The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Latino Museum backers are pushing for a prime spot on the National Mall. But a turf war is looming.

The Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building is one of several sites identified by Congress to be considered for the National Museum of the American Latino. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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In a recent appearance on MSNBC, actor John Leguizamo made a strong case for supporting the proposed National Museum of the American Latino, which Congress authorized in December. In a short but animated segment, Leguizamo, a board member of the Friends of the National Museum of the American Latino, offered examples of Latino heroism and achievements, and he pledged that the museum would be built on the National Mall, home to the Smithsonian Institution’s most popular museums. He all but guaranteed that it would represent all Latino cultures and ethnicities.

Few of those watching were probably aware that neither Leguizamo nor the Friends organization he represents has the power to make good on those lofty promises — not the size of the museum, not its cost, not its location and certainly not its exhibits.

Congress gave those responsibilities solely to the Smithsonian.

That doesn’t mean the Friends organization is going anywhere. Like a freshman invited to a senior bash, the Friends members want the party to last — even if the host group hardly notices them. Although the organization succeeded in its primary goal of persuading Congress to create the museum, it says it still needs to build public support for the project and — most important — to pressure Congress and the Smithsonian to build it on the increasingly crowded but symbolically significant Mall.

“Where this museum goes is critical to our entire campaign. We’ve been at this for 16 years and the National Mall is where the 25 million people are,” said Estuardo Rodriguez, Friends president and chief executive. “We will use all our efforts, on the outside and independently, to insist, educate and advocate [for a location] between the Capitol and the Washington Monument.”

And so the uneasy relationship continues between the quasi-federal Smithsonian Institution, the world’s largest museum complex, and the Friends, a small nonprofit group affiliated with a Washington lobbying firm. The National Museum of African American History and Culture — which opened in 2016 and is the newest Smithsonian museum — and the National Museum of the American Indian, which opened in 2004, secured prime land on what is considered the nation’s front lawn. Supporters of the Latino museum are adamant that they belong there, too.

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“We’re about to get a piece of land on the Mall. We want the museum to be on the Mall because that’s the most important place to be, to get the recognition it deserves,” Leguizamo told MSNBC’s Tiffany Cross on July 18. “As a child, I didn’t have Latin heroes. We’ve been erased from history.”

Selecting the museum’s location is shaping up to be a monumental turf war. The African American Museum struggled to land its site on the Mall’s northwest corner near the Washington Monument in 2006, taking one of the few open spaces. Now, 15 years later, the Smithsonian has been charged with establishing two museums — the Latino museum and the American Women’s History Museum, which was also authorized in December.

Congress identified several sites in its charge to the Smithsonian, including the institution’s Arts and Industries Building; Jefferson Drive between 12th and 14th streets; and Pennsylvania Ave. and Third St. near the Capitol. The Smithsonian will study these and others, but it will be a challenge to find workable locations, said Kevin Gover, the Smithsonian’s undersecretary for museums and culture.

“We know that the constituencies supporting both museums wish to see them on the Mall,” said Gover, a former director of the American Indian Museum. “Some of the spaces Congress [cited] are owned by other agencies, and there’s little indication that they are interested in giving up their part of the Mall.”

Rodriguez said his organization will work with congressional allies to encourage the repeal of a prohibition on the space across from the African American Museum near the Washington Monument, known as the south monument site. (The ban was a last-minute addition to the authorization bill.) The group will continue to promote the project with media spots like Leguizamo’s conversation on MSNBC and on social media.

Meanwhile, the Smithsonian has begun the long and complex process of creating the museum. It announced in June the first 17 members of the museum’s board of trustees (a group of high-profile and wealthy Latinos that does not include any members of the Friends board), and it has begun a national search for its founding director.

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“They are an important constituent of the National Museum of the American Latino,” Gover said of the Friends organization members. “They communicated with us both in the run-up to the congressional passage and they stay in touch. We know where they are and what they want.”

The Friends group has been advocating in Congress for a museum since 2004, Rodriguez said. The effort gained traction in 2011 when a congressional commission issued a report calling for Congress to fund half of its estimated $600 million cost. Bills were introduced in the House and the Senate, and the dream of a museum became a reality in December, when President Donald Trump signed the legislation into law.

The Friends group attained formal tax-exempt status in 2014, and since then has raised about $1 million in donations, according to tax filings. Rodriguez, the executive director, is a principal and co-founder of the Raben Group, a D.C. lobbying firm. The Friends’ address is the same as the Raben Group’s, and the Friends board pays that firm to manage and oversee its daily activities, according to tax filings. That fee was almost $70,000 in 2019, about 30 percent of the group’s expenses.

Rodriguez said that the Friends group will lobby Congress to fund the museum, and that it will not raise private donations for it. The $1 million it has raised supports its advocacy work, Rodriguez said; no money has been passed on to the Smithsonian.

In 2016, Smithsonian officials asked the Friends group to clearly state that it is not affiliated with the Smithsonian. The request was made to clarify that donor contributions would not fund the Smithsonian or the Smithsonian’s Molina Family Latino Gallery, the precursor to the museum that will open in the National Museum of American History next year.

“From time to time, we see groups, who intend us nothing but good, leave the impression that they are working for us,” Gover said. “We always try to make sure that potential donors understand.”

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In the same spirit, Rodriguez said, the Friends did not propose any members of its board for the new museum’s board. “If there’s anything that clogs up the wheels here in D.C., it’s that co-mingling,” he said. “We’re trying to keep the lanes as clear as possible.”

Tension is not uncommon between “friends” organizations and the groups they support, whether they’re government entities such as the Smithsonian or nonprofit groups, said Leslie Lenkowsky, professor emeritus of public affairs and philanthropic studies at Indiana University. Public schools, libraries, parks and other entities have independent groups that support them by raising money and providing services, he said. The most successful primary organizations treat their support groups like donors or volunteers.

“One of the classic jobs of any organization is to work with your supporters. You need to be able to manage them as well as you would manage your employees,” he said.

Unlike in Europe, where museums and other arts groups are supported primarily by the government, American organizations, including those with government connections such as schools and libraries, rely on multiple funding sources. “This is the way we’ve been doing it forever in the United States,” Lenkowsky said. “The formation of friends groups has evolved as a way to deal with it.”

This next stage is as important as the long push for Congress to authorize the museum, Rodriguez said.

“The Smithsonian is a government agency, and they cannot lobby. We will be raising the visibility of being on the Mall,” he said, adding that the group will consider dissolving once the location is selected. “It’s an exciting stage for us, because for the first time we have a timeline, when we know the job will be done.”

Gover, however, says the time for lobbying has passed.

“What we will be doing is less lobbying than informing Congress. Here are the options, the challenges we might face, here are the expenses for these locations,” he said. “We will consult with the public at large as well as the constituency organizations that have advocated for these museums.

“Whether they dissolve or not is not something that we are concerned about,” he continued. “We make the decisions on what happens in the museums.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Estuardo Rodriguez as the executive director of the Friends of the National Museum of the American Latino. Rodriguez is now president and chief executive. This version has been updated.

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