Ricardo and Harriet Romo
by Erin Keever
This month the McNay art museum in San Antonio presents Estampas de la Raza: Prints from the Romo Collection. The exhibition celebrates gifts made by Dr. Ricardo and Dr. Harriett Romo. It, along with an impressive catalogue published by the University of Texas Press, marks an important event for the museum. Known for their collection of modern Mexican printmaking, the McNay now adds 200 works by Latino and Chicano printmakers from the 1960s to the 2000s. These prints, in addition to being wonderfully colorful and bold visual statements, “are in the service of social activism” points out the McNay’s Curator of Prints and Drawings, Lyle W. Williams.
Harriett and Ricardo Romo began to give away portions of their print collection to the McNay in 2008. Williams says, “At first, they gave us a few prints by Luis Jiménez, César Martinez, Vincent Valdez and others. The number of gifts increased dramatically in the next couple of years.” While the Romos’ overall collection includes other media and a good deal of Mexican work, this gift’s focus is on prints made by Chicano, Latino and Mexican American artists mostly based in California and Texas, two states in which the couple have lived and worked.
Today Ricardo Romo is the President of The University of Texas at San Antonio. His wife Harriett is a Professor in the Department of Sociology as well as being the Director of the Mexico Center at UTSA. Their married life began in Los Angeles, where they moved after graduating from The University of Texas at Austin in 1967. In L.A., both taught in inner city schools and attended UCLA. It was also in L.A. that they were introduced to the California Chicano movement along with its burgeoning art scene. The collecting seed, as they say, was planted.
Their collecting started out modestly. The very first art purchases were by Harriett on her travels to Latin America. They included a drawing she saw by a Colombian artist Bogotá and a Pre-Columbian ceramic work. Back in California, she fell in love with a Francisco Zuñiga drawing at a colleague’s home, which prompted the couple to visit the B. Lewin Gallery, specializing in work by Mexican artists. It was the early 1970s and they paid $90 a month on rent. Even so, they continued to visit the Beverly Hills gallery and eventually managed to finance a lithograph by Rufino Tamayo. Ricardo explains, “Tamayo was our first print. It was a stroke of luck really. We followed up with a few more and then a Siqueiros.”
So the first works were by Mexican artists, “When we began, we bought things for our home, things we liked. I’m a historian, so the works appealed to me because of their historical signi cance.” But as time went on and their activism increased, the Romos began to train their attention on work by Chicano artists.
Two events helped define the Romos’ collecting tastes. The “Los Four”, an exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum (LACMA) in 1975, was a Chicano artist collective originally made up of Frank Romero, Carlos Almaraz, Roberto de la Rocha and founder Gilbert Luján. The exhibition was a major milestone and LACMA became the first mainstream museum to recognize the importance of Chicano Art in America. Piggy-backing on the attention that the LACMA show drew, Ricardo was moved to organize “Arte Picante” at The University of California San Diego’s (UCSD) new gallery, gaining exposure for the gallery as well as Chicano and Latino community issues.
Another influential experience in L.A. was meeting Sister Karen Boccalero and the staff at Self Help Graphics. Founded in 1973, Self Help Graphics was (and is) an important community arts center and workshop in East L.A. It grew up alongside a cultural renaissance that was part of the Chicano Movement. They ordered students afterschool activities including classes in screen printing and lithography. Their annual sale featured work by both students and teachers. Many of the young artists they cultivated attained national and even international success. The Romos bought numerous prints at these sales, fully aware that in doing so, they were helping the non-profit’s mission to impact social change within the Chicano community through art.
Collecting and social responsibility remained integral when the Romos moved back to Texas. Ricardo decided to accept a position at The University of Texas at Austin while Harriett finished her PhD. They quickly immersed themselves in Austin’s Chicano art network, frequenting their friend Gilbert Cardenas’ Gallery Sin Fronteras.
Harriett sat on the La Peña organization’s board and Ricardo joined Laguna Gloria art museum’s board. At Laguna Gloria, the Romos met artists like Mel Casas and Luis Jiménez. Ricardo interviewed Jiménez for an article for Humanities Texas, which led to him buying their first print by the artist, “Southwest Pieta”.
When the Romos traveled for conferences outside of Austin, they sought out galleries that specialized in Latino, and more particularly, Chicano Art. They were single-minded in their acquisition criteria. “We travel and go to lots of museums and it is tempting, say in Santa Fe, to buy some Southwestern Art, but we stop ourselves and ask, do you have any Chicano, Latino or Mexican American Art?” To those thinking about collecting, Ricardo also advises, “If you’re interested, let your heart and your passion lead you.” To which Harriett adds “and stay focused.”
They still buy through Self Help Graphics as well. When Sam Coronado told them about his idea to create a workshop in Austin using Self Help as a model, they came to his aid. They bought a series of the artist’s prints, enabling him to purchase a new space, which became Coronado Studio, where artists can practice serigraphy or silkscreening. Coronado also founded the Serie Project, a non-profit organization with a mission to create and promote serigraph prints created by Latino artists from Texas, the United States, and abroad.
Not only do the Romos purchase through galleries and non-profits, but sometimes directly from the artists. Harriett appreciates the connections made through these exchanges, confessing, “We like to meet the artists and get to know them and their work on a more personal basis. I can’t think of one artist I did not like.” Ricardo enjoys studio visits as well, so much so he has begun to photograph artists in their studios as part of a larger photo project. Some of these photos will be on view at the McNay exhibition in an introductory video.
When asked when the idea of making a gift came about, Ricardo points out that early on when they were active in the Chicano Movement, they couldn’t really afford to invest in work in a serious way. “We had our kids and were in graduate school, with limited resources.” He said it was “sometime during the 1980s that we knew it was not just for our home.” He recalls a conversation he had with James Michener, who officed down the hall from him at UT Austin. Michener had made a large gift to the Archer M. Huntington Gallery (now The Blanton Museum of Art). Romo says of Michener, “He told me ‘I have all of the paintings in photos in a scrapbook at home, and if I miss them I can open it and look at them.’” Romo continues, “Michener thought he should let other people enjoy the art. It’s much better to share.”
Later when the Romos moved to San Antonio, they realized the McNay did not yet collect Chicano, Latino and Mexican American Art in a serious way. Ricardo says, “We decided we would have a strategy, a strategy to jump-start the museum’s collection. So we started out by giving them 50 pieces.” Around the same time they began to give a significant number of works on paper to the Benson Latin American collection at UT Austin.
Williams says, “Working with the Romos has been tremendously easy and fun. The great thing about having the Romos and their collection close at hand is that when I was researching and writing the catalogue, I could call and ask if they had x, y, or z, and might I have it for the McNay. They always said yes. Their generosity has been inspiring. And, yes, they do continue to acquire things with the McNay in mind. I think it is something of a relief that they can give things to the museum and know that we will take care of them for future generations to enjoy.” While personal pleasure has been a part of the Romos’ collecting life, the social value of giving has won out. Ricardo says he is passionate about art and collecting can be considered a hobby but, “My goal was not to collect stamps and put them in a closet and leave them there for my kids when I die!”
This fall’s exhibition of the Romo collection at the McNay will benefit the art world by revealing a critically important aspect of contemporary American printmaking. It serves the local community immensely, as Latinos are now the majority of the population in San Antonio. This and future exhibitions, as well as programming and publishing, will contribute to the field and to cultural awareness of Latino issues. And Williams notes, “Perhaps more important is the fact that every semester we host hundreds of area college and university students for print history and connoisseurship classes in our print room. Even though a much wider public will see some of the Romo gifts in the exhibition, the prints have already been put to use in these classes. It’s great for these students to see prints made by their fellow San Antonians in the McNay’s collection; it is an empowering experience.” Helping the artist, the non-profit, the institution and the student; this is what makes an art scene, and a society thrive.