The Collectors: Gilberto Cárdenas & Dolores Garcia
The pioneering collectors own thousands of examples of Latino and Chicano art, a significant portion of which the couple donated to the Blanton Museum of Art at The University of Texas at Austin
As pioneering collectors of Latino and Chicano art, Gilberto Cárdenas and Dolores Garcia have long advocated for cultural institutions nationwide to embrace this work as an essential part of the American story. Earlier this year, the couple—both of Mexican descent—bestowed more than 6,000 of the over 7,000 artworks in their larger collection to the Blanton Museum of Art at The University of Texas at Austin, near their home, where bold pieces in various media reverberate across every wall and tabletop. “I learned to collect the artists as much as the artwork,” says Cárdenas.
As an activist and photographer documenting the Chicano Movement during his undergraduate studies at California State University, Los Angeles, Cárdenas began saving posters used in demonstrations supporting farmworkers and traded his photos with artists for their prints and drawings. Later, he became an influential sociology professor at UT Austin, then assistant provost at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, consistently examining the Latino immigrant experience through the prism of art.
“When you work with Gil, there are always art projects involved—it’s contagious,” says Garcia, who attended UT Austin, where she returned to work in 1988 and collaborated with Cárdenas on Latino programs. Together, they have continued Cárdenas’s practice of commissioning portfolios by artists, including Liliana Wilson and Malaquías Montoya (a witness at the collectors’ 2008 wedding), to give as gifts to friends.
“The Cárdenas collection is invaluable because of the mixture of historical and contemporary artworks it contains,” says Vanessa Davidson, the Blanton’s curator of Latin American art, who helped recruit Claudia Zapata for the museum’s first curatorial position specializing in Latino art as part of a broad initiative inspired by the acquisition. “It really positions us as a beacon in the field for the study and display of Latino art.”
In two galleries now dedicated to rotating exhibitions drawn from this trove, Zapata has organized “Unbreakable,” on view through December 3, with feminist works by artists such as Juana Alicia, Diane Gamboa, and Kathy Vargas that highlight survival in the face of migration, poverty, misogyny, and genocide. “Gilberto and Dolores wanted the collection to go to a place where it would be continuously used and debated,” says Davidson. “It challenges us to expand our definition of American art.”
A version of this article first appeared in print in our 2023 Spring Issue under the headline “Creative Minds.” Subscribe to the magazine.