Gilberto Cárdenas holds one of the largest private collections of Latinx art. A former sociology professor at the University of Texas, and recently retired as professor emeritus and executive director of the Center for Arts and Culture at the University of Notre Dame, Cárdenas gifted over 350 prints to Austin’s Blanton Museum of Art in 2017.
Some 70 of those prints, created by Latinx artists between 1978 and 1997, make up the Blanton’s exhibition “Arte Sin Fronteras: Prints from the Self Help Graphics Studio,” a show highlighting the foundational and influential printmaking studio and Latinx cultural hub which emerged in 1970 in East Los Angeles. Self Help Graphics’ Experimental Atelier Program invites local and visiting artists to produce limited edition screen prints, to date publishing work by hundreds of artists. Cárdenas was one of the earliest supporters of Self Help Graphics and its Experimental Atelier Program.
Curated by Florencia Bazzano, Blanton assistant curator of Latin American Art, and Christian Wurst, Blanton curatorial assistant,”Arte Sin Fronteras” focuses on the Experimental Atelier Program.
Cárdenas answered questions via email about collecting art during California’s Chicano Movement in the 1960s, opening his commercial art gallery, Galería Sin Fronteras, in Austin in 1986, and his work as a lifelong advocate for the Chicano, Latino, and now Latinx community.
Lauren Moya Ford: Austin is changing quickly and drastically these days. What was the city like when you founded Galería Sin Fronteras?
Gilberto Cárdenas: Austin was beginning to develop into a flourishing and “cool” city when I arrived in 1979. The city continued to expand in size and develop opportunities for growth and cultural activities, and the art scene was emerging at a fast pace. But when I arrived to Austin to begin teaching at UT, Sixth Street only had one fine restaurant from I-35 west to Guadalupe, and one between Guadalupe and Lamar, Hut’s, which recently closed.
Sister Karen Boccalero, the founder of Self Help Graphics, is the person primarily responsible for urging me to begin a commercial art gallery with the idea of representing Chicano and Latino artists whose work was overlooked by mainstream art galleries and as a way to promote these artists nationally.
We opened Galería Sin Fronteras in September 1986 and had our first exhibit in October. I later purchased the building on Guadalupe Street and 17th Street in downtown Austin and moved the gallery to that location and kept it open until December 1999. (Interestingly, it turns out that in 1998 I bought the home across the street from our first gallery space on East Seventh Street. We live in that house today).
Before my gallery opened, artists and non-profits including La Peña on Congress Avenue were promoting Chicano/Tejano art, but Galería Sin Fronteras was the first gallery in the Guadalupe Street area just below the University of Texas campus. Several galleries opened and we later created an arts district. Other galleries preceded us in Austin, and new ones opened and began to flourish. We worked in small ways with arts organizations in helping some get started or reconstituted — Mexic-Arte Museum, the Texas Fine Arts Association and the Austin Museum of Art, for example. We were happy that Flatbed Press and Strike Editions were actively working with artists at the time to advance serious printmaking.
LMF: You started collecting art in high school, and now your collection is one of the most important in the nation. Why did you begin collecting art?
GC: I began collecting in 1965 during my involvement with the Chicano movement in Los Angeles. I was a student activist at East Los Angeles College. In 1967 I transferred to California State University and continued my involvement as a community activist. We called for increased admission of Chicano students and for changing the curriculum to include courses on Chicano studies. This activist period included demonstrations, high school walkouts, anti-war movements, free speech and support for civil rights, Black power and women’s liberation struggles.
During this time I took an interest in documentary photography and began covering activist activity in LA and in other areas — gang life, demonstrations, poverty, etc. This activity enabled me to meet artists and to better appreciate the importance of art particularly prints and posters, and then murals, paintings and other art forms. Much of this work was “political art,” some of which was influenced by the Mexican School.
This experience in turn led me to begin collecting Chicano art as a means of preservation of our history and our value as a national community of interest in the United States. Latino society and culture have a long territorial history in the U.S., and a foundational role in the history and culture of our nation. Our actions in the 1960s and later have an important place in American society. As activists fighting for equality and justice, we were in the midst of making history!
LMF: What was the first piece you ever purchased?
GC: I cannot remember my first purchase. I can say that my budget was real thin so I was limited to collecting art that was affordable, which restricted me then to works on paper — posters, serigraphs, etchings, lithographs, and photographs, some of which I pulled down from areas where the artists and activists placed them after demonstrations and related events were over.
LMF: You were working as a professor of sociology at UT while directing Galería Sin Fronteras, and you continued to actively collect art as a professor at Notre Dame. How has sociology and education impacted your work with visual arts?
GC: I have maintained a keen interest in starting and developing the field of Chicano Studies and Latino Studies throughout my adult life and professional work. My attention to borders and migration studies developed further while working with Professor Ralph Guzmán at California State University Los Angeles. Professor Guzmán urged me to attend the University of Notre Dame to study with Professor Julian Samora, who had a grant from the Ford Foundation to study immigration and border issues along the U.S.–Mexico border.
I began to photograph migrants at the border and throughout the greater border region as well as the diaspora and settlement of migrants throughout the U.S., especially in the Midwest.
My interest then expanded to the study of documentary photography as well as using the camera to help communicate issues pertaining to the lives of migrant workers, border crossers, and settlers on both sides of the border and beyond.
I was fortunate to have met and continued a friendship with Paul Shuster Taylor, who had a long history of studying migrant workers and was married to (photographer and photojournalist) Dorothea Lange. He put me in touch with artists such as Ansel Adams and archivists like the Director of the Library of Congress’s Photograph Collection. These connections strengthened my interest in documentary photography and advanced my interest in collecting artwork and related books and catalogs, all of which had a big impact on furthering my attention to the importance of visual narratives and the role that art can have in social change.
LMF: Your collection encompasses paintings, prints, sculptures, and other media by artists from a variety of backgrounds and interests. What makes you decide to bring a piece into your collection?
GC: In 1980 or thereabouts I visited the Chicano artist John Valadéz at his studio on Broadway in Los Angeles. He left me in a large room where he had artwork laying everywhere and came back about an hour later to see what I had chosen. I selected about 40 works and laid them on the floor. He asked me which one I wanted and I told him that I wanted to buy all of them. He told me that the works spanned about 10 years of his life, beginning when he was an undergraduate student up to the present. The works ranged from drawings, prints, watercolors, sketches and original works, one of which was used for the cover of a magazine. John gave me a very good price. This shifted my attention to collecting the artist as well as collecting the art work.
Following that approach, I would often collect work that was not my favorite, but part of the artists’ history. I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to collect a body of work when possible, and am also very grateful to the artists who let go of many works at affordable prices.
I opened my gallery in Austin in 1986 and I never sold work that I obtained this way, but it justifies in part my interest in donating work to museums and non-profits rather than offering it for sale and limiting my interest to part with other work in the market.
LMF: Galería Sin Fronteras’s mission was to support artists who define themselves on their own terms. The names we use for this art and its creators have changed through time. What term you prefer to describe the art you collect?
GC: During the 1960s I was proud to use the term “Chicano” to describe myself and my origins. Later after moving to the Midwest I began using the term Latino to better reflect the diversity of Latinos in the Midwest and throughout the nation.
The labels chosen by Latinos are both a collective and private decision. I have no issue with identity preferences as long as they are defined by Latinos themselves and not imposed by others. Some labels utilized by government entities have a heuristic value so I am less concerned about their use as long as they are not adopted or imposed on Latinos as they were in years past.
I fully understand, for example, the preference of Dominicans to use Dominicano rather than Latino. They are trying to establish themselves here and feel that the term Latino erases them and makes it harder to assert themselves as a community of interest. I do not use the term Latinx, but leave it to the younger generation to find and to advance themselves, with the hope that they do not try to erase past identities.
“Arte Sin Fronteras: Prints from the Self Help Graphics Studio” is at the Blanton Museum of Art, Oct. 27, 2019 through Jan. 12, 2020.