovative programming and new scholarship, we can address the gaps in American history and expand our understanding of what Chicanx art is and can be.”
She continued, “This is an amazing responsibility and opportunity to engage in dialogue and try to reflect the complexity of Chicanx art and to rethink how we work within this museum model that at times does or does not serve our community. The Chicanx community is very marginalized from mainstream museums historically.”