Museo Explores the Arts of the Americas

Museo de las Americas in Denver's Arts District on Santa Fe employs outside-of-the-box educational programming and immersive art exhibitions to bring awareness to the cultures of the Americas for Latinos and non-Latinos alike. 
The entrance of Museo de las Americas in Denver's Art District on Santa Fe currently greets visitors with a note of salutation on the wall, a cheers to a space to gather and find community. One corner of the museum has been transformed into a traditional Mexican tavern called a pulqueria. Images capturing jovial people sipping on or toasting tequila, Mexican specialty drinks like pulque and mezcal, and frothy cervezas line the colorful walls.

The series of photographs and installations are part of the museum's current exhibition, El Brindis Remixed, which runs through Jan. 16, 2015. It's a celebration of different popular Mexican drinks as interpreted through the lens of 19th- and 20th-century Mexican photographers. Museo's executive director, Maruca Salazar, reinvented the majority of the museum for the exhibition.

"I want people to have some element of interactivity with every exhibition," Salazar says. "My process has a lot to do with creating spaces so that you have a physical experience, and also make connections with your past."

This intention to ignite connections and critical thinking is embedded in every aspect of the museum's programming, and has been since the beginning. From immersive installations to untraditional educational courses, Salazar says she is constantly challenging herself and the museum to find inventive ways to spotlight the diverse cultures of the Americas.

Art in its own rightIn April 1991, Museo de las Americas opened its doors to Denver.

In April 1991, Museo de las Americas opened its doors to Denver. 

The directive to establish such an institution was a response to the lack of Latino art and artists represented in western museums. The Denver Art Museum (DAM) and the Hispanic Advisory Council, a political arm established to promote Latino culture in Colorado, spearheaded an initiative to change this and create the first Colorado museum dedicated to Latino art. DAM trained Museo's first curators and administrators, including the first executive director, Jose Aguayo.

"For the first time, we had to opportunity to showcase Latino art in Colorado without looking at it as a folk art, but as an art in its own right," Salazar says.

The museum hosts several major exhibitions throughout the year, organizes special talk series and forums and runs educational workshops for youth and teens.

Unconventional cultural education

Colorado public schools with arts education programs yield higher test scores in writing, reading, and math and have lower dropout rates -- regardless of socioeconomic status or ethnicity -- according to a 2008 study released by Colorado Creative Industries. But the study also cites that an estimated 29,000 students attending Colorado public schools do not have access to formal arts education. 

Museo has placed education at its core to help fill this void. Though, it's more than simply teaching youth and teens how to draw or paint. Salazar says the focus is on "cultural competence," and the museum uses art as a gateway into cultivating an appreciation of various Latino ethnicities.

"Cultural competence is about understanding who you are and what is your cultural background," Salazar says. "Once you determine who you are, then you are able to relate to the world."

The idea of "cultural competence" first caught on in the 1980s, and has continued today in educational circles to help new generations develop effective cross-cultural skills. Museo has infused these concepts into its curriculum.

For example, kindergarten through forth-grade students design and construct traditional necklaces to explore the culture of the Amazon's indigenous people. Middle-school kids create their own Mayan zodiac symbol to learn about astrology and storytelling. And fifth- through twelfth-graders study the political satire of Mexican printmaker Jose Guadalupe Posada by making printed broadside advertisements. 

Rethinking the parking lotMost of Museo's exhibitions have a social justice or political implication.

In 2009, Museo had nine students enrolled in its programming; in 2013, that number raised to 80; and, this summer, the programs reached nearly 90 students. 

"We are bursting through the seams," Salazar says

The influx of students forced Museo to start thinking about creative ways to maximize its space -- Salazar saw the museum's parking lot as an opportunity for this necessary growth and revitalization. With the help of volunteer nonprofit design firm Architecture for Humanity-Denver (AFH), Museo raised $20,000 through a Kickstarter campaign in 2013 to transform the lot into an outdoor classroom. Salazar says it was a community-driven effort.

"Our parking lot was this humungous empty space," Salazar says. "We wanted to clean it up to provide a better vision of our community and neighborhood to everyone who walks by. "

For the project, Museo and AFH repurposed found materials from the museum to create an outdoor facility for dance and theater classes during Museo's summer camps. Old doors became fencing and old flooring was the initial makings for an awning. 

"The kids needed a bigger space not constrained by walls to be better dancers and better actors," Salazar says. 

Currently, the museum is in Phase II of the renovation. As it develops more, the space may also be used for future exhibitions and special events such as film screenings during the summer.

Most of Museo's exhibitions have a social justice or political implication. Every time someone walks into Museo, whether into the gallery area or one of the classrooms, Salazar wants to immerse that individual into a new world and spark connections. She hopes her exhibitions help facilitate dialogue around issues that impact Denver.

"As people, we still have a long way to go in terms of respect, in terms of understanding," Salazar says. "But if you know more about someone, you learn to respect them. You learn to embrace them. You learn to bring it back to yourself."

Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn.

Read more articles by Stephanie Wolf.

Born and raised in Atlanta, Stephanie has spent the past 12 years living out her dreams as a professional ballet dancer. In conjunction with her performing career, she's developed a varied writing portfolio.
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