Tuesday, April 03, 2007


Latino Arts expands its low-key approach to showcasing Hispanic artists

A vision unfolds

Latino Arts expands its low-key approach to showcasing Hispanic artists


Posted: Oct. 4, 2003

They sat together, talking about fabric and stitches and their families. They had never met, but quickly were laughing with the familiarity of sisters.

Some of the women are regulars at a senior center on Milwaukee's south side who pass time together, often visiting with children and making things, like quilts.

The other women were quilt-makers from an isolated village in Alabama, poor and unschooled descendants of slaves. Their quilts were on view at a big art show across town.

This meeting was not like the big do at the Milwaukee Art Museum, which had taken place the night before, at $250 a head, to launch "The Quilts of Gee's Bend" show. It was a simple, almost impromptu get-together among women. Despite cultural differences, the Alabama and south side quilters shared similar life struggles. But their connection would not have been what it was had the women not shared one thing: art.

This is the kind of low-key, yet deeply meaningful event that has been a tradition for Latino Arts Inc., an arts group separate from but housed within the United Community Center, 1028 S. 9th St. The group started humbly, often forging ties with other arts groups in order to schedule add-on events with artists already in town.

"Things shine in a very natural way here," said Zulay Oszkay, the group's current artistic director. "Given the opportunity to bring those seniors from Alabama here so they can see what a beautiful job we are doing . . . that's what they told us. It was very affirming."

Still, the 18-year-old organization does far more than piggyback events with places like the art museum. It also stages as many as four visual arts exhibits, two theater performances and four musical performances of its own each year, usually scheduled around festivals and holidays dear to various Hispanic cultures.

Reaching out

Latino Arts is the only institution in the state solely dedicated to showcasing the visual and performing arts of Hispanic artists, and the organization has in recent years been placing increased emphasis on the variety and quality of its own programming.

With a recently completed $2.5 million expansion that includes an art gallery, auditorium and lobby, Latino Arts leaders believe they are poised to capture a larger general audience and to compete more directly with many of the city's arts venues. The annual budget for the non-profit group is about $500,000.

The implication: If the group is successful at further cementing its reputation in the area, it may be Milwaukee's best shot at ongoing exposure to good Hispanic art and artists.

The leadership of Walter Sava, the former director of the UCC who in June took over Latino Arts, is also a force behind efforts to raise the organization's stature.

"I've always known that Walter had that vision, but I saw him moving forward more in that direction when he became director of Latino Arts," said Christine Rodriguez, a Latino Arts board member and president of state and community relations at Rockwell Automation.

This year's schedule includes an array of solidly respectable events, many of which blend traditional forms and those that might also be more familiar to a general audience. Art gallery admission is free; performance events are reasonably priced, between $5 and $15.

Last year, about 10,000 people attended Latino Arts events. Performances were attended by as many as 350 and art openings were attended by about 100 guests. Latino Arts also hosts special events in conjunction with the UCC, including the annual Fiesta, which is attended by as many as 4,000 people and highlights Latino culture, music and food.

Humble beginnings

Originally, arts events were planned to complement educational and recreational programming at the UCC. Founded about 30 years ago as a teen center called The Spot, the UCC has evolved into a complex that today includes an elementary school, a middle school, senior housing, a day center for seniors, a cafe, recreation programs, a fitness center and treatment centers for addiction and abuse.

UCC leaders believed that local Latinos knew little of their own Hispanic cultural traditions. So, the first goal was to introduce the Latino population in the surrounding south side neighborhood to art, theater, dance and music programs.

Local artists were invited to play guitar during a meal or to teach a dance lesson.

"Actually, I was the first person to perform in the cafe," said Felipe Rodriguez, a musician who still plays on Friday nights at the UCC's Cafe El Sol. "They said, 'We're cooking some fish, how would you like to come down?' "

Cesar Pabon, who coordinated recreational programming in the early 1980s, started setting aside space for musical practice sessions. Not all kids were interested in athletics, he figured. Pabon eventually started a music group for kids, thinking that, like sports, it too would be good for team building.

Piano and guitar lessons were offered by 1984, and the youth musical group collaborated with other artists for Hispanic and jazz concerts. Classes in the visual arts and creative writing also began at that time.

"If you saw how we started out . . . we'd try to get 30 or 50 friends to sell a few tickets each," said Oscar Mireles, who was responsible for some of the early arts programming.

"The (Milwaukee Art Museum) did an exhibit on bullfighters about 20 years ago and we hosted a reception, bringing our people over there," said Mireles, who also arranged collaborative events with the Charles Allis Art Museum, the Milwaukee Public Museum and the Milwaukee Public Library. "People said it was the first time they had literally stepped into the art museum."

On a mission

By 1985, Latino Arts became a distinct entity. Its stated mission at the time was to strengthen the cultural identity of local Latinos. A secondary goal was to enrich the greater Milwaukee area.

Having an arts group distinct from the UCC and yet enmeshed with it was thought to be a novel way to reach more Latinos. Latino Arts had a built-in audience at the UCC (and the groups shared staff as well). But additional local Latinos might be attracted to purely cultural events, especially in a comfortable, non-intimidating, nearby place, group leaders thought.

Many Latinos in the area didn't go to arts events in Milwaukee at that time, according to "Nuestro Milwaukee: The Making of the United Community Center," a history published in 2000. Often, there was little interest and a lack of transportation. Language barriers and admission costs were issues as well, the book states.

"Many of us typically have not been exposed to the fine arts," said Christine Rodriguez, who was recently named co-chair for the annual United Performing Arts Fund campaign. "(Latino Arts) is a way to engage the Hispanic community."

Having a separate arts organization also opened fund-raising doors, making it possible for Latino Arts to seek support from private foundations, corporations, individuals and public arts organizations interested primarily in the arts. Some of the group's major funding has come from Heartland Arts Fund, Milwaukee County, Milwaukee Arts Board, the National Endowment for the Arts, the United Performing Arts Fund, the Wisconsin Arts Board and the Wisconsin Humanities Council.

A few years after Latino Arts was created, an expansion of the UCC made it possible for space to be set aside to show visual arts and present performances. Before that, events were held in spots like the UCC gymnasium.

While the majority of artists who participate in Latino Arts events are Mexican and Puerto Rican, reflecting the population of Latinos in Milwaukee, the group has in recent years placed increasing emphasis on a diversity of Latino and Hispanic art from countries such as Venezuela, Brazil, El Salvador, Cuba and Spain.

Nearly 100,000 Latinos live in the Milwaukee area, according to Latino Arts, and the Latino population has grown to almost 9% in Milwaukee County.

Every exhibit and show is scrutinized carefully by Oszkay, the artistic director, who is a visual artist and has lived in Venezuela, Europe and California.

"I'll see something where I am traveling, and I say, 'Wow, we have to bring this show out.' "

Today, artists lobby to be included in the group's programming, Oszkay said.

"It is the pre-eminent place for Latino artists," said musician Felipe Rodriguez. "It has also given us artists exposure in the community, which is really key."

One highlight came in 1999, when Journal Sentinel classical music and dance critic Tom Strini named Noche Flamenca, with more than 75 dancers, musicians and chorus members, his third best classical music / dance event of the year.

Two years later, he called Tangokinesis the year's best concert. That show featured Ana Maria Stekelman, who, according to Strini, retained "all the grit and sexual heat of the traditional tango" while blending it with modern dance. Both events were co-sponsored by the UCC and held at the Pabst Theater.

Some competition

Despite its good work, one neighbor thinks the scope of Latino Arts has been limited.

"I have really felt that Latino Arts was focused almost exclusively on Latino artists and addressing itself to the Latino community," said Linda Corbin-Pardee of Walker's Point Center for the Arts, a group that's also in the neighborhood and focuses on exhibits and shows by artists of color.

"I have thought of them as a little more insular, so Latino-focused," she said, adding that she didn't believe officials at Latino Arts were very interested in the work of Walker's Point.

Corbin-Pardee said she views Walker's Point, rather, as a "bridge between communities," and anticipates increased competition from Latino Arts for funding.

The Modjeska Theatre, 1124 W. Mitchell St., also on the near south side, may eventually enter the fund-raising fray as well. The theater has had long-standing plans to transform itself into a center for the arts that could include galleries, meeting rooms, theaters and a day care center. Recently, a consultant was hired to make plans for a capital campaign, roughly projected to be between $6 million and $10 million.

"I think that there are those funds for the arts that will see us as doing the same service," said Corbin-Pardee of south side arts organizations that work with low-income children and with artists of color.

Latino Arts still needs to raise $500,000 to complete its recent capital campaign.

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