New Law Takes Step To Latino Museum

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 9, 2008

President Bush signed legislation yesterday establishing a commission to study the feasibility of a National Museum of the American Latino.

The measure, part of a larger legislative package, creates a 23-member bipartisan panel that will give the president and Congress recommendations about the scope of the project.

Over a two-year period, it will consider the location, the cost of construction and maintenance, and the presentation of art, history, politics, business and entertainment in American Latino life.

"How do you spell 'relief'?" said a gratified Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), who has been pushing the legislation for five years. "Now the real work begins."

A central question facing the commission is whether the proposed museum should be part of the Smithsonian Institution. Two reports, in 1993 and 1997, criticized the representation of Latinos throughout the Smithsonian's collections and exhibitions. Both studies called for a new museum; in 1997 the Smithsonian created a Latino Center to coordinate programs throughout the institution. Becerra said a Smithsonian-specific location or management role was deliberately left out of the new legislation so the experts on the commission could make independent decisions.

The new law says the location should "be considered in consultation with the National Capital Planning Commission and the Commission of Fine Arts, the Department of the Interior and Smithsonian Institution."

Earlier this week, the Smithsonian Board of Regents, aware that the measure had passed both the House and the Senate, said the Smithsonian itself would renovate the landmark Arts & Industries Building, which has been closed for four years. One of the reasons not to turn it over to a private developer was the possibility of considering the space for a Latino project.

Cristián Samper, the Smithsonian's acting secretary, said placement within the museum complex "is not a given. We are committed to be collaborative. If Congress decides this belongs in the Smithsonian, we can take this on and do a museum that would make us all proud."

Becerra, a Smithsonian regent, was cautious in speaking about affiliation, but said, "I love the Smithsonian. I am proud of the Smithsonian even though it has its warts. There would be no greater honor than to have the museum associated with the Smithsonian."

Arturo Vargas, the executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected & Appointed Officials, didn't pull any punches about location, signaling a lively debate down the road about a prominent site.

"My strong opinion is that it should be an arm of the Smithsonian and take its place with the others along America's hallowed ground, the Mall," said Vargas. "American society does not have an appreciation for the Latino part in the history and development of the country. Having that institutionalized is the best way to tell the story." There are 45 million Hispanics in the United States.

Samper said any future Smithsonian involvement would depend on the right funding. The Smithsonian is preparing for a national capital campaign and also has to raise money for the $500 million National Museum of African American History and Culture. "We haven't set a number for the national campaign. Clearly, if we were asked to take it on, it might pen up other donors. But we have to assess what our capacity is to fundraise," said Samper.

The legislation signed yesterday recommends a budget of $3.2 million for the study group, an amount that still must be approved by Congress.

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