By Armando Vazquez
The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions that have been concealed by the answers.
— James Baldwin
So artistically and culturally, the questions are, where, how and with whom do we go from here Oxnard? In the past 10 years the city of Oxnard has lost the Children’s Gull Museum, the Carnegie Museum, and the Acuna Art Gallery & Cultural Center. For all intent and purposes the Oxnard Performing Arts Center (PAC) is on life support and probably won’t live past this year. Where do the creative, transformative artistic souls, hearts, and minds germinate, grow and prosper in this art and cultural wasteland that is Oxnard today?
Every year the OPD and community safety budgets take a bigger and bigger slice of the city’s ever-shrinking budget. Still many of the residents of Oxnard recoil in fear and paralysis regarding real and imagined crime, unable and unwilling to move toward a more cost-effective, efficacious, sensible, restorative and transformative 21st-century community safety and wellness models that among other progressives aspects weave arts and cultural into the everyday fabric of all the residents of Oxnard; which respected national studies have proven makes a community more confident, more creative, more resilient and producing a greater sense of personal and community safety an wellness .
As Alex Grey, the American visionary artist puts it this way, “Transformative art must express something beyond where you are, it demands that you grow beyond your current self. This is where an artist’s angst and the pain of transformation coincide. You reach toward the true, the good and the beautiful and become a better person through the struggle”. Art and culture experiences produce a better, safer, and more prosperous community! Oxnard is that not the type of transformative communal life skills experiences that we are seeking for all of our youth, all of our residents? Of course, it is, we know what works in the successful development and engagement of our youth to become better students, citizens and servants of their communities. Art is transformative to the individual and the community that truly embraces it. We Chicano artists we are fond of reminding the skeptics that ‘ Arte y Cultura cura la locura’.
As reported in the publication of the ACT for Youth Center of Excellence dated April 2003, “Youth development is defined as the ongoing process in which young people meet their personal and social needs; building skills and competencies that allow them to be successful in their daily lives and grow to be happy, productive adults (Youth Development Team, Partners for Children, 2000). The key principles of youth development are best defined by the 5 C’s: Competence (academic, social, and vocational); Confidence (positive self-concept); Connections (to community, family, peers); Character (positive values, integrity, and moral values); and Contributions (active, meaningful role in decision making; facilitating change) (Public/Private Ventures, 2000)” It is precisely these 5 key development principles, not only in youth but in adult as well, that the arts and culture uniquely engenders, strengthen and accentuate”
Tragically in Oxnard and throughout America, art and culture has more often than not been relegated to a black hole of indifference, a place of little to no importance to the vitality of the individual and the community. Art, for these non-believers a vocation for the graffiti vandals, the taggers/slackers, the out of touch dreamers, the outcasts, the nonconformists; those folks that cannot and will not play by the conventional rules with the prevailing status quo, so they are shunned and ignored. These Oxnard artists must work and produce to eat, live and pay the rent and other monthly expenses, just like everyone else. So if Oxnard ignores these artists and closes the doors of opportunity to their artistic dreams and aspirations they will go somewhere else. It is tremendous loss for Oxnard! I have made it my professional mission in the past 50 years to help the individual artist and the art community in the various Southern California cities where I have lived to become woven into the everyday fabric of the local society. Sadly I have mostly failed in my attempts to successfully promote the arts as a transformative medium that heals, strengthens and empowers all of us, the artists, and the local communities. I will stop trying when I am dead!
For example in 2019, I reached out and put out the question of support to local and national Latino celebrities that had “made it” in the artistic and entertainment world to see if they could/would assist and help our Acuna Art Collective artistic vision in Oxnard.
This is what I wrote to the great Chicano Comedian George Lopez at the start of the year in 2019. ‘Dear Mr. George Lopez, I know that you are a very busy man, so I will get right to the point. Since you opened your Fifty/150 store in Oxnard I have been meaning to write you this letter. My name is Armando Vazquez; I am the Executive Director of the Rudy F. Acuna Art Gallery and Community Collective, a 25 years strong non-profit that uses all mediums of the arts to help troubled at-promise youth and adults become community servants, activists, and leaders. Up until two years ago, we were your close neighbors on A Street in old downtown Oxnard. Two years ago we could no longer keep fighting the encroaching gentrification movement in the downtown area and our non-profit lost the lease at 438 South A Street to a higher outside financial interest.
Prior to that time, our Acuna Art Gallery @Cafe on A had a continuous two-decade history of providing some of the greatest and most important Chicano/ Latino art exhibitions and musical concerts ever held in Ventura County. Many of the great Chicano/Latino artists from California, the United States, and throughout Latino America one time or another showcased their artistic talents at the Acuna Art Gallery. The Acuna Art Gallery also became a respected sanctuary and creative incubator art and cultural space for local at-promise youth their families, artists, and social activist movements. It was at one time the critical obligo of art and culture in Oxnard and the greater Ventura County area.
The City of Oxnard has provided temporary assistance, and we are now located in two vacant city buildings. George, this is where perhaps you come in. For over two decades we have worked very hard to create the necessary popular community support that would culminate in the creation and development of a Chicano/Latino Art Museum in Oxnard. This dream is now a real possibility for three important reasons; 1.) The Oxnard city council for the first time in its 115 year history has a Chicano/Latino majority and they would fully support the creation of a Chicano/Latino Museum and, 2.)The new city manager Alexander Nguyen was instrumental in getting the funding for the Cheech Marin Art Museum in Riverside and he is on board and has given us his full support. 3.) The Acuna Art Gallery has universal name recognition, respect, and support from the residents of Oxnard, the artist community, Oxnard city council, and community leaders.
The timing has never been better. The city of Oxnard has available vacant buildings, along with an art and culturally deprived majority Latino population (80% or higher) that has few, if any, existing congruent arts or cultural amenities or institutions. Finally, the city of Oxnard has a prevailing, yet unfair, negative image problem that a major Latino museum would go a long way in rehabilitating.
We will need money down the road but for the immediate future the city of Oxnard has buildings currently available that can effectively serve our needs. We can rehabilitate one of the vacant city buildings into our temporary museum. I have already lined up many interested banks, colleges, and universities, community volunteers, the city council of Oxnard, and community leaders. What we need, George Lopez is your support to make this major, very doable, and acutely needed, “Latino Museum of Oxnard” to become a reality. I am available to speak with you or one of your representatives at your earliest convenience. Your representatives can reach me at (805) 216-4560 or email at [email protected]. Respectfully, Armando Vazquez, M.Ed., (San Fernando Tiger (1969) and CSUN Matador (1974) alumni)”.
I put out the question, but I never got a response from George Lopez and as the business Gods would have it The Fifty/150 clothing store closed its doors in downtown Oxnard almost as quickly as it opened. My universe was not yet ready to make the “big question”, I know I am ready now!
So the George Lopez story is not where the story of the “Latino Museum of Oxnard” and the eternal optimist artist/activist campaign ends but where it begins! On Monday, August 17, 2020, in the middle of a mid-day run in the hills of Orcutt, California an epiphany came to me, “Your James Baldwin question is too small, think bigger and more contemporarily, the thunder and lightning seemed to be roaring at me’. Excited, with clarity of vision that I now had, and drenched from the miraculous summer storm to wash away my lingering doubt this is what I wrote to my many Chicano/Latino friends, business connections and leaders of Oxnard, and greater Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties.
‘Dear friends and supporters of the arts I find myself writing to you at the oddest time, but please indulge me for a minute. This morning in the middle of a once in a lifetime lightning, thunderstorm, and downpour my vision of a Latino Art and Cultural Center in Oxnard became brilliantly clear. In the past, my “requests/questions of assistance” of the city of Oxnard were too small! I had only asked the city of Oxnard to help us, The Acuna Art Collective, take temporary occupancy and utilize one of the downtown abandoned buildings that the city had abandoned and neglected for years. In the ensuing musical chairs charade that is Oxnard top city management, we got plenty of promises, but they never got around in providing us with an official city contact. The contract was never formally finalized and Nguyen, the new city manager, reigned on all previous negotiations.
Pues como un pinche rayo se me prendio el foco! Ask for the shuttered and abandoned Carnegie Art Museum. The heart, soul y el ombligo, of Oxnard, that is where our homeless and displaced art and culture community can be transplanted and work to make relevant, transformative, and vibrant the now shuttered Carnegie Art Museum. I have been an artist, collector, patron, supporter, and public relations man for Chicano and Latino Art and artists for over 50 years. In that time period, I have made contact, befriended, helped, and supported thousands of artists, singers, dancers, writers, and playwrights. I am now witnessing their death and their collective demise due to the pandemic. These artists need a place to call home and the Carnegie Museum is the perfect place!
My friends, you may or may not know that the city of Oxnard, our city, owns a very expensive (secretive and illegal?) art collection that I would estimate to run in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more. The Carnegie Art Museum owns pieces by Frank Romero, Margaret Garcia, Gronk, and I believe a Carlos Almaraz, among other masterworks. If not already looted (stolen) then currently the city of Oxnard has a treasure trove of world-class art that rightly belongs to the people of Oxnard.
The Acuna Art Collective needs your help if you think this is a worthy venture. Debbie and I are still working together on community art, education, and social justice projects. Our community work required that we both moved temporarily to Santa Maria for a couple of years ago (work, health family and economic issues). We have made wonderful art connections in the greater Santa Barbara area. We feel incredibly fortunate that we are now living and working between Oxnard and Santa Maria on the social, educational, and art/culture issues that are near and dear to us.
The idea of a responsible community-based organization takeover of the Carnegie Museum is not a new idea to me. I have just got much more clarity and the “ask or question”, to the city of Oxnard” has got bigger and immensely more doable. Friends how does the Latino Art Museum of Oxnard sound? The funding, support, and certainly the world-class artists of all mediums and disciplines from all over Latino America and the world would come and support us. They have always supported me and Debbie! Recently I have buried many great artists, they are buried and forgotten. I want this project to be our tribute and legacy to the artists and Oxnard, the city that we love.
Armando Vazquez, M.Ed. is Executive Director of Acuna Art Gallery/Café on A, Executive Director for The KEYS Leadership Academy and Chairman of the Oxnard Multicultural Mental Health/coalition
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Citizens Journal.
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I once donated to Armando’s kids arts program. Never again will I give money to his program. He totally disrespects and abuses those kids. It’s a shame there is not another program in town for kids to attended. Sorry just being honest. More folks needs to stand up for these kids and not the self serving Armando.