In keeping with its mission of advancing the Latinx arts field and workforce, the National Association for Latino Arts and Culture (NALAC) has recently expanded its efforts to paint a picture of the Latinx arts sector on the national scale.

NALAC specifically embraces the term “Latinx,” which serves as a gender-neutral alternative to Latino or Latina, to signal its support of artists of all genders and gender identities.

Founded in 1989, NALAC is headquartered at 1208 Buena Vista St. on the city’s Westside and now hosts one of the nation’s largest databases of contemporary Latinx artists and their work in the United States.

Luis Garza, a San Antonio native who manages the database, oversees data generated from more than 1,700 national Latinx artists through NALAC’s annual grant process.

“I see that there’s not always equal footing [for Latinx artists], and so being able to help NALAC create the possibilities to help level that footing – that’s why it matters to me,” he said of his database work.

Databases help art organizations asses themselves and communicate with their stakeholders, said Paula Owen, president and CEO of the Southwest School of Art. “It’s so important to have more than just a few opinions” to base decisions on, she added.

“It’s harder for organizations that are smaller and have fewer staff to manage data collection and analysis,” Owen said, adding that when resources are scarce, they are less likely to be allocated to efforts involving data.

While politics and management issues have threatened arts organization and their funding both on the local and national level, NALAC continues to grow in terms of donor support, grants awarded and employees, according to its data. NALAC is a nonprofit organization funded by the Ford Foundation and Southwest Airlines, among others.

Since 2005, NALAC has annually awarded grants that support Latinx visual artists, cultural exchanges between artists in the U.S. and Central America, and Latinx organizations working in theater, music, or dance. Grants range anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000. The 28-year-old organization also organizes conferences, training workshops, and leadership programs supporting Latinx arts and cultural development.

María López De León, the organization’s executive director, said the NALAC Fund for the Arts is the only grant program in the U.S. that exclusively supports the Latinx arts and culture field. Comparable grant programs offered by organizations such as the Native Arts & Cultures Foundation often include, but do not focus exclusively on Latinx artists, or are regionally specific.

National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures (NALAC) President and CEO María López De Léon
National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures (NALAC) President and CEO María López De Léon Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

“Latino artists receive very little of the funding for the arts in this nation, so NALAC is the place where Latino artists look to to get their work supported,” said De León, whom President Barack Obama appointed to the National Council of the Arts. 

Local artist Sarah Castillo was awarded NALAC’s San Antonio Artist Grant in 2016. She used that money to obtain a dedicated studio space and fund her first solo show, Chicana Feelings, currently on view at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center until Jan. 19.

“It’s a rewarding feeling to be given that opportunity and recognition,” she said. “It … makes me feel more like a professional artist because someone has given me money, and they’re trusting me to produce the work.

“There’s a lot of trust involved in that compromise. I think it’s really helped me feel more solid in my practice, and more confident.”

In an effort to bring diversity and inclusion to the arts world by advocating for policy that supports Latinx artists at the federal level, NALAC hired Garza as its database and digital media specialist to demonstrate the impact of Latinx artists in the U.S.

“I help make a good foundation for the cases that we’re trying to put at the forefront with our representatives,” said Garza, who previously interned with NALAC. “Those numbers that are basically the proof that the Latinx art field makes a difference in the U.S., let different cultures be represented at the table.”

NALAC was founded by arts leaders across the country including Marta Moreno Vega, founder of the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute in New York, and Pedro Rodriguez, former executive director of the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center. Representing different ethnicities of the Latinx diaspora, they felt there was a need for a service organization dedicated to supporting Latinx artists in the U.S., De León said.

NALAC moved into its current headquarters in 2002 and purchased the building in 2005. In 2011, the organization bought the adjoining Buena Vista Gardens, which used to be a landmark dance hall and community center serving the Westside since the 1930s.

The annex building to NALAC headquarters.
The former Buena Vista Gardens on the city’s Westside will soon become NALAC’s headquarters. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Buena Vista Gardens was part of a Westside tradition of beneficencias, community events that raised funds for neighborhood causes such as paying for funerals or providing temporary shelter for the homeless. The former dance hall will soon become NALAC’s new headquarters and a classroom space.

“… Latino organizations across the country … are not resourced fully,” De León said. “Think about the communities that they serve, and their growing demographic.”

NALAC’s database illustrates the profile of this demographic by tracking what type of art contemporary Latinx artists are making and where they are from.

“The types of projects are definitely varied,” Garza said. “There is a lot of theater happening [and] dance is on the rise. Arts education is also a big trend, a little bit of arts healing too.”

According to Garza’s database, the cumulative total of grants awarded has increased nearly three times since 2005, with a growing number of grants awarded for theater, media arts, and multidisciplinary art in recent years.

The majority of grant awardees hail from California, Texas, and New York, according to NALAC’s data. The most funded cities are San Antonio, Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco.

“We really want to help strengthen and build the visibility and capacity of the Latino arts field here in this nation,” De León said. “We’re seeing the response in the many hundreds of applications we receive and support.”

“Most people in the arts are used to dealing with problem solving in an iterative way, so  [they] want to keep refining and editing and improving,” Owen said, “That’s just the way arts people think. Everyone wants to gather data, even the people who don’t like numbers— so they know what they can do better.”

When it comes to managing a database about contemporary Latinx artists in the U.S., Garza can not imagine a better home for his work.

“Why not San Antonio?” Garza said. “It isn’t the archetypal mecca that Los Angeles or New York City are, but San Antonio is a crossroads where most people who are pursuing a dream … see it blossom and prosper.”

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Emily Royall

Emily Royall is the Rivard Report's former data director.