Growing up, Cheech Marin was always a collector.
It all started with marbles. Later, it was baseball cards, then eventually stamps. Now, at 75, he’s collected enough art to fill an entire museum.
“I’ve been collecting things since I was a kid,” says Marin, arguably best known as one half of stoner comedy duo Cheech and Chong. “I’ve always had a type of collection going on.”
Marin bought his first artwork in the mid-1980s with the money he earned from his success in comedy and big-screen hits such as “Up in Smoke” and “Cheech and Chong’s Next Movie. “. He began by collecting Chicano-inspired Art Deco and Art Nouveau pieces in “a small undervalued business at the time”. Around the time his Art Nouveau collection grew in size — and value — Marin says he discovered artwork by Chicano painters and immediately recognized their artistic styles.
Thirty-seven years later, Marin continues to collect predominantly Chicano artists and has created what many consider to be the largest private collection of Chicano art in the world.
More than 550 paintings, drawings, sculptures and photographs from Marin’s personal collection will be on permanent rotation at the Riverside Art Museum‘s Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art and Culture, beginning with a 100-piece inaugural exhibition beginning June 18.
Nicknamed “the Cheech,” the two-story, 61,420-square-foot art museum and education center is housed in what was once the downtown Riverside Public Library and will feature works by artists Chaz Bojorquez, Judithe Hernández , Frank Romero, Patssi Valdez and others.
The museum is a first, not just for Marin but for the nation. It is considered the only permanent art space to exclusively showcase Chicano and Mexican American art in the country.
“You don’t have to be Chicano to love and enjoy this job,” says Marin. “Just as I don’t have to be French to appreciate Impressionism or German to appreciate Expressionism. We recognize it as part of the conversation in art history. And now, we’re participating in that conversation in a more focused effort than ever before.
The center has been in existence for five years and will be staffed and run by the Riverside Art Museum. The town of Riverside will pay $1 million a year under a 25-year contract to cover operating costs. Renovation costs for the old library were approximately $13.3 million, subsidized by state grants and private donors.
Despite passing a 4-0 vote by city council in January, some council members were reluctant about the facility’s funding plan. Councilman Chuck Conder called the city’s 25-year financial commitment to the museum a “betrayal” of city taxpayers, according to Press-Enterprise. In his review, Conder cited the city’s financial challenges, including a costly 2020 court ruling that could end up costing Riverside up to $32 million a year.
Two other city councilors, Andy Melendrez and Ronaldo Fierro, abstained from voting, citing conflicts of interest. The two own property within 500 feet of the museum.
The Cheech is expected to bring about $3 million in annual revenue to the city, and museum staff anticipate about 100,000 visitors each year.
A rapidly growing city 60 miles east of Los Angeles, where more than half the population identifies as Chicano, Riverside is the sixth-largest Hispanic-Latino county in the United States — and a perfect fit for the Cheech,” Marin said.
“It’s a new layer of cultural awareness of the people who actually live here that has never been done before,” says Marin, who grew up in South Los Angeles. “This city was created for that.”
Riverside town officials eventually agreed. In 2017, Marin’s traveling collection, “Papel Chicano Back: Works on Paper from the Collection of Cheech Marin”, visited the Riverside Art Museum.
The exhibit drew record attendance at the museum. City officials visiting the exhibit told museum staff they were blown away by the line of visitors at the door, said Esther Fernandez, artistic director of the Cheech.
“It was obvious that something stimulated in the community. It filled a need,” Fernandez says. “So we said, we have to do this. We need to talk to Cheech. We have to find a way to have this kind of show.
In addition to the 100 works of art originally on display at the Cheech, the rest of Marin’s personal collection will be housed in a museum warehouse or offered on loan to other institutions. Marin’s art collection has already made more than 50 museum visits nationally and globally, but the Cheech will be his first permanent home.
The Cheech will also feature temporary exhibitions on its upper level, starting with “Collidoscope: from the Torre Brothers Retro-Perspective,” a 70-piece exhibition highlighting the Baroque-style artistic collaboration between the Einar and Jamex brothers and artists of the Tower; it will last until January. The most prominent piece is a 26-foot lenticular sculpture of an Aztec goddess that towers over visitors as they enter the Cheech.
Fernandez described staff at the new museum feeling “extremely emotional” as they unpacked each piece of the collection as it arrived from Marin’s home in Pacific Palisades.
“We received the collection over three or four days, and it felt like the holidays, like Christmas morning,” Fernandez said. “We opened gift after gift and [were] moved.”
Much of the artwork that arrives at the Cheech comes directly from the walls of Marin’s home. Wayne Alaniz Healy’s “Una Tarde en Meoqui” (“An Afternoon in Meoqui”) is his favorite, he says: a brightly colored 32-inch painting that he once described as “a barbecue in the garden , but it’s Norman Rockwell with jalapeños”. He adorned every dining room in every home he lived in, but like the rest of his art collection, he says, it was never really his.
“Every [tour] stop, I look at all the crowds that came – crowds that some cities didn’t even know they had – and at every stop I felt the collection leave my hands,” Marin said. “It wasn’t strictly mine. It was mine, but it wasn’t strictly mine anymore. It belonged to the people who saw it and whose story it was.