Cheech Marin Reflects on His New Art Museum–and Some Big Cultural Shifts

His motto: “Chicano art is American art”

Cheech Marin will be 72 in July, but he doesn’t seem interested in easing into a quiet retirement any time soon. He has two films set for release over the coming months, has jumped into the cannabis market with his own brand of products, and, in 2020, he’ll oversee the opening of the new Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art, Culture, and Industry.

Marin has amassed what is believed to be the largest private collection focused on Chicano art. A collaboration with the Riverside Arts Museum, the new arts center, nicknamed “the Cheech,” will give that collection a permanent, public home–but that wasn’t really something Marin ever planned.

“I just kept collecting,” he says. “But then I started asking, ‘Well, what am I going to do with this collection? Am I going to shove it under the bed or something?’ So I started to give a couple of paintings away to museums, and then this opportunity kind of dropped in out of the sky.”

cheech marin museum riverside chicano art
Cheech Marin at a press conference about the new museum

Photograph courtesy of Riverside Art Museum

The city of Riverside approached Marin with an idea. A historic, city-owned building that had previously housed a branch of the Riverside Public Library was in need of a new tenant. And they already knew there was an audience for Marin’s collection, because a touring exhibit of a portion of the collection drew crowds to the Riverside Art Museum that were three to five times larger than their typical attendance.

“I had done a show at RAM, one of the touring shows, and it was a huge hit there,” Marin notes. “And the city is perfect for this. This is a start of a chain of events that we want to do together with the city of Riverside. We’re going to turn it into the next big art town. It’s perfectly positioned to do that.”

The 1964 building that will house the Cheech is located next door to the Mission Inn, amid the main cultural corridor of downtown Riverside. To oversee the conversion from library to art gallery, the museum is working with wHY, the designers who recently oversaw the build-outs of the Marciano Art Foundation and the ICA LA, and the firm Page & Turnbull.

“It’s beautiful, with all this glass, very mid-century,” Marin describes. He even has some ideas for how he would landscape the grounds, planting citrus trees, inspired by Riverside’s heritage as an agricultural center. “I want to plant a bunch more oranges. I want orange blossoms. I grew up in part around an orange grove, too, and I really am nostalgic about the smell. Orange blossom is a very romantic smell. And that’s perfect, because I want people to fall in love when they’re there. Fall in love with the town, fall in love with Chicano art.”

Rendering of proposed facade and plaza design for the Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art

Image courtesy of Page & Turnbull

His own love affair with Chicano art started about 30 years ago, when he first encountered Los Angeles-based artists like Carlos Almaraz, Patssi Valdez, Gilbert “Magú” Lujan, and Frank Romero.

“I was always an art lover all my life, starting from a very early age. I self-educated myself,” Marin says. “Once I had enough money to actually collect art, I started exploring contemporary art. That’s when I discovered these Chicano painters working in L.A. and I thought, ‘Wow, these guys are really good, why aren’t they getting more attention?’ I started collecting their work, then one thing lead to another.”

Now, three decades later, he’s excited to open one of the first museums dedicated to Mexican-American contemporary art.

“To establish this now is so gratifying,” he says. “One of my mantras–I keep repeating it as often as Trump says ‘no collusion!’–what I say is ‘Chicano art is American art.’ The more we repeat that message, the more people see it, they see what we’re doing. It’s about inclusion, participation, and history. It takes time, but that’s what we’re here for.”

Art isn’t the only passion of Marin’s where he’s observed a cultural shift over the years. There’s also the change in norms and laws around marijuana, an industry he’s recently stepped into with his own cannabis product brand, Cheech’s Private Stash.

“You have 29 states that now have some form of legalization,” he notes. “And there’s been the rise of the whole wellness movement, the idea of treating marijuana as a medicine, not just a recreation.”

With Cheech’s Private Stash, he hopes to not only sell products, but educate consumers about what it is that they’re purchasing.

“We want to make the growing and sourcing all as above-board as possible, get as much information to the consumer as we can,” he says. “It’s not about ‘score a bag of weed and get high, there you go.’ What we’re really doing is curating. Finding the strains and curating.”

Education is also a key component of another of his new business ventures, Tres Papalote mescal, which he developed with the same business partner involved with his cannabis line.

“That project is really centered on education, teaching people what mescal really is,” he says of the brand. “Some people still insist on calling mescal ‘tequila,’ and that’s fine, but I would like to correct them, in the nicest possible way, and explain to them that it really has it’s own aspects.”

cheech marin museum marijuana art
Cheech Marin examines marijuana for his cannabis line

Photograph courtesy of Cheech's Private Stash

In spite of all his forays into business and art, Marin will likely always be best known as an actor and entertainer. He currently has two films in the can awaiting release, The War with Grandpa and Naya: Legend of the Golden Dolphin. 

In April, he marked the 40th anniversary of his most enduring work, Up in Smokewhich he made with partner Tommy Chong, over just 30 days of independent, guerrilla-style filming on the streets of Los Angeles.

“It was a cheap little movie,” he says. “It was a savior, born in a manger, as most saviors are. But it connected with a global audience.”

Marin gives some credit for the film’s cult status to the timing of its release. It happened to come out in 1978, just a year after Americans began adopting the VHS format and VCRs were becoming a normal household item. Consequently, it became possible for films to be seen and shared outside of movie theaters.

“People could see it simultaneously because it came out around the advent of videotapes,” he recalls. “The ability for it to spread was enormously increased by that. And it made it possible for it to get all over the world quickly, and for people to share the movie with each other.”

But, Marin concedes, technology wasn’t the only factor that made the film a hit. “Up in Smoke, it is iconic,” he admits. “It was a phenomenon. It’ll probably celebrate an 80th anniversary and people will still talk about it.”

He’s probably right, but when fans celebrate that anniversary, maybe they’ll do it while toasting Cheech in the museum that bears his name, surrounded by the art he loved, with the scent of orange blossoms–or maybe just pot smoke–in the air.

RELATED: Revisiting the L.A. Locations from Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke 40 Years Later

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