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Cheech Marin’s new museum plants a flag in the ground for Chicano art

The Cheech has Latin American urban design at its core.

Cheech Marin’s new museum plants a flag in the ground for Chicano art
[Photo: courtesy Riverside Art Museum]

There’s a hole cut into the middle of the Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art & Culture in Riverside, California. Built inside a former library, the new museum made the unconventional decision to reduce its gallery space when it sliced out a huge piece of its second floor. But according to architect Kulapat Yantrasast of WHY, the atrium that decision created is more important to the museum’s mission than the few extra galleries it could have housed.

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[Photo: courtesy Riverside Art Museum]
“From the beginning, Cheech made it very clear that this is community oriented,” Yantrasast says, referring to the museum’s namesake. Marin, the actor and comedian of the famed weed-smoking duo Cheech and Chong, is also a noted collector of Chicano art, and his 500-piece collection formed the foundation of what’s become known as the Cheech.

Rather than just a building to house art, the Cheech is intended to be a new civic center for the community. Using the Latin American urban concept of the zócalo, or public square, the architects cut the atrium to form a central gathering space within the building. “For museums to be relevant, they have to be places for people,” Yantrasast says. “Creating the atrium was our biggest intervention.”

[Photo: courtesy Riverside Art Museum]
As a first-of-its-kind institution focused on Chicano art, the Cheech has used its design to plant a flag in the ground for this art movement. WHY served as the project’s designer, while preservation-focused Page & Turnbull are the project’s official architects. Their collaborative design transforms a library built in 1964 into a new kind of learning space. Mostly windowless, the building was easily adapted to store and display art. And because it long served as a public library, it already had a built-in connection with many members of the community.

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[Photo: courtesy Riverside Art Museum]
To build on that historic association with openness and learning, the architects focused on improving the facility’s connection with its surroundings. Yantrasast says the designers worked to restore the grand staircase that leads into the building from a public park, forming a kind of welcome mat to the space and its interior public square.

[Image: courtesy The Cheech]
“Most museums in America look like a temple, or like a mausoleum. They’re intimidating, and people don’t go in,” Yantrasast says. “So even though we maintained all the walls for the handling of the art and to maintain the character of the old building, there’s still an attraction to it.”

[Photo: courtesy Riverside Art Museum]
The architects also tried to use the building as a catalyst for change in the city. The Cheech is affiliated with the Riverside Art Museum and developed as a public-private partnership with the city. Located in the city’s once-thriving civic core, it’s surrounded by several large Mission-style buildings that paint a somewhat dated picture of a Southern California community that has seen its demographics shift from white to Latin American.

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Playing up the region’s long-past association with haciendas and Spanish colonial development in California, the area is concentrated with buildings that evoke a rosy picture of what this history meant to indigenous populations. In fact, it was less rosy. John Lesak of Page & Turnbull says the existing buildings in the area make the Cheech stand out—both for its modernist appearance and for the museum’s subject matter.

[Photo: courtesy Riverside Art Museum]
“This part of Riverside is one of these explosions of revival architecture that you really don’t experience anywhere else except like Disney World. It’s celebratory, but at the same time there are threads of colonialism,” Lesak says. “It’s a complex subject to talk about, and that weaves its way into the Cheech and its collection. It’s perfect for the conversation.”

[Photo: courtesy Riverside Art Museum]
Yantrasast says that once visitors come inside, the interior public square is the ideal setting for that conversation, both formal and informal. It’s a place, he says, where visitors can see the breadth of the art on display in the building’s two floors, meet for a coffee in the café, or simply browse the museum shop. (Admission to the museum’s exhibitions is $15.95 for adults and free for children 12 and younger.) Mostly, he says, the space is meant to erase the intimidating feel most museums can have, and make it easier for people to view a type of art that’s only recently getting its due.

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“I’ve been advocating the concept of museums as sites of empathy, where people can understand each other,” Yantrasast says. “This museum is not just about the Latinx or Chicano population, it’s about everyone and how we understand each other.”

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