The Legacy Project brings the Museo de las Americas full circle to honor local legends

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It all began with a photograph, taken more than thirty years ago on an auspicious occasion. It pictures a smiling who's who of a generation of Chicano artists working in Denver in the late 1970s, and at their center, seated on a couch, the great Mexican artist Francisco Zuñiga. He'd been brought to Denver by local art patrons Luis and Martha Abarca, who'd made their fortune in the food business. Luis died last year; his wife preceded him in death.

See also: - Elder Statesmen - Viva Chicano History - Paint the Town Brown

"They were great supporters of the Chicano artists, and they would hire them to do work and buy their art," notes Maruca Salazar, director of the Museo de las Americas. "Abarca brought him to Denver, and hosted this early salon to expose the local artists to a maestro of Mexican art, to talk about the aesthetic of the Americas, and why it was important to have that cultural voice.

"When I saw that photograph," she continues, "I said, this is what legacy means: It means thirty years of working against the grain, with an art community that does not believe the Chicano has a particular aesthetic."

Remembering those times through the photograph, Salazar sought to find a way to honor the artists who'd worked against all odds, producing more salable work to keep food on the table. That generation, she says, paved the way for younger generations of Chicano artists who now delve more deeply into their Mestizo roots. And now they are the focus of The Legacy Project, an exhibit showcasing the artists who posed with Zuñiga in what was an incredible opportunity. The show -- featuring work by John Encinias, John Flores, Ernie Gallegos, Arlette Lucero, Stevon Lucero, Carlos Martinez, Emanuel Martinez, Daniel Salazar, Carlos Sandoval and others -- opens tonight for a run through the end of May. "You really see what was the focus of those Chicanos," she says. "The beauty of their work shows. Even though they had to use westernized techniques, the Chicanismo came through by way of the subject matter portrayed.

"Many of those people went on to do amazing things for the Chicano movement, and their aesthetic is now the standard of excellence. This is about the people who started it, the people who should be called maestros, yet are still struggling to be understood and accepted today. The people whose works are not in the Denver Art Museum, yet are part of collections all over the world."

For Salazar, it's more than just a show. The Legacy Project also marks a new shift in the Museo's goals for the future. "The Museo has forgotten what the mission was a long time ago," she explains. "With me at the helm, the idea is to bring back a fine art component. This exhibit honors local talent. I've found that the older you get, the more focused and grounded you become. I'm not trying to impress anyone, anymore. I don't have to be cool -- I have to be real.

"The one thing we have done is we have neglected our own talent. I have no ego in terms of not honoring my peers. Now I'm going to honor their essence, because nobody else has bothered to do it," she concludes. "This museum is for them, for the people."

Meet the artists from 6 to 9 p.m. tonight at the opening reception for The Legacy Project at the Museo.

Find information on hundreds of other arts and entertainment events in our online Calendar.

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