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National Museum of Mexican Art shows how big cities thrive: From the neighborhood up

Just as economic development efforts in Chicago shouldn’t be restricted to the downtown area and lakefront, neither should the city’s commitment to cultural enrichment.

National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen
National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen was awarded its biggest donation to date after billionaire and philanthropist Mackenzie Scott listed them as one of the 286 high-impact organizations selected for her latest billion-dollar gift.
Sun-Times file photo

A crisp morning on 19th Street near Harrison Park brings you the sounds of a neighborhood going about starting its day.

A mom walks her daughter to her last day of school. A young man is led outdoors by his eager brown dog. A construction worker pours cement for a new parking lot.

Just up the street, here in Pilsen, is the National Museum of Mexican Art, which is as much a part of the neighborhood as the moms and kids, the dog walkers and the coffee shops, the grocery stores and Mexican restaurants. It is an anchor of the neighborhood’s cultural pride.

The museum is relatively small, but pound for pound it is one of Chicago’s best and enjoys a growing national reputation. And, lately, the neighbors have been offering warm congratulations.

Because it’s not every day somebody drops $8 million on you.

In June, the billionaire philanthropist MacKenzie Scott made this big donation to the National Museum of Mexican Art, easily the museum’s biggest gift to date. It was part of Scott’s latest billion-dollar showering of money on, in her words, “equity-oriented non-profit teams working in areas that have been neglected.”

“Neglected” being the key word.

Chicago can boast of an array of well-supported world-class museums, strung out along the lakefront, but Scott and her team like to look for the places other benefactors tend to neglect, overlooked intersections of community, economics and cultural identity.

We’d like to call attention to that today. It gets to a way of thinking, we believe, at the heart of how a big city best thrives. Just as economic development efforts in Chicago shouldn’t be restricted to the downtown area and lakefront, which often has been the case, neither should the city’s commitment to cultural enrichment.

“Arts and cultural institutions can strengthen communities by transforming spaces, fostering empathy, reflecting community identity, advancing economic mobility, improving academic outcomes, lowering crime rates and improving mental health,” Scott wrote in making the award.

That’s asking a lot. But we’re pretty sure the National Museum of Mexican Art, with its free admission, is up to it.

Most of that $8 million is being sunk into the museum’s endowment, Carlos Tortolero, the museum’s founder and president, told us, with the investment income being used to pay for events and new exhibitions. One of the museum’s formal missions is to call attention to “artistic expressions from both sides of the border.”

But a portion of the $8 million is being used, as well, for Yollocalli Arts Reach, the museum’s free youth program for budding artists and activists in Pilsen and Little Village. At the moment, two participants in Yollocalli are working with a local artist to create neighborhood murals such as the “Declaration of Immigration” at 18th and South Loomis Street.

The National Museum of Mexican Art has been plugged into its communities in just this kind of way for about 40 years now, and it proved its commitment again to this larger mission — people as much as art — when the pandemic hit.

Though the museum was forced to close in March of last year because of COVID-19, it never really turned off its lights. It has been a COVID-19 testing and vaccination site for months. When we visited recently, we met two women at the door who were waiting for the next customer to walk in and get tested.

The museum is set to reopen on Thursday. Stop by and take in exhibits such as Adlateres and the Unexpected Journey: Works by Carmen Chami; and Nuestras Historias: Stories of Mexican Identity from the Permanent Collection.

This is how big cities succeed, from the neighborhoods up.

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