Cheech Marin at “The Cheech,” in front of Cande Aguilar’s work “El Verde,” a multimedia painting with transfers on multi-panels (photo by Carlos Puma courtesy of Riverside Art Museum, 2022)

Comedian and art collector Cheech Marin to speak on his collection and the creation of “The Cheech” Museum of Chicano Art and Culture of the Riverside Art Museum

Since the 1970s, Cheech Marin has been an American pop culture icon for his work as one half of the legendary comic duo Cheech and Chong. Marin today enjoys an equally high profile as an art collector, a passion which culminated in June 2022 with the opening of the Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art & Culture of the Riverside Art Museum in Riverside, California, popularly known as “The Cheech.”

On April 4, the Kansas City audience can learn more about this groundbreaking museum and the art it contains, when Marin comes to The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art to deliver the annual Mary Atkins Lecture. The visit complements the current exhibition “A Layered Presence,” featuring the work of 22 local Latinx artists.

Marin’s journey to art collector began innocently enough. When he was in elementary school his older cousins organized activities to keep the siblings busy.

“My cousin Louie assigned us a topic to learn about and bring back to the group…,” Marin said in a recent interview. “I got assigned art. I thought ‘how do you go finding about art?’ Well, you go to the library and look at art books. And I really enjoyed it. That was my distinction from everybody else that I knew. I had this little passion for art.”

Marin also had the advantage of parents who promoted the importance of a college education and the opportunity available to those motivated to pursue it.

“My parents and uncles were born in this country. The expectation for them was to strive as much as they could and somehow maybe make a living, maybe go to college, but their kids were going to go to college. That was pounded into us from the beginning… We grew up under the assumption we were going to be educated and that we were part of the mainstream.”

In Los Angeles, Marin had access to a host of libraries and museums like the Museum of Natural History and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

He admits that at first, he made no cultural connections beyond those of his Catholic upbringing. “I would go to my church and look up to the ceiling, and there are all these guys in sheets running around and in the clouds. I wondered, ‘Why are they barbecuing that guy in the corner?’ Right away my Mexican nature… was intrigued by the bloody aspect of it. Wow, there is a lot of sacrifice going on in this painting.”

His curiosity led him to question how a culture displays itself. “I started studying that and it led to other art things. Now I was in the world of art that was influenced by a lot of people and other cultures… You begin to understand from what side of the narrative the story is being told. As I started delving into it deeper and coming of age, especially going to college, I found there were other points of view, other ways of interpreting different things. That was really intriguing to me.

Surprisingly, art was not the career he pursued. “Back in those times it was taken for granted that we came with a Mexican background and all that cultural heritage. What was interesting in the late ’60s is how we found a way to interpret that and feed it to the mainstream and let them know we were here.”

That expression found its form in comedy. Marin met Tommy Chong in Canada, where he moved to avoid the Vietnam draft. The duo had plodded along developing a comedy routine in venues across Canada. He recalls when the big break came.

“I was doing the Pedro de Papas character; we were doing it in another skit, two guys sitting in a car. Between shows one day we saw these guys driving by, low riders and they were asking us questions and they cracked us up with their mannerisms. Tommy turned to me and said, ‘Hey man, when we do that bit do it as that guy.’ We did it and the crowd reacted… and they came around to what we were doing. It connected, because not only was it a part of our culture, but it was part of their culture too. We said, ‘Well this is it man. We did it.’ It’s like a bomb went off.”

Interior view of the Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art & Culture of the Riverside Art Museum (courtesy of the Riverside Art Museum)

The critical and financial success from a series of albums and films made it possible for Marin to pursue his art passion as a collector. The collection kept growing till it became a logistical problem. “You are at a point where you have amassed this collection and I was like, ‘I can’t keep it under the bed or in the closet, so what do you do with it?’”

When it came time to decide, Marin admits he had no clue, and it was only through a cosmic alignment of desire, need, opportunity and good old counterculture providence that he had the answer.

A show of works on paper from the collection was on view at the Riverside Museum. “There was great attendance at Riverside,” Marin said. “I was thinking we belong here somewhere, and I was trying to figure out how to do it.”

He considered distributing the collection among different museums that had shown and expressed enthusiasm for it. “While I was thinking of doing this is I got this offer from Riverside. I didn’t understand it at first. “You want me to buy a museum? I’m doing ok but I don’t know that I’m museum rich.’” Instead, they explained, “We want you to give us the collection and we’ll give you a permanent home for it.”

Marin faced a dilemma. “Ok, I was looking for a sign that I should do this. They want the whole collection, and I have to give it to them . . . That is a tough one. I asked them one time offhandedly, “So how big is this museum? What is the square footage of it?’ When they told me it was 66,420 square feet, I said, ‘4/20 (a reference to marijuana). It’s the sign, man. Thank you, God, for the sign, man.’”

When the museum opened the Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art & Culture of the Riverside Art Museum he was flabbergasted. “I had been to openings for the collection before . . . but this was great because this was the first Chicano Art Museum. There was a review in the Los Angeles Times by the critic Christopher Knight. It was like the dam bursting . . . He really gave us glowing articles, and that was a turning point.”

The museum was a great opportunity to reciprocate the goodwill he had received from the community. “Ever since I was a little kid and I made that record ‘Amorcito Corazon,’ me this little kid that could sing with a little squeaky voice but on tune… the Chicano community has supported everything that I have ever done… This was my gift back to the community.”

Marin retains a small portion of his collection as a bequest for his children. “They are smaller works, more personal to me, and there are some that I’ll eventually give to the museum or as gifts to my kids, because I do want to leave them something.”

His talk at the Nelson will include an introduction to Chicano art followed by a Q&A. “I think that is a really easy way for an audience to find out what they want to know.”

One thing he wants to emphasize is that the Chicano art movement is a continuing process. “The art world wants to break it down into little bite-size pieces, saying, ‘The Chicano movement started in 1968 and was over by 1973. Now it’s moving into the neo-Chicano phase.’” Marin bristles at the segmentation. “This movement is in its fourth generation and the artists are interpreting the culture as they see it in their neighborhoods.

“What I am seeing is the influence of Chicano artists on other artists, who are not necessarily Chicano,” he added. “They incorporate the influence of Chicano culture… The ability to fuse all these influences from different cultures is happening at a rapid speed right now… because of the internet. It’s like learning to speak another language perfectly but with your own accent.”

Marin says that he will never stop collecting for the simple reason that it is always surprising. “The greatest joy of collecting is that you are astounded by a new kind of work, no matter how much you’ve seen. You stand in front of a piece, and you go ‘Wow, man.’”

Cheech Marin will give the Mary Atkins Lecture at 7 p.m. April 4 at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak St. For more information, 816.751.1278 or

José Faus

José Faus (He,Him) is a visual artist, performer, writer, independent teacher/mentor with an interest in the role of artists as creative catalysts for community building. He received degrees from the University of Missouri at Kansas City in painting and creative writing. He is a founder of the Latino Writers Collective.

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