Mexican Museum Resurrects at Fort Mason

By Garrett McAuliffe [Print story originally published December 7, 2009]

En Español

Shuttered for years, the Mexican Museum opens its doors at Fort Mason this month for the first time since 2006 with a show highlighting the Christmas traditions of Mexico.

Funding from the city has begun to trickle in, money marked for development as the museum inches closer to a permanent move downtown at Yerba Buena Gardens. But that project is still years from completion. In the meantime, the ten-member board has worked hard to resuscitate the museum’s tentative existence at Fort Mason, and bring some of its 12,000 works back into view relying on personal resources and the support of volunteers.

“We are finally in a very good space where we are working in a positive way with our partners,” said Mario Diaz, co-chair of the board. “Our priority now is to get the collection in front of the eyes of the public.”

Under a short-term lease extension, the Mexican Museum has already reopened its store La Tienda and will debut its new exhibit on Saturday, December 19th, a huge step forward for the non-profit after it recently appeared they would have to move their entire collection at great expense.

With nearly $250,000 in back rent owed and no public programming in years, the museum seemed certain to lose its lease with Fort Mason.

“It’s time for a fresh start,” Pat Kilduff, the director of marketing for Fort Mason, said less than four months ago, intending to cut ties.

But through mediation, the two organizations have come to a temporary agreement – 60 days to clean up the space and open.

“They’ve been wonderful,” said Diaz, of leadership at Fort Mason, “allowing us to redeem our credibility.”

In 2006, much of the staff was fired and the museum closed its permanent exhibit to focus on fundraising for a permanent space.

Since then, the museum has shuttled exhibitions away from Fort Mason, most recently a show, “Treasures of the Mexican Museum,” at the Palo Alto Arts Center that continues through April.

Meanwhile, the new board continues to work to make the museum sustainable at its current location with an eye to an eventual move to Yerba Buena Gardens that may not come until after 2014.

The city’s Redevelopment Agency allotted the museum $250,000 earlier this year to help it plan for the proposed move.

At present, the Mexican Museum is envisioned as part of a mixed use complex that will put the collection on the ground floor of a residential tower near the historic Mercantile Building.

Eli Aramburo, chair of the museum’s advisory committee, said she believes some of that money should be directed towards costs related to more immediate programming.

“We can’t move forward without exhibiting the collection, and we can’t exhibit without staff,” she said.

The museum needs to raise close to $4 million on its own depending on final construction costs for the Yerba Buena project, to match the $11 million set aside by the redevelopment agency. But this is far less than the $35 to $40 million the board needed to raise for earlier plans when the museum was a stand alone.

To find private donors, Aramburo believes the museum first needs the stability of a core staff and steady public programming.

“We have a great opportunity to rebuild over the next two to three years,” Aramburo said. But staffing is key for operations and fundraising, and the advisory committee chair thinks immediate hiring should meet stipulations on how the redevelopment funding can be spent.

But that money is under the control of Arts Commission director Luis Cancel, acting as fiscal agent.

“It’s not a general operating support grant and is not intended to provide core staff support,” he explained.

The original agreement from the Redevelopment Agency seemed to leave some leeway on how the money could be spent citing a program director as one possibility, though it mainly focused on pre-development plans for the new site.

But the Arts Commission drafted a more detailed plan that lays out how each dollar would be spent, supported and signed by the museum board co-chairs, that leaves no room for funding programming or related staff.

“We need to build sustainability at Fort Mason, but (Cancel) hasn’t allowed us to do so,” Aramburo said.

“The public thinks we’re being funded and want to know why we’re not open,” the advisory chair continued the day before Thanksgiving, “but we haven’t seen a dime.”

The first $20,000 was released later that day to help fund an audit that will bring the museum’s books up to date, as required of any non-profit.

The temporary lease allows the museum to remain at Fort Mason through at least January before discussing a year-long extension.

La Tienda, the museum’s store, opened for the first time in years in late November in an attempt to clear space for the upcoming exhibit and raise money during the Christmas shopping rush.

The store, which holds a trove of books, crafts, textiles and ceramics, will be open Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 4 p.m. through Christmas.

As for the exhibition, “Mexican Christmas Traditions,” the board is planning a community reception to mark its opening.

The other $230,000 in funding should be released when the audit is complete, providing the money is spent on consultants and the preparation of reports that show the museum is able “to be successful partners in the development project at the Yerba Buena site,” said Cancel.

Diaz remains optimistic. “We’re all volunteering. I’ll be there Saturday and Sunday.”

“Basically we’re a new organization with new leadership,” he continued. “There’s a lot of history here. This is a facility we want to resurrect and have it appeal to younger generations, because they are future leaders and artists and donors.”

Mission Eyes: Mexican Museum, December 2009 from Mission Local on Vimeo.

Video by Kimberly Chua, hosted by Rio Yañez and Amanda Martinez