Man on a Mission

Gil CardenasFrom “Man on a Mission Professor, Collector, Leader Gil Cárdenas” The Austin Chronicle, Aug. 18, 1995.

Real collectors never ask “Where am I going to hang this picture?” They don’t buy art because it fits over the sofa. They buy because art makes them whole. The quest for more is never-ending, although it occasionally shifts direction, waxes and wanes according to the collector’s resources. Dr. Gilberto Cárdenas is an art collector, the kind whose restless curiosity and infatuation with a particular artist, object, medium, or point of view rules his life. On occasion, his pocketbook. The Cárdenas collection, primarily (though not exclusively) works-on-paper, fills his home, as well as drawers full of flat files at Galeria Sin Fronteras.

Cárdenas established Galeria Sin Fronteras in July of 1986 to support artists by making their work more available to the general public. “I kept hearing from artists that they didn’t have enough outlets,” he says. His expansion from merely collecting to exhibiting work allowed Latino artists – his primary focus – to exhibit without feeling the need to modify their message in order to fit into existing galleries. Galeria Sin Fronteras, once on East Seventh Street and now at 17th and Guadalupe, provides an opportunity for artists from the Austin and Central Texas area, from Arizona to Los Angeles, and from Mexico, to be themselves – no matter how political the message. Malaquias Montoya, one of the collector’s favorite artists, is also the most blatantly political. His work is “accusatory,” Cárdenas says. It is strong, makes a statement, and clearly wants the audience to become involved not just with aesthetics, but with issues.

Cárdenas began buying the art he likes, most of it on paper, when others weren’t interested. When he was involved with the Chicano movement in Los Angeles during the Sixties, he collected posters from the movement, recognizing art as integral to all aspects of his life. College photography courses and a turn as a free-lance photographer helped to further develop his aesthetic sensibilities and moved him beyond the poster. Most of the artists represented in his collection are Latino, as are the artists represented by Galeria Sin Fronteras. Alan Pogue, whose documentary photographs of migrant farm workers first attracted Cárdenas, is an exception. So are Ann Chamberlin and Carolyn Prescott, two women whose edgy imagery and early support of the Galeria Sin Fronteras won them a place in the gallery’s stable of artists.

Cárdenas grew up in East Los Angeles. He majored in sociology at California State University in L.A. and then went to Notre Dame for graduate school, where he received a Ph.D. in International Migration. This marks his 20th year at the University of Texas at Austin and five years since he became director of the Center for Mexican American Studies (CMAS) at UT. He maintains a modest office on campus, although he seems to spend precious little time sitting in one place. When he is in place, however, he is gracious and at ease. His black wavy hair and unlined face belie his 48 years and hectic lifestyle. Dr. Cárdenas speaks with a soft voice that moves quickly, gliding over vowels and consonants like a smooth stream of water in a man-made trough – very little splashing around. His dark hands, moving as he talks, seem to keep the conversation steady.

Selections from his  personal collection adorn the hallways and offices of CMAS. A print by Carmen Lomas Garza cozies next to a file cabinet in the outer office, and several other framed prints brighten the one-window cubicle that belongs to Cárdenas. He and his wife, lobbyist Deanna Rodriquez, have also given a portion of the collection – nearly 500 works – to the University’s Huntington Art Gallery on long-term loan. Cárdenas hopes to encourage the Museum to collect more art by Mexican-American artists to complement its extensive Latin American collection. “Hopefully this will contribute to that direction,” he says of the gift. He says the work is “better [utilized] at UT than in my flat files.”

Many of the works he collects are original prints. Of Self-Help Graphics, a print studio in Los Angeles, Cárdenas says, “I collect everything they produce.” The current exhibition at Galeria Sin Fronteras is a monoprint workshop show. Monoprints by 25 artists have been produced in print shops in the United States and Mexico, including Self-Help Graphics, El Centro Cultural de la Raza in Tijuana, Mexico, El Taller de Grabado in Chicago, Illinois, and Strike Editions in Austin, Texas. Cristabel Bodden, director of the gallery, says they are currently working on plans for a catalogue to accompany the show. Bodden and framer Paul Smith constitute Cárdenas’s gallery staff. He says he “owns the debt on the gallery,” but no longer plays a day-to-day role in operations.

Cárdenas has lent work to be exhibited at the Austin Museum of Art at Laguna Gloria and has tried to be responsive to their requests for input on special projects, but he has a much greater involvement with the Texas Fine Arts Association (TFAA). He is vice president of the board. While speaking with admiration for director Sandra Gregor and the statewide reach of TFAA’s programs, Cárdenas promises to take a hard look at the absence of multi-cultural representation within the organization. “We have to figure out ways to be more proactive,” he says.

When Gilberto Cárdenas uses first person plural pronouns it is often difficult to figure out which “we” or “us” or “our” he’s talking about. Sometimes he is referring to Galeria Sin Fronteras, sometimes TFAA, CMAS, or the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) – on whose national board he serves as first vice chairman. Other times he speaks passionately about the Inter-University Program for Latino Research (IUPLR), which has just named Cárdenas its executive director. IUPLR is a consortium of nine Latino studies centers based at major universities in the United States.

Latino USA, the only national radio program focusing on Latino issues, is another of Cárdenas’s projects. Until Christina Cuevas recently moved from the Ford Foundation in New York to serve as executive director, Cárdenas held that position. Under his leadership and with the participation of CMAS, the idea for the program was reformulated two years ago and now is aired on more than 200 radio stations. And there is more. The normally unflappable Cárdenas jumped to his feet to find and share a printed report by the Smithsonian Institution Task Force on Latino Issues on which he recently served. Now, he is one of two original members of that task force, which has been asked to help implement the plan that was developed. “This [The Smithsonian Institution] is an institution that shows us who Americans are, what America is,” he says excitedly, noting how their findings showed that the institution “almost entirely excludes and ignores the Latino population of the United States.”

Each of the organizations with which Cárdenas identifies so strongly and for which he has worked so hard, relies on government funding. And money from the government for such things is in short supply and shrinking. “We have our work cut out for us in the next couple of decades,” he says confidently, when asked how his various projects will cope with the challenge. His determination has had a long history. Although he says he does his best work when he is angry, he says it with a smile.

Imagine Dr. Gilberto Cárdenas as a teenager in East L.A. He was a bright young man, restless, curious, running with a bad crowd, watching his comrades fall to drugs, get picked up by the law, run out of luck one by one. Now he has a Ph.D. from Notre Dame and enough frequent flyer miles to take his family to Hawaii for vacation. He attributes his good fortune to a “magical sequence” of events that propelled him out of that environment. Good luck? There is evidence of decades of hard work.

“I want to be wise,” says Cárdenas when asked what his wish would be today. Then he adds, “I wish I had some more money for the gallery, for art.” Even as he says it, he concedes he has just purchased the new TFAA print. Collectors don’t ask where they’re going to hang the art, or even how they’re going to foot the bill. The quest never ends.