Oscar Martinez says he’ll never forget the rainy night of July 9, 1992, when his dream of opening a Latin American art museum was put to the test. An old stable in Humboldt Park was being restored by the Chicago Park District, and the group that Martinez helped to found–then called the Institute of Hispanic Cultures–was set to move in that fall.

“I was at home, and I got a call from the alderman’s office,” he says. “And they tell me, ‘I heard over the radio that the building is on fire.’ It was about midnight, one o’clock in the morning.”

Martinez phoned his brother, Luis, and the pair drove to the corner of Division and Humboldt to survey the damage. “They were finishing with the water, and it was all gutted in. It was horrible. The roof was gone–there was nothing there.”

Heartbroken, Martinez scanned the charred, smoking ruins. “It would’ve been very easy then and there to say, well, let’s move on,” he says. “Let me do things that I want to do for myself instead of spending so much time working on this–it burned down, so it’s an easy out.

“But Luis and I understood the need. We knew that if we made this a reality it would have an impact on a lot of young people. We knew that the museum could be a tremendous landmark in terms of the economic and social needs of the community, and we really were committed to give something back to the community. So we decided to go on.”

The Park District encouraged them to do so, promising to come up with money to rebuild the structure. Even Mayor Daley and Governor Edgar weighed in with support. Yet over the next several years, the project would be hampered by a series of construction delays and financial troubles. Some of the problems were due to shifting personnel at the Park District–the agency had switched heads four times since the museum incorporated in 1986. With each new disappointment, organizers felt like they were going back to the drawing board. “But with each new setback,” says Martinez, “we just grew more determined.”

Now–after a painstakingly detailed historic restoration that has taken four years and cost some $3.6 million in state and federal funds–the building’s exterior is complete. But museum organizers find themselves facing their biggest challenge yet. Suddenly the Park District isn’t so sure it wants the Latin American Museum of Art in that building after all. “We want to make sure it’s a vital and vibrant asset to the community,” says Park District spokeswoman Nora Moreno. “But there’s a question mark as to whether it’s going to be a fine arts museum.”

Officially, the organizers will have to convince the Park District that the museum’s still a viable enterprise, capable of keeping up its end of the bargain–raising the $1.5 million required for the interior renovation. Privately, however, those familiar with the project are saying it’s all but a dead deal. Not only has the group not raised any money, they say, but the museum’s convoluted history–its shifting mission and its failure to get off the ground–has led to an erosion of support in the Puerto Rican community.

Two years ago, another group, the Puerto Rican Arts Alliance, decided it too wanted to establish a facility in Humboldt Park. Founding member Edward Maldonado, a onetime supporter of the museum, explains his group isn’t necessarily interested in a “museumlike institution”; instead it’s aiming to become a “cultural institution with more music than museum programming.”

But museum advocates aren’t willing to concede defeat. They have recently renewed a fund-raising drive and are shooting for a fall 1999 opening–if the Park District will let them stay. “One of the biggest obstacles we’ve had over time, unfortunately, has been the Park District,” claims Martinez. “And here we are again starting to deal with this kind of nonsense.

“We came in and pushed to get that building. No one saw it until we did. We fought to get that building after the fire–we literally fought. Now they’re saying, ‘Let’s not give it to them. Let’s keep it for ourselves.'”

For several years, a sign has stood prominently outside the Humboldt Park stables. It reads: “The Future Home of the Latin American Museum of Art.” The building itself is one of the northwest side’s oldest and most fanciful landmarks. Built in 1896, a year after an elevated train first connected this neighborhood to the Loop, the structure served as an orientation center at the entrance of Humboldt Park, as well as a place for both staffers and visitors to hitch their horses. The neighborhood was then home to Scandinavians and Germans–the park was named after German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt. The architectural firm of Frommann & Jebsen, later known for designing taverns owned by the Schlitz Brewing Company, gave the sprawling two-story brick-and-stone building the romantic look of a Teutonic barn or farmhouse. Its rooftop is remarkable, with picturesque dormers, gables, and finials (the roof’s original clay tiles were replaced by asphalt shingles in the early 70s). With the demise of horse carriages, the stable came to be used as a storage shed.

As transportation changed, so did the neighborhood. Germans and Scandinavians were replaced by Poles and Russian Jews. Latinos, primarily Puerto Ricans, began settling in Humboldt Park during the years following World War II. Meanwhile, the stable slid into a state of disrepair; garbage accumulated in an area on its west side, and the lily pond that once graced the grounds had long since dried up.

“It was a dumping site,” says Carmen Caldero, a museum board member who grew up near Augusta and California and now runs an electrical-supply business in the Loop. “I don’t remember it ever being used. It was boarded up. Everyone was like, ‘What is that building?'”

When Oscar Martinez looked at the stable in the mid-1980s, he asked, Why not a museum dedicated to Puerto Rican art and culture? Within several years, he was envisioning something broader and more ambitious–a museum and cultural center, he says, that would “showcase and communicate the depth, diversity, and similarities between the various Latino cultures.” He imagined an art gallery with local and touring exhibits, a permanent collection of art and cultural artifacts, and a courtyard theater. He said the museum would offer lectures and workshops and education programs and festivals.

The Park District liked the idea too, and in 1989 it signed a ten-year agreement with the museum board. Two years later, the Park District allocated nearly $1.7 million to restore the building’s exterior to its original state; in return, the group–now composed of people from various Latino constituencies–agreed to raise $1 million to renovate the building’s interior. In August ’91 parks chief Robert Penn officially announced that the building would be converted into a “Hispanic museum and cultural center.” Ground was broken on the first phase of the project later that year, with a grand opening tentatively slated for October ’92.

The roof was partly refurbished when fire ripped through the building on July 9. By daybreak, city officials and museum organizers were able to get a good look at what remained. The north and east sides of the stables had sustained the worst heat and fire damage. The basic boulder-and-masonry walls remained intact, but the roof had all but burned away, its supports either collapsed or left exposed and blackened.

The Chicago Police Department’s bomb and arson unit investigated the blaze because the Fire Department had determined it was intentionally set–the fire originated in three corners–but no arrests were ever made.

Martinez says his group was alone in lobbying against a consultant’s study that recommended the stables be razed. Had the group not helped to secure nearly $2 million, the building very well could have become another lost Chicago landmark. “No one really understands all the commitment and the sweat that was put into this project,” says Carmen Caldero. “That building would have been demolished if it weren’t for Oscar and Luis.”

Now it’s a crown jewel in the parks system–and a premier example of historic restoration. “It took a long time, but it was well worth the time and the funds,” architect T. Gunny Harboe, the project manager, recently told an audience at the Chicago Cultural Center. “We hope it will find a new life for residents.”

Martinez hopes so too. Museum representatives last met with park commissioners, including superintendent Carolyn Williams-Meza, in mid-July. Among other things, the parties discussed the possibility of the Park District renewing the group’s agreement, which expires in January. Williams-Meza was noncommittal.

“I told her clearly that if I did not have a lease, I could not raise the money,” says Caldero. “I told her no one was going to give me money without a site. And if this site is not available, then I have to find another site. I made it very clear to her–I told her we could not. Every major cultural institution in this city is in the midst of a capital campaign drive. And here we are, just beginning….It’s very, very difficult. And certainly, without a lease, who’s going to give us the time of day?”

Few in the city’s multifaceted Latino arts community would seem as likely to get an art museum off the ground as Oscar Martinez. Since moving with his family from Ponce, Puerto Rico, to Chicago as a teenager in the 1960s, Martinez has compiled an impressive resume that shows him at home both in activist and establishment art circles.

Involved with the community mural movement in the early 70s, Martinez went on to study art and science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He helped found a Latino cultural center there in 1975 and, after moving back to Chicago, became director of the now-defunct Humboldt Park YMCA Cultural Center. In 1977 he received an B.S. in medical illustration from the University of Illinois at Chicago, and for the past 20 years he’s worked for the urban health program at the university’s college of dentistry. His large oil paintings–with ethereal figures in lush, mysterious landscapes–have been shown at museums and galleries in Chicago, Miami, Puerto Rico, and Mexico.

Over the last 15 years, Martinez has served on the boards of the Illinois Arts Council, Chicago Artists’ Coalition, Illinois Arts Alliance, and Sculpture Chicago. He was on the advisory board of the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs in the mid-80s, and later he was involved in that agency’s Sister Cities International Program and its Percent for Art Committee. Martinez was one of the judges of the international competition to design the Harold Washington Library Center, and he also helped to select the library’s art collection. He was president of Latino Chicago Theater in the late 80s and president of the Latino Institute from 1989 to ’92. Martinez, his wife, and their two children reside in West Town, where he maintains a studio in the Flat Iron Building.

The museum project has its roots in a master’s thesis that Oscar’s brother, Luis, did in 1979 while an architecture student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. As a class exercise in “social architecture,” Luis Martinez noted the high Latino dropout rate in Chicago, which then hovered around 70 percent, and set out to foster self-esteem and pride in area youth by designing a six-story, 60,000-square-foot, $15 million museum with a library and cafe. His plan called for the facility to sit on the corner of North and California at the entrance to Humboldt Park. To Luis’s drawings Oscar later added murals and other artistic touches to give the building a Puerto Rican flavor.

The brothers wanted to develop the class project into a real one. “Luis and I kept talking about ideas and what have you,” says Oscar. “And Luis said, ‘Let’s look at the park, let’s see what’s there that will lend itself to what we want to do.’ And so, since he’s an architect, and I’m an artist….”

The brothers began scouting for sites in 1984. They looked at the Humboldt Park boathouse and the National Guard Armory at the corner of North and Kedzie, finding both to be lacking. Then in 1985 Park District board president Walter Netsch steered them to the Humboldt Park stables. The building was in lamentable state; a once splendidly eclectic Victorian gem had gone to seed.

But the Martinezes saw its possibilities. They began a study of the structure. “We did all the homework,” says Oscar. “We got architects to come by, did structural studies, the kinds of programs we would like to have, and whether we had space to do those programs, transportation–all those things.” Oscar and Luis put together a board, incorporating as the nonprofit Puerto Rican Cultural Center for the Arts in 1986.

Later that year, Luis Martinez became assistant commissioner of the city’s Department of Buildings. The group submitted a proposal to the Park District. “It took us about a year and a half or so,” says Oscar. “It sat there for another year and a half. We met with committee after committee after committee, presenting the project. And then they agreed.” Part of the group’s success in claiming the building may have been due to fortuitous timing: Harold Washington had ousted longtime parks boss Ed Kelly in June ’86, and the following year the agency began funneling more money to projects in poorer and minority neighborhoods.

To promote the project and raise their visibility, the Puerto Rican Cultural Center for the Arts sponsored several exhibitions of local Latino artists, including one that traveled to the National Museum of Mexico in Mexico City in 1986. On January 31, 1989, the group signed its ten-year agreement for the stables with the Park District under superintendant Jesse Madison. In this initial pact, the agency agreed to commit $1 million toward the restoration of the building’s exterior, while the Puerto Rican Cultural Center for the Arts agreed to raise an additional $1 million to fix up the interior.

The next year the group did an informal study of Humboldt Park, finding it, in Oscar Martinez’s words, “the fastest growing and most diverse Latino neighborhood in the city of Chicago.” In an effort to broaden the project’s appeal and donor base, Martinez began assembling a more diverse board and changed the center’s name to the Institute of Hispanic Cultures Museum.

It’s been suggested that if Martinez wanted Park District funds he had to assent to its wishes to be culturally inclusive. But he says that wasn’t the case. “We realized that in looking at the population and in looking at organizations providing services–the Puerto Rican Parade Committee has a cultural component, Ruiz Belvis has a cultural component, the Puerto Rican museum is there, the Puerto Rican Cultural Center is also there–that there were a number of things already addressing those needs. So we decided that we would better meet the needs of the community by serving the entire Hispanic community there. It does not mean we will not do things with the Puerto Rican community. It will be broader, and I think we can do more.”

Carlos Flores, a founding member of the Puerto Rican Arts Alliance, had been looking forward to the Humboldt Park museum. A self-described “cultural worker”–he’s a vibraphonist, photographer, and promoter of Afro-Caribbean music–Flores grew up in Lincoln Park when it was still heavily Puerto Rican and was part of the activist Young Lords Organization in the late 60s. He later served on the Mayor’s Advisory Council on Latino Affairs under Harold Washington and worked for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. He currently manages Ensemble Kalinda at Columbia College’s Center for Black Music Research. “A lot of the institutions in our community that promote culture tie into some political ideology,” says Flores, adding that while there’s nothing inherently wrong with that–he supports those institutions too–he saw the museum as a potential unifying force.

“We’re the second largest Latino group in the city, and we wanted to have something we could really identify with–it’s as diverse as any other group in the city,” Flores says. “We’ve been here for almost 50 years, and it’s important to preserve our culture and history and to let people know we exist, that we’ve made major contributions in terms of the Latino population culturally. I don’t feel sometimes we get the credit.”

At a press reception held at the First National Bank of Chicago in 1991, the Park District announced it was now allocating nearly $1.7 million in Build Illinois funds toward the Institute of Hispanic Cultures Museum. (The bank was also helping the museum group with its business plan.) Mayor Daley was there, along with Art Institute director James Wood, Luis Gutierrez, Miguel Del Valle, various Park District commissioners, and other political and cultural leaders.

Flores was there too. But despite the gathering’s high spirits, he says, there was some dismay over the museum’s new title. Some winced at the term “Hispanic,” and others were disturbed that Puerto Rican art and culture were no longer the museum’s primary focus. Flores likened its broadened mission to the Museo del Barrio in the Bronx, which had once been a Puerto Rican institution in a largely Puerto Rican neighborhood; but as the area grew more diverse, the Museo began catering to all Latino cultures. “People wanted to support this,” he says. “But some were saying, ‘What is this Hispanic shit?’ People walked out of there–they felt betrayed.”

The stable’s restoration began in late 1991 with “landscape improvements” taking the first priority. “We managed to get the garbage dump out of there–there were rats all over the place,” says Martinez. “There were literally Dumpsters there. The building had been neglected for years.” Salt lined the walls and ate away at the masonry. “It was horrible.” The Park District handled the architectural planning and construction. While builders couldn’t find the original plans, they did locate a set of survey drawings dating from the WPA in park archives. Every one of the building’s pieces was noted and numbered.

In 1992, the stables building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The institute developed promotional materials to communicate the goals of the museum to the public. It undertook a spirited letter-writing and media campaign; there was an avalanche of articles about the project in the city’s Spanish-speaking newspapers. The group initiated a development plan for programming, staffing, funding, and facility management.

In written materials, Oscar Martinez envisioned the institution as “the nation’s only combined museum and cultural center whose purpose is to showcase the cultures of all Latin American and Caribbean countries through the arts.” He saw it as having three components: a museum with artifacts from Latin American countries, as well as a permanent collection of artworks by Latin American artists; an art gallery for temporary shows of work by Latino artists; and a cultural center where young people could learn about their heritage “to instill a sense of pride and self-identity,” says Martinez. “Kids need role models, and we’ll be working with young people who want to go into the arts. There’s so many opportunities right now that were not there before.”

The institute had raised $60,000–$50,000 of that from city development grants–for the interior renovation and planned to raise the rest in phases, allowing for the repair of one room at a time. About $300,000 worth of exterior restoration had already been done–mostly to the roof–when the arsonists struck. “Some of the most detailed, intricate, and therefore most expensive parts of the building were damaged or destroyed,” project architect Richard Gnat told the Tribune.

The next day, parks superintendant Robert Penn issued a statement indicating that the city intended to continue the museum project. “While the building has been deemed salvageable by Park District officials,” a press release said, “further structural analysis will determine the extent and cost of repairs.” The city retained Schal Bovis, Inc., to assess the damage; and in its report to the Park District in late July, the consulting firm recommended that the building be torn down.

With the museum’s fate hanging in the balance, the institute shifted its energies into lobbying political representatives, city officials, arts leaders, and community groups. Luis Martinez knew the firm that did the structural analysis. “I just called them up and said, ‘This needs to be reevaluated,'” he recalls. “Our studies, from an economic viewpoint, show, yes, you can tear it down. That’s economics. But when you look at the structure itself–can you restore that? Well, yes, you can. It would’ve cost more money, of course, because not only do we want to restore it, but we wanted to restore it to its original state.”

The Park District decided to go ahead. “We have every intention of working to make sure that the restoration of the building proceeds as planned and that the Hispanic museum and cultural center come to fruition,” Penn announced in August. Repair costs were reassessed, and in late 1992 the Park District committed an additional $2.5 million to the restoration. The agency hired the McClier Preservation Group, which had recently completed the Rookery and Reliance Building restoration projects, to draw the plans and do the work.

Oscar Martinez says the fire hurt the institute’s fund-raising drive. “It was very difficult for us after the fire to sell the project because anyone who saw how the building looked had a problem,” he says. “They knew it was going to take a huge amount of energy, time, and money to be able to bring the building back. It was very difficult for us to do the fund-raising on the level that we wanted to do it.”

But Martinez remained optimistic. He expected to open the institute–even if the interior renovation wasn’t complete–by the fall of ’94.

In June 1993, Illinois’ first lady, Brenda Edgar, hosted a reception at the building site, when the institute unveiled its plans. But it didn’t take long for work to be interrupted again. In August Forrest Claypool replaced Penn as Park District chief, and one of the first things Claypool did was to launch audits that soon found what he called widespread financial abuse and mismanagement. (Over the next year the Park District would undergo dramatic restructuring; 900 positions would be eliminated through layoffs and attrition.) All construction projects were put on hold for nearly a year.

“And that was the other problem we had–every time the administration changed we had to start all over again,” complains Oscar Martinez. “When the Park District stopped all capital projects, we spent over a year lobbying and letter writing” to get the Claypool regime to renew its commitment to the museum. “It takes a huge amount of energy and time, which we shouldn’t even be doing. That becomes a hindrance.”

Carmen Caldero adds, “Every time we had to reeducate–start from ground zero.”

The building sat unattended. As winter approached, McClier expressed concern to the Park District that the structure would be vulnerable to the elements. It had been left open for more than a year and was still saturated with water; many of the building’s masonry problems were related to cyclical freezing and thawing. The architectural team feared that if the building wasn’t covered in protective plastic it would become damaged beyond repair. It was covered.

The project was dealt another blow in late 1993: due to budget constraints, the $2.5 million the Park District had pledged to the restoration was reduced to $1 million. The reduction would require scaled-down drawings and, according to a report by Park District consultants J.E. Manzi & Associates, Inc., “a high level of creative and innovative value engineering.” Martinez mobilized his forces again; Congressman Luis Gutierrez, for example, fired off a missive to the Park District “ardently oppos[ing] a proposal that effectively calls for the death” of the project.

Because the Park District’s $1 million allocation could only be used for stabilization of the roof and of the masonry exterior–pressing priorities–the institute and the agency investigated other funding sources. They found a rather novel one, applying for $1.9 million from the Illinois Department of Transportation. The federal Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act earmarked “enhancement funds” to be awarded to state agencies for specialized, nontraditional projects.

“We lobbied very strongly,” says Martinez. “We worked continuously and nonstop, making sure that we got letters to pour in and whatever needed to be done. We worked very hard with the first lady, with the governor’s office, with politicians, with [transportation secretary] Kirk Brown.”

The Park District’s application shows the agency clearly intended to spend the money on the museum, promising to “rehabilitate a notable building that is significant in Chicago’s transportation history for use as the Institute of Hispanic Cultures/Museum.” (The funds would also be used to upgrade paths in the park along Humboldt Boulevard, as well as to repair those around the building.) The Park District landed the grant in the fall–Brown announced the award at the museum site on October 27, 1994. Governor Edgar issued a statement: by restoring the historic building, “we are creating a place where the Latino community can learn more about their cultural history while giving them a sense of pride in their heritage.”

Martinez says Park District officials had told him that enhancement funds and other grants would cover work on the entire building, inside and outside. “But then they said, no, we cannot do the entire project,” he says. Instead, the agency would use the funds for the restoration of the exterior only; the museum would still have to raise money for the interior.

With nothing to show halfway through his ten-year agreement with the Park District, Martinez felt the institute had to fine-tune its focus. In 1994, with the help of a grant from the Illinois Arts Council, the institute conducted a needs assessment study to get a firmer grasp on what it could do for the community. A consultant “convened community leaders, special-interest people, artists, and different groups,” says Martinez. “We also did a questionnaire–we did a study with community organizations and leaders and politicians. We went to Humboldt Park and asked a representative sample of people if they had time” to complete the questionnaire. Martinez says the study confirmed the community’s desire for an institution that recognizes the contributions of all Latinos: “‘Yes, this is what we want.’ And, to our surprise, people didn’t just want a museum–they said, ‘We want it to be an international museum. We just don’t want another little cultural center. We want something bigger than that.’ And this is coming directly from the people.”

Martinez expanded the scope of the project again: while serving local Latino communities, the museum he envisioned would also have an international profile. Not only would it feature exhibits by artists from around the world; it would promote exchanges with other major institutions, mainly throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. Arts education programs for youths would also be offered in partnership with local schools and community groups. He began to imagine the museum as a kind of cross-cultural think tank.

“And, of course, they wanted us also to change the name,” says Martinez. “They had problems with the word Hispanic. That came through for the first time.” By the end of 1994, the institution had been rechristened the Latin American Museum of Art.

The following summer, at the Humboldt Park field house, artist Mario Castillo led a group of young people in designing banners for the future museum. Three years later, the banners are still in storage.

The restoration of the stable’s exterior has been a long and complicated process. Some of the original materials were no longer made; missing elements had to be recreated from photographic evidence. Because of the building’s landmark status, all drawings had to be submitted for review by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

Work proceeded in phases. The first, which started in the summer of 1994, was fire cleanup and a “selective demolition”–a delicate task because portions of the building had to be saved while others were torn down. Then came the stabilization of the structural masonry. Actual reconstruction of the walls, roof, and other elements didn’t begin until the spring of 1996.

While the boulder base was intact, many bricks were loose; the Park District spent a lot of time searching for bricks–four different kinds had been used, none of which were made anymore. The original wood rafters–all of which had been destroyed–were replaced. Builders were able to find the original manufacturer of the roof by digging out clay tiles embedded in the ground. Then they set to work restoring the 23 dormers, the decorative chimney, and the spires with copper finials.

The architects and organizers alike were pleased with the results. But before the museum could move into its new home, organizers had to raise cash. The Park District was now telling them it would cost at least $4.5 million to renovate the interior. The museum, which has retained an architectural firm, claims it can do the job for about one-third that amount.

Oscar Martinez is vague about how much money the museum itself has raised over the past decade, though he does concede it has never raised very much. The $50,000 from city grants was wiped out after the building burned. Luis Martinez says the interior renovation could proceed in four phases over the next year, the first being the most costly, in the $250,000 range–a figure that would include building the main gallery and offices. “We’re not looking at a detailed finish,” he explains. “We’re talking about just clean finishes, with the bulk of the money being spent on basically mechanical systems, which we already knew–new water, new sewer, new electrical, new mechanical, mechanical probably being the most expensive. For this size project, I think we’re looking at 17,000 square feet of actual interior space. The bulk of the interior buildout is very small; it’s not really that much.”

But in recent months organizers have been getting mixed signals from the Park District. In June, Caldero received a letter from park board vice-president Mona Castillo, saying, “Rest assured I have been working on behalf of [the museum]….I’m looking for some unrestricted funds. I don’t have an answer for you, but be assured I support your efforts as well as Oscar Martinez’s.” The museum has also received a personal check for $1,000 from Park District board president John Rogers. Organizers say that commissioner Margaret Burroughs, who founded the DuSable Museum of African American History in Washington Park, is behind their efforts. And two years ago Mayor Daley sent a letter of support.

In July, museum board members met with Park District officials at the building site. Caldero brought up the possibility of receiving funds through the Parkways Foundation, the Park District’s private foundation (she sits on its board). She says she also talked about pro bono construction services (she says she has contacts). Most of all, Martinez and Caldero wanted the Park District to renew the museum’s agreement, which expires January 31.

“But they were not receptive to giving us a day when we were going to have a new contract,” says Martinez. “So it’s become very difficult for us to raise funds then when they’re not willing to give us a new contract. Now we’re proceeding because they did not say we’re not going to give you a contract–they left the door open a little bit. What I have heard is that their concerns are we haven’t raised any money. But they don’t realize the $1.9 million [from the Illinois Department of Transportation] was given to the Park District because of our efforts. We worked very hard to raise that money for the project. And we’re willing to raise the rest of the money. But we won’t be able to do it all at once because it’s a very poor community. We can do it in phases, whatever we have to do.”

Calls to the Park District’s board offices in August were returned by spokesperson Nora Moreno (who’s now in another city department). Not a typical flack, Moreno was familiar with the museum project. “It’s my community too,” she says, clearly a little uneasy discussing the subject. She says the agency isn’t taking the building away from the museum–it’s always owned it. “The Chicago Park District has invested $3.7 million to complete the exterior of the site. So we’ve held up our end of the bargain.” She says the museum has “had ten years to raise the money” but hasn’t.

“We got the funds for restoring,” Martinez says. “We got it, not the Park District. We got it. It was given to the Park District to handle and to do the project, but we got the money. That’s $1.9 million that we got.”

Moreno says that’s not true, even though the Park District applied for the money expressly to help pay for a Hispanic museum. “We’re trying to look ahead and to find alternatives,” she says. “We need to move forward, and we’re looking at creative ways of programming that facility. We’re continuing in our commitment to create a center that brings people in to enjoy that community and culture.”

One option under discussion is to turn the building into a rental hall with some art shows and community programs, a northwest-side version of the South Shore Cultural Center (Martinez had already heard the rumor because he sits on that facility’s board). It would include the Park District’s central regional offices. “But that’s not what the community wants,” Martinez says, “and that’s not what we want.”

Some Latino arts leaders have a jaded view of the Latin American Museum of Art and its grand, culturally inclusive vision. The museum, they say, has failed to gain financial and community support because it’s not sure who it’s trying to serve. Martinez should have stuck to his original vision, they say, a Puerto Rican museum to reflect Humboldt Park’s main constituency. Its ambitions far exceed its resources. Organizers should have been doing a lot more off-site programming, some complain. Martinez was spread too thin and consequently burned too many bridges along the way. The museum’s shifting mission has also led to board defections–which, to be fair, is inevitable in any such project. Carlos Tortolero, executive director of the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum in Pilsen, is blunt: “It’s trying to be all things to all people, and no one’s buying it.”

Conventional wisdom has it that the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum has little to gain, and some to lose, by having a crosstown rival. The Latin American Museum of Art could threaten its power base, siphoning off funds, artists, traveling exhibits, and other programming. The Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum may focus on Mexican culture, but right now it’s the only game in town.

Yet Tortolero maintains that a Latino museum wouldn’t be a competitor. “Mexican culture is so rich–there are enough ideas to do until eternity. It’s no problem. The more art we have the better–every culture is beautiful. [Martinez] won’t take one penny away from me. We have no fear. There’s no rivalry, no nothing. No one more than me will be there on opening night dressed up to the max and bearing flowers.”

Tortolero doesn’t expect he’ll get the opportunity. “You have to do what’s best for your community,” he says. “As Latinos, every community should have its own ethnic museum. That’s great for the city, great for all of us….There’s no one in Chicago that wants a Puerto Rican museum more than I do.”

But Martinez feels the time is ripe for a more inclusive vision. He points out that there are some artists of Mexican descent in Chicago who feel neglected by Tortolero’s museum, not to mention Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and Guatemalans. “When Guatemalans, say, come to a Puerto Rican show, there’s a sharing of language and culture that creates a stronger bond among all Latinos,” Martinez says. “Serving the needs of all Latinos is the way a lot of institutions are heading. In Chicago, the need is there, and the need is great.”

He has a point: Chicago is rich in veteran, nationally recognized Latino artists who deserve museum-caliber exhibitions but who languish in a kind of institutional limbo. Cuban Paul Sierra, Puerto Rican Arnoldo Roche-Rabell, and Mexican Mario Castillo may all resist “Latino” identifications and stereotypes, but attention in Chicago’s mainstream art venues seems to elude them. It may be because their work is deemed too “ethnic.” This past spring, a thoughtful Sierra retrospective marked the grand opening of the Latino Museum of Los Angeles, an institution that took 12 years to become a reality. Where, aside from perhaps the Chicago Cultural Center, would such an exhibit have been staged in this city?

Ed Maldonado says he’s “conflicted about the situation” because he’s a former Martinez supporter who helped found another group, the Puerto Rican Arts Alliance, which is now taking steps to establish its own home base. “I’m not sure what Oscar’s trying to do, so it’s very difficult to discuss in light of that,” he says. “Everyone who’s shown interest in the project in the course of its development pretty much feels it has deteriorated.”

Maldonado says there are “two good reasons” why Martinez should have stuck to his original plan: “It makes sense from a demographic point of view, and it makes sense from a cultural point of view. The basic constituency you have to work with here is the Puerto Rican community. The idea that a cultural institution necessarily has to focus in broad terms on Latin America is not a bad one. But it doesn’t reflect the community here. That’s where there’s a major stumbling block in Oscar’s vision.”

And that stumbling block, Maldonado contends, has cost the project crucial support. “I think the bigger issue for all of us is that the situation was a disappointment to many people because there was never a consensus of opinion built by [Martinez’s] own board and the community at large. That’s where the initial rifts came in.” A larger rift, he adds, is reflected in the changing neighborhood. “The loss of control and direction of this particular institution, after all those hopes and dreams, signifies to a lot of people in the Puerto Rican community that we now have lost control not only of the potential for a museum of Puerto Rican culture but, with the looming threat of gentrification, that we have symbolically lost control of the neighborhood.”

Founded in 1996, the Puerto Rican Arts Alliance is trying to reclaim their place. The group, says Carlos Flores, is composed of “serious, committed artists, cultural workers, and people from large cultural institutions who’ve come together to promote Puerto Rican culture, with the main objective being to educate.” He adds, “We as Puerto Ricans have our own needs that we need to showcase. We want to maintain an identity of who we are as people. We need to take back our history and put it out there.”

With music as its focal point, the alliance has been working with several Afro-Caribbean music and arts groups to stage events, to set up community outreach programs, and eventually to open a facility of its own. “We’re definitely working to develop a track record to do something in that direction,” says Flores.

But Martinez’s inability to get his museum started has left what Maldonado calls a “history of doubt” for other Puerto Rican cultural projects. He says his own group has had to work doubly hard to forge relationships with community groups and potential funders. “The major stumbling block is money, but believe it or not we have found support,” he says. “We have taken time to look at the demographics–organizations and people–in the community, and everyone wants to see us achieve something. Everyone we’ve talked to would work to revive the project in the Puerto Rican community and would support the idea of an institution.”

“It’s a shame that the museum might lose the building after all that work,” notes artist Gamaliel Ramirez. “But it’s important that the building belongs to the community–they have to come together and make something happen because having a museum is really important. But nobody seems empowered enough yet to confront the situation.” Maybe, he adds, the museum “should have a campaign to open up to the community.”

“The issue is not should a Latin American Museum of Art happen,” says Carlos Tortolero, “but is this the right group to do it? There are a lot of other people out there that could. After ten years, are they the right group to get the money?”

Even as his deal with the Park District appears to be collapsing, Oscar Martinez and his group are forging ahead with a renewed sense of commitment and energy. Rumors of the museum’s demise, he assures, have been greatly exaggerated. Yet, while he still has his sights set on the Humboldt Park facility, he admits he may have to settle somewhere else.

The Latin American Museum of Art recently initiated a $1.5 million capital campaign drive, part of which would be used to hire an executive director (in all likelihood Martinez), a director of development, and a part-time secretary. “We’re doing that lobby thing one more time,” says Carmen Caldero who, among other things, is approaching the local consulates of Latin American countries. The group has also started to write letters again, send out packages to foundations and corporations, and plan fund-raising events. They have started a “Buy a Brick Campaign,” where a donor can sponsor a copper, silver, or gold commemorative brick to be installed inside the museum.

Caldero, who joined the museum’s board two years ago, strongly believes in a Latino cultural center. “I’ll move heaven and earth to make it happen.” She explains that the seven-member board “consists of young professional people who grew up in the community and who want to give back to the first generation that came here. We were the lucky ones that made it, that went on to college. We beat the dropout rate and we went on and became professionals. And we want to inspire young people to do the same.”

Martinez says he’s lined up enough exhibitions for at least three years. “Once we get it going, we’ll have a limited budget to start with, so we’re going to start showing the local talent first. There are quite a few excellent artists out there that we can show easily. Once we open, the problem is going to be–there’s going to be so many artists coming to us–how do we handle that and make sure nobody is turned off by whatever process we decide to use?” Then, he says, they’ll start doing international artist exchanges. But without a building, without money, without support, these are just plans.

“All we’re asking is for the Park District to help us move forward,” says Martinez. “Instead of saying, ‘We’re going to put a cultural center there,’ they must really reevaluate whatever position they have and say, ‘Yes, you have a need, this is important, we want to help you, we want to collaborate, we want to work with the community and you, we want to build a Latin American Museum of Art, and how can we help you build a partnership so that we can work together and do whatever’s necessary to serve the community and make this a reality?’

“We’ve tried,” he continues. “We’re doing everything possible not to step on any toes. We’ve been great ambassadors for our community, as far as the Park Disrict is concerned. Well, we’re not playing that game anymore. We’ve already done that. We want them to move and do the right thing. We want them to honor their commitment. That’s what we want them to do. And we’ll do whatever possible to make sure they do the right thing. We want to help them do the right thing. And we’re serious about it. It’s really very simple.”

This story was updated in August 2021 to remove the name of Martinez’s wife.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photographs by Dan Machnik: Humboldt Park stables; Oscar and Luis Martinez; Carmen Caldero; Edward Maldonado; Carlos Flores.