Home / News / Museum Chicagoan of the Year: Carlos Tortolero, NMMA founder

Museum Chicagoan of the Year: Carlos Tortolero, NMMA founder


Carlos Tortolero has office friends. Actually, seventeen of them.

Tortolero, 69, a former high school history teacher, “love(s) ancient” Mexican.” If he’s not at the National Museum of Mexican Art, which he has headed since it opened its doors in Pilsen in 1987, he’s probably in Mexico, moving among museums and archaeological sites. Behind his desk, he keeps 17 fist-sized replicas of Olmec heads—huge, scowling basalt statues that weigh several tons and average 3,000 years old; Each of them managed to survive into the modern age.

Behind them are photographs of Tortolero next to the real thing. He’s seen 15 so far; Only two more left. Maybe he’ll finally come see them. HE is retiring from the museum It was founded on December 31.

“I’m a sports fan,” Tortolero says. (Former Dodgers pitcher Fernando Valenzuela grins from a box of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes perched atop mini Olmec heads.) “It drives you crazy looking at the poor guy who can barely walk on the field…. Is there a timeand it’s time to leave. We have a great board, a great staff. “And the museum has the best financial health and programming in its history.” He taps his desk twice as if for good luck.

Tortolero knows because he was in the museum before it became a museum. Born in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, Tortolero moved to Chicago on Taylor Street with his family when he was a toddler. The middle child of five children; His parents were accountants. After graduating from UIC, Tortolero became a disgruntled history teacher at Bowen High School in South Chicago, where the curriculum completely neglected Mexican and Mexican American history.

“I was constantly fighting with the principal. There were no materials to teach the children properly. It was terrible,” he says.

In 1982, he and five others, mostly Bowen colleagues, raised $900 to start what was then called the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum. The city center was never involved when deciding where to locate the museum. Among Chicago’s Mexican neighborhoods, Pilsen was ultimately chosen for its social justice success: Nonprofits like Mujeres Latinas en Acción, Alivio, and El Valor were all located nearby.

No one on the founding team was an art expert, so Tortolero and founding president Helen Valdez were the first to hire in 1986. The following year, the founders rented a WPA-era field house in Harrison Park to house the museum and signed a lease. With the Park District.

Today, the National Museum of Mexican Art has 40 employees and a budget of approximately $8 million; There will be a significant increase in 2021 after philanthropist MacKenzie Scott. donated $8 million to the museum. The modest field house was expanded rather than razed in 2001, creating the museum’s current footprint.

“There is a lot Mexican It’s about the way the building works. We were like the Mayans and the Aztecs; they built on everything. “My favorite rule, which makes no sense in the art world, is that the walls must be white, off-white or cream.” Tortolero scoffs. “So are you in? has been To Mexico?”

According to Tortolero, the museum world is full of such ridiculous rules. So he breaks them with pleasure. From where shouldn’t Will the National Museum of Mexican Art remain free? Do you offer COVID testing and mammograms? Want to help finance independent films? Will you be hosting an annual Queer Prom like you’ve done since 2003?

“Too many people view these areas as profit-making centers rather than community centers,” Tortolero says. “I want to raise money; I am not stupid. But let’s raise money from those who can give. Whenever I talk downtown, I say, ‘Oh, I see some really nice dresses and suits, but when this is over, I’m going to come after you for the money.’ ‘Take off your heels and get a head start.’”

Meanwhile, color swatches from the gallery walls of the National Museum of Mexican Art as I type: Mint. Sunflower yellow. vermilion It’s a high-pitched fuchsia, ripped from the movie “Barbie.”

Without Tortolero wandering among them? This will take some getting used to.

Hannah Edgar is a freelance writer.


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