Peter Rodriguez during his time as Executive Director of the Mexican Museum. Photo courtesy of the Mexican Museum

San Francisco artistic visionary and founder of the Mexican Museum Peter Rodriguez died July 1, 2016 at 90 years of age.

Friends remembered the Stockton, Calif. native as a gifted artist, a perfectionist, and a collector who helped Chicano art to be seen and appreciated in San Francisco.

Rodriguez was the oldest of eleven children and started receiving recognition for his artwork at an early age. He was selected for an exhibition in New York City in seventh grade and a year later, for the 1939 exhibition at the World’s Fair in San Francisco.

In his youth, Rodriguez lived in San Francisco and worked in advertising and fashion while painting in oils and acrylics at home. After living in Tlalpan near Mexico City for some time and traveling through the Yucatan and around Mexico, Rodriguez returned in the 1970s and helped found 24th’s street’s Galería de la Raza.

In 1975, Rodriguez founded The Mexican Museum. The Museum got its start in two rooms in a building at the corner of Folsom and 15th Streets at the northern edge of the Mission. Since then it has moved once, has almost been evicted once, and amassed a world-class collection. Rodriguez’ mentee and later friend Amalia Mesa Bains remembered the significance the museum had even in its modest beginnings.

“It was really a very prophetic vision. We were still considered minority,” she said. “His desire to provide us a separate space for enjoying art from Mexico…I think none of us could have imagined that in the years that transpired, that it would really come to this fruition.”

Mesa-Bains said Rodriguez set aside his own artistic career to focus on his curatorial work, and even used his own money to acquire the early part of the collection.

“He became a curator in a kind of de facto way. He had very strong aesthetic viewpoints and he was usually right,” Mesa-Bains said.

But Maria X Martinez, a close personal friend of Rodriguez in his later years, met him originally in 1991, when he had already moved on from his leadership at the Mexican Museum, and saw his curatorial work not as a sacrifice of his artistic self, but an extension.

“I think he saw his surroundings and the museums and everything he was doing as his own art, I think he saw that as alchemic. There was an alchemy in transforming his surroundings,” Martinez said. “The museum – the same part of him who paints, was also who built that.”

His strong viewpoints led to frequent “flare-ups,” as Mesa-Bains put it, with Rodriguez, who had a reputation for being somewhat strong-headed.

“He was very opinionated, a difficult personality, really he was, but you endured it because you knew he was right,” she said. “He was a model. You looked at his house, you left, you went home, and you fixed your room. You wanted to have that kind of beauty around you.”

That admiration was widespread among those who interacted with Rodriguez, both personally and with regard to his work.

“He was maestro, we all knew that,” she said. “He was the oldest in his family, looked up to by all of his family.”

And, said Martinez, he knew it.

“I don’t think there was ever a doubt in Peter’s mind of his vision and how important it was,” Martinez said. “I don’t think he ever faltered in that.”

In his later years, Rodriguez remained active artistically, painting even up to his 90th birthday. He also mellowed out, Martinez said, and relationships with family and friends became paramount. Martinez’ daughter Paloma shared a particularly close bond with Rodriguez.

“The most precious thing was having Christmas Eve dinner with me and just having him be in our house and be the elder,” Martinez said.

In mid July, the Mexican Museum celebrated the beginning of construction of its new building at 706 Mission Street in downtown San Francisco after existing for many years in Fort Mason. The new building will house what has become the largest collection of Mexican, Latino and Chicano art in the nation, with some 17,000 pieces. Those who knew Rodriguez attributed the success of the museum largely to him.

“No one contributed more to the Latino art community than Peter,” said Andrew M. Kluger, Chair of The Mexican Museum Board of Trustees, in a statement. “He was a true visionary whose legacy is firmly established in our world-class museum, where future generations can learn about and be inspired by Mexican art and culture.”

The museum was also a symbol of self-determination for Mexican, Mexican-American and Chicano artists, giving them an opportunity to be exhibited, a public feedback gathering process Mesa-Bains likened to allowing athletes to compete.

“Because we were so excluded from the mainstream, our institutions were really almost like an antidote,” she said.

“What an honor it has been to see my uncle’s legacy unfold before us,” said Irene Christopher, Peter Rodriguez’s niece in a statement from the museum. “My uncle worked tirelessly, and with passion and drive, to personally demonstrate that, as a Mexican-American, we can achieve any dream by ourselves.”

From the Mexican Museum: The life and legacy of Peter Rodriguez, founder of The Mexican Museum will be remembered on Thursday, July 28 at 11:30am, St. Dominc’s Church in San Francisco, 2390 Bush Street. The community is welcome to attend, joining Rodriguez’s family, friends, and colleagues in honoring the man and his lifelong mission to keep Mexican, Mexican-American, Chicano, and Latino art at the forefront of the art world.

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