By Melina Paris, Contributing Writer
The Museum of Latin American Art experienced substantial growth and connection to its local community under Director Stuart Ashman. After five years he stepped down from his position in July.
Ashman plans return to New Mexico in August, where he lived for many years. Ashman served as the secretary for Cultural Affairs for that state from 2003 to 2010.
While at MOLAA, Ashman oversaw significant achievements. The most recent was the museum’s accreditation in 2015. Ashman called it a merit badge. The event also happened in conjunction with the museum’s 20th anniversary. The Institute of Museum and Library Services announced in 2014 that there are 35,144 museums in the United States, but less than 800 are accredited.
Leaving a Legacy
One of the first actions under Ashman was for the museum to buy a school bus. Schools lacked money for field trips. The cost to charter a bus to bring students to the museum, even from Long Beach, is $500. It goes even higher, from $700 up to $1,200 from Los Angeles or the Inland Empire, respectively.
The bus served as a rolling billboard, while bringing about 5,000 children per year to the museum. MOLAA raised the initial money with a crowdfunding site, garnering $24,000 and then Hyundai matched that figure.
Redefining Latin American art, particularly in an area like Los Angeles, was another important piece of his legacy. Ashman estimated that there are at least 5 million Latinos who are excluded from the programming directly, because they weren’t born in Latin America or they weren’t living in Latin America.
“My sense, just personally and really from the guidance that I’ve taken from the American Alliance of Museums, is that for museums to be sustainable they have to serve their communities,” Ashman said. “The era of ivory tower museums is no longer relevant. You have to create programming and exhibitions that are available to a wide public.”
In 2014, MOLAA resolved to expand the museum’s collection to include Chicano art.
“We got the board to do a resolution, not changing the mission but saying that Latin America means anybody who self identifies as Latin American,” Ashman said. “That opened up the doors to the Chicano community, which was very important. They felt alienated.”
Ashman finds it interesting that there is no place specifically for the Chicano community in Los Angeles. Chicano is also a political movement he noted. He imagines an entire museum could be dedicated to Chicano art, “but that’s not what we’re doing,” he said.
“What we’re doing is, we are saying, it’s Latin America and Latin American and Latino American (Chicanos),” Ashman said.
Part of Ashman’s legacy was to make MOLAA relevant and accessible to the community. Since his arrival, the museum also increased the size of the collection by 500 pieces, or 30 percent.
“We have managed, by the skin of our teeth with the support we’ve garnered, to keep the expenditures from exceeding the budget,” Ashman said. “We’re fortunate that we have a founder that left an endowment which helps with about a third of the funding and his family foundation also chips in. Between those two things we have about 40 percent of our budget in place at the beginning of the year, which is pretty good for a nonprofit.”
Ashman added that being in Long Beach is a little different than being in the center of Los Angeles, where there is a larger population center and lots of wealth. There is also a lot of competition with museums such as Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The Museum of Contemporary Art and The Huntington Library.
“There are some advantages obviously,” Ashman said. “Because there is a lot of interest in Latin America, not just from the Latino community but from everybody in general. In music, visual arts and film, anything that comes out of Latin America, we want to see.”
Ashman on Stepping Down
During his tenure as secretary for Cultural Affairs in New Mexico, Ashman helped create legislation promoting the Department of Cultural Affairs to a cabinet-level agency with Gov. Bill Richardson and the New Mexico legislature.
Between that position and this one he worked for the Peace Corps in Latin America as an expert consultant for the director. Ashman assessed work that Peace Corps volunteers did with artisan communities in various countries in Latin America.
“I wanted to work in Latin America,” he said. “Then I saw this job and I thought it would be an interesting deployment. When you talk about legacy, I need another 15 years to really create a legacy. But I don’t have it to give. We planted the seeds for something that hopefully will continue with the next leadership.”
Now after five years, the opportunity came up with The Center for Contemporary Arts, where Ashman has longstanding connections. This change allows him and his wife to go back there, which was their plan all along.
The Next Story
The Armory for the Arts was created in 1977. It was given to a nonprofit arts organization called Armory for the Arts. Ashman was hired as the first employee to paint the walls and hang the art.
“A couple who were interested in film and avant garde art worked in the basement for the Armory for the Arts,” Ashman said. “They called it the Center for Contemporary Arts and acquired a tank garage two years later. The Armory became a military museum. There is a Center for Contemporary Arts and a Children’s Museum all on seven-and-a-half acres.”
Ashman said he invested in MOLAA and developed a community. With programs set to go through the beginning of 2018, he is going to make sure they happen.
“I came at a time when the museum was ready for upward movement,” Ashman said. “My hope is that this upward movement can continue to grow in collections, attendance, members and service to the community, which is one of the most important things the museum can do.”
The search for Ashman’s replacement continues.