Actor and collector Cheech Marin’s long-awaited art center in Riverside, California, has appointed María Esther Fernández to serve as its inaugural artistic director. She will begin at the Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art & Culture in August.
Fernández was most recently the chief curator and deputy director of the Triton Museum of Art in Santa Clara, California, which focuses on Bay Area artists. Her focus there has often been Chicanx 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.”
The center, known as the Cheech for short, is managed by the Riverside Art Museum and is now set to open in on May 8, 2022. (Its opening had originally been scheduled for 2021, but was delayed because of the pandemic.) It will spotlight Chicanx artists, with an initial seed donation from Marin’s collection, and its opening presentations will include a solo show by brothers Einar and Jamex De La Torre.
In an interview with ARTnews, Fernández said, “In the development of innovative programing 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.”
Fernández was born in Chicago and grew up in Inglewood, California, in the 1980s and early ’90s. She attended the University of California, Berkeley, where she received a B.A. in Chicana/o Studies and Ethnic Studies, which she said gave her the “critical framework for understanding inequity and how communities are disenfranchised.” At Berkeley, Fernández also was mentored by artists who had been active since the Chicano Movement began, among them Celia Herrera Rodriguez and Yolanda Lopez. After college, Fernández was hired as a curator of education at the Triton. She later moved into the curatorial department, and ultimately rose to the position of chief curator, which she held from 2017 to 2020.
Among the exhibitions she curated at the Triton were solo exhibition for Consuelo Jimenez Underwood in 2013 and “Xicana: Spiritual Reflections/Reflexiónes Espirituales” in 2010. With Carlos Jackson and Susy Zepeda, she co-curated the 2019 exhibition “Xicanx Futurity” at the Manetti Shrem Museum of Art at UC Davis. With Laura E. Pérez, she is currently at work organizing a retrospective of Amalia Mesa-Bains for the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, scheduled to open in 2023.
Fernández said that she hopes to make the Cheech into a community-focused center, with spaces like Self Help Graphics in L.A.’s Boyle Heights neighborhood and Galería de la Raza in San Francisco’s Mission District acting as models. “Chicanx art means a lot of different things to a lot of different people,” she said. “Our community is complex, and Chicanx art is often presented as a monolith that comes out of the Chicano Movement. It has evolved and grown. The Cheech Center should be a place to have this dialogue.”