Sylvia Orozco, Co-Founder and head of Mexic-Arte Museum in Austin, Texas, is completing her 38th year as Executive Director. During her tenure at the museum, she has established Mexic-Arte as a prestigious exhibit space for Mexican, Mexican American and Latinx visual artists. The museum collection includes important works by leading artists from Mexico and the United States. Her visionary and pioneering spirit has led to greater interest in Latino art in Austin and beyond. Mexic-Arte exhibitions appeal to Latinos and non-Latinos alike. Although Mexic-Arte’s success is based on its ability to showcase interesting and creative art, the art we see there serves as a reminder that Latino art matters.
The idea for a museum dedicated to Mexican and Mexican American art surfaced in the mid-1970s. With the exception of two exhibits by the Los Angeles County Museum, the overwhelming majority of North American museums demonstrated little interest in featuring Latino artists. In retrospect, we understand why in these times few Latino art lovers visited large urban museums in the United States. I was not alone in visiting Mexico City, Guadalajara, and Monterrey to seek out art of my heritage.
Sylvia Orozco’s art journey was straightforward, but instead of seeking rewards from her own artistic work, she dedicated her efforts early in her career to promoting Latino artists and Latino culture. The story of how she developed and honed an interest in art and collecting is inspirational.
Orozco’s artistic interest and orientation in collection date back to her youth in Cuero, Texas, a small community famous for football, custom-made boots and Texas barbeque. Her father earned minimum wages as a skilled master craftsman at one of the famed boot-making shops. Orozco recalls that his salary was so meager that the family managed without a phone or car until she was in high school.
Not buying or having “stuff” didn’t bother the young creative girl, as she developed an interest in collecting rocks, insects, butterflies, and leaves, all free and in ample supply. As a child, Orozco earned extra money by making dolls that she gave to her little sister and brother to sell door to door and by running errands for a neighbor. She also excelled in constructing her own games of checkers,
monopoly, and dominos. In school, she received several art awards.
From an early age Orozco envisioned herself as a painter, and she followed the path of traditional art classes to complete her college education. At The University of Texas-Austin, Orozco enrolled in the painting and art history courses offered and developed an additional interest in photography. She credits the famed urban photographer Garry Winogrand for teaching her how to observe and discern images. Years later when she became Mexic-Arte’s Director, her interest in photography led to the museum to present exhibits of the works of several major Mexican photographers, including Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Graciela Iturbide, Pedro Meyer and others.
At UT Austin, Orozco joined several Chicano organizations associated with civil rights and social justice. In 1978 her involvement with these organizations led to applying for the new La Raza Unida scholarships to study in Mexico. Known as “Becas Para Aztlan,” the program offered Mexican Americans an opportunity to study in Mexico. In 1980 she received additional support from Mexican based National Council on Science and Technology scholarships to continue her studies in Mexico. The scholarships enabled her to enroll at the famed Academia de San Carlos where Diego Rivera and some of Mexico’s most notable artists had studied.
Orozco’s academic career and her experiences with Mexican art academies and museums prepared her for the moment when she would help to create new venues for Latino art in Texas.
Throughout the late 1970s when Orozco studied in Mexico, young Latinos in Austin worked to establish political strategies that empowered them to transform the cultural and artistic landscape of the city. Their paintings questioned the U.S. role in the Vietnam War, the long-time exploitation of farmworkers, and continued neglect of Latino schooling.
Latino artists framed their aspirations in new terms– demanding rather than asking– for justice, inclusion, fairness in work and wages, and better educational opportunities. Artistic leaders involved with this new movement painted murals that proclaimed “Brown Power” and “Si Se Puede,” celebrating with slogans such as “Viva La Raza.” By the 1970s, Chicanos had found their voice in themes of struggle, community, and unity. They creatively expressed a new identity and persona in muralism, art, drama, music, poetry, and literature. In 1980 Orozco and Pio Pulido established The Center for Art Research and Information in Mexico City, where they gathered information, books, slides and videos that would later evolve into resources for Mexic-Arte in Austin, Texas.
In 1984, Orozco, Sam Coronado, and Pio Pulido founded Mexic-Arte. Over the next 38 years Orozco curated several major exhibits. Notable among the Mexic- Arte exhibits are: “Rethinking La Malinche” (in 1994 “Rethinking La Malinche” was the first exhibit in the US curated by aLatina Curator).
The “Young Latino Arts” exhibition, now the “Emerging Latinx Art” exhibition, is celebrating its 26th year and was started by Orozco to provide opportunities for emerging curators and artists. Orozco has played a major role in tying Austin to the international art community, especially that of Mexico. In 2007, the Mexican government awarded her the prestigious Ohtli Award, an honor given to those who have promoted the prosperity of Mexican communities abroad. In 2017, Orozco was appointed by President Barack Obama to the National Museum and Library Services Board (NMLSB) where she served until the summer of 2022.
Recognition for Mexic-Arte has come in many forms over the past four decades. Mexic-Arte recently received $20 million of City of Austin Bond funds to expand and renovate the museum space on the corner of Congress and 5th Street. Mexic-Arte Museum under Orozco’s leadership has provided a place for the development of dozens of Latinx museum professionals who currently work in museums and cultural arts institutions throughout the United States.
Now a prominent museum and exhibition space, Mexic-Arte is poised to become a major force in Latino art. According to Texas demographers, Austin was the fastest growing city in the United States in 2022. Today Latinos account for 35 percent of Austin’s total population of nearly one million. The decision nearly 40 years ago to establish Mexic-Arte in Austin when the city’s Latino population represented only 15 percent of the city population is viewed today as visionary. Orozco says, “I am most proud of working with artists, patrons, the Museum Board, staff, and community members over the years to create a permanent place that presents and preserves our culture, traditions and talents of yesterday and today.”