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Riverside’s Cheech Marin museum opens to cheers, cultural celebration

With the arrival of a shiny blue lowrider and cheers from the crowd, “The Cheech” opened its doors in downtown Riverside.

After five years of planning and fundraising, comedian and actor Cheech Marin’s Chicano art museum welcomed its first guests Saturday morning, June 18, with a street celebration to herald a venue that’s expected to put the city on the national arts map.

About 10 a.m., Marin — wearing an orange cap with the museum’s logo — hopped out of a 1962 Chevy Impala lowrider and unlocked the doors of the Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art & Culture with Riverside Mayor Patricia Lock Dawson.

Opening day was sold out, but those who had tickets — and others — had plenty to say about the cultural significance of the museum.

“We have so many Hispanic communities in Riverside, and this will bring them together,” said Maria Batres, of Ballet Folklorico de Riverside, whose troupe performed a blessing in front of the museum before Cheech’s entrance.

Lock Dawson joined among a group of museum staff who applauded the first visitors as they entered the museum in the city’s former main library.

They included JoAnn Jimenez, whose group was first in line.

“It’s amazing, where do I begin?” she said, standing in front of a 26-foot-tall lenticular that stretches to the ceiling, the first work of art that visitors see. The untitled work was crafted by brothers Einar and Jamex de La Torre.

The museum dubbed The Cheech was created as a home for Cheech Marin’s extensive Chicano art collection. He began building it in the 1980s after finding fame with Tommy Chong in the comedy duo Cheech & Chong, followed by a movie career. The center now holds about 550 paintings, photographs, sculptures and other works from Marin’s collection. Located next door to the Mission Inn Hotel & Spa, the new museum is projected to bring in 100,000 visitors a year.

He has described Chicano art as arising from 1960s protests and evolving over the decades into a way of depicting how real people live their lives. He called it a mixture of Mexican art, world art and pop culture.

Marin began to be known as an art connoisseur in the past 20 years as he began sending his collection to major museums such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

The concept of a museum in Riverside began in 2017, when his collection was being exhibited at Riverside Art Museum, and then-City Manager John Russo and other civic leaders pitched the idea to Marin. After that, planning and fundraising began.

“Someone asked me how it feels now at the end,” Ofelia Valdez-Yeager, a Riverside resident, community leader and chair of the Reach for the Cheech campaign, said at a Thursday, June 16, dedication ceremony. “It feels like I’ve been pregnant for five years.”

The Cheech came together as a $14.5 million public-private collaboration with major donors such as Bank of America and Altura Credit Union as well as a  city subsidy of nearly $1 million a year to the Riverside Art Museum, which was contracted to run it.

The Cheech is housed in Riverside’s former main library, a 1964 building that retains its mid-century modern exterior but was overhauled inside.

Now, instead of a check-out desk at the entrance, visitors see the de la Torre brothers’ giant lenticular, which includes several themes of Chicano art. Images include an Aztec goddess, native California flowers, a map of East Los Angeles and the face of Cheech Marin himself.

Creators of The Cheech see it as a platform to spread the influence of Chicano art across the world.

“We hope that this building and this collection and this participation of the community will be a beacon for everybody else around the country to finally redefine inclusion,” Marin said at the ceremony. “Now it is going to be embodied in a place they can come to.”

Marin said he brought all his children to Riverside to see the museum.

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