Cheech Marin is a regular visitor to the Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art & Culture in Riverside, and not just because he gets in free.
How often has he been back since the June 2022 opening of the center, which is largely made up of his personal art collection?
“Six, seven times,” Marin tells me. “Whenever they summon me to appear. I always try to stop in on my way to Joshua Tree, where I live half the time.”
We were speaking Jan. 26 at the Riverside Convention Center a few minutes before he went onstage to accept the Riverside Hero Award. He remembers me from our conversation last June during his publicity blitz. He gets my hero award too.
Marin has a busy schedule, with roles in two high-profile movies, “Shotgun Wedding” and “Champions.” His visits to Riverside are not pop-ins to shake a few hands and wave goodbye. When he’s in town, his time is scheduled for maximum effect.
“He’s usually around for a day, two days, even three days,” says Maria Esther Fernández, the museum’s artistic director, by phone a few days later.
Cheech Marin stands before a lenticular artwork by brothers Einar and Jamex de la Torre, a permanent feature at the Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art & Culture. (Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG) Marin might meet with donors, participate in a golf tournament or give interviews to L.A. or national media about the museum. Internal discussions take place about programming, future exhibitions or initiatives in the works. During the Festival of Lights downtown, there were “Meet Cheech” events.
At most two months have elapsed between visits, while between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, Marin was in Riverside three times in succession. A contact of mine at City Hall has bumped into the actor on the street more than once and exchanged hellos.
During the holidays, Marin brought some of his extended family, 27 people in all, to tour the museum that bears his name.
“It was a very emotional kind of deal. A couple of family members had died in the interim,” reflects Marin. “Someone said, ‘I wish they could have been here’ and I said, ‘They are here in spirit. I can feel their spirit here.’ It made everyone feel good.”
On that visit and others, Marin doesn’t ask the museum to close down admissions for privacy. Visitors get excited when they see him walking the galleries and exclaim “It’s him! It’s him!”, recounts Ofelia Valdez-Yeager, chair of the museum’s board.
“He’s gracious, probably to a fault, allowing people to take pictures with him without complaint,” says Valdez-Yeager. “It’s tiring. But he knows it’s important to be seen.”
The actor, 76, showed up for the State of the City despite having had bronchitis for three weeks. “I don’t even like the Broncos,” he joked in his remarks.
Riverside Hero Award winner Cheech Marin speaks during the State of the City event at the Riverside Convention Center on Jan. 26. “So many people around the nation have been introduced to Riverside as an arts destination,” Marin said. (Terry Pierson, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG) “We’re poised to exceed the city’s projection of 100,000 visitors our first year,” Marin said. “We’re going to trample on that. So many people around the nation have been introduced to Riverside as an arts destination. They have stayed in Riverside hotels, eaten Riverside food and pumped Riverside gas.”
Speaking of Riverside food, but hopefully not Riverside gas, museum staff takes Marin out to dinner when he’s in town. He doesn’t assert privileges. “He’ll stand in line and order food like anyone else,” Fernández says. “It’s interesting to see folks and how excited they get.”
The actor and art collector has no formal role at the museum. He surrendered control when he donated the bulk of his collection, some 550 pieces. The Riverside Art Museum has fiduciary responsibility.
Cheech Marin stands before the Patssi Valdez painting “Room on the Verge,” part of the inaugural exhibition, “Cheech Collects,” at the museum nicknamed The Cheech. (Photo by Carlos Puma/Riverside Art Museum) “He’s always funny, always joking, even when we’re talking business,” says Drew Oberjuerge, executive director of RAM. “Then I remember, ‘Oh, yeah, he got his start as an improv comedian.’”
“He’s more of an adviser,” Fernández says. “He’s a great ambassador for the museum and the center.”
She and Marin check in regularly.
“I talk to him about the collection, we talk about the art world, other exhibitions, update him on programming at the museum,” Fernández says. “We talk about broader issues of legacy and vision of the center.”
Fernández says Marin, whose collection reflected his own tastes, is now “thinking bigger picture for the center” as he continues collecting. The museum’s first acquisitions as an institution were two Judithe Hernández paintings to fill a gap.
Marin says he’s bought 10 more artworks since the museum’s opening.
“I’m trying to set up a narrative of Chicano art,” Marin tells me, “so when I find pieces that illustrate that narrative, I get them.”
I ask for an example. “I just started buying my first pieces of photography,” Marin says. He’d discovered the work of Chuy Benitez, a Houston photographer.
“He uses panoramic lenses and he stages these tableaus that are funny and interesting and reminiscent of family life, growing up Chicano,” Marin says. “Good art, you know it when you see it, at least I do.”
Cheech Marin reacts to piece of art on display inside the Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art & Culture in Riverside. “Good art, you know it when you see it, at least I do,” the collector says. (Photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG) He’s thrilled by the reception to the museum and surprised by the number of repeat visitors, including people who return again and again with various family members.
“It’s beyond my wildest dreams, to tell you the truth,” Marin says.
The main-floor exhibition, “Cheech Collects,” displays only a fraction of his collection. The show was due to be rotated out by now, but it’s going to remain in place through May 14.
Says Fernández: “We have iconic works that people are still coming across the country to see.”
Meanwhile, the second-floor gallery exhibition of lenticular art, “Collidoscope: de la Torre Brothers Retro-Perspective,” ended Jan. 22 and has been crated up to go on tour. It’ll be replaced starting Feb. 25 with “Land of Milk & Honey,” a show organized by the MexiCali Biennial.
And the first floor community gallery currently has “Life Logistics” from San Bernardino’s Garcia Center for the Arts through April 26 that takes aim at the Inland Empire scourge of warehousing.
When Marin mentions that he and comedy partner Tommy Chong will be touring in 2023 for a series of onstage conversations, I ask if Chong has visited the museum.
“Yeah,” Marin replies, “he and his wife came to the opening. They loved it.”
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