The Museum of Latin American Art is planning a $60 million expansion that could take up to five years to complete, museum CEO Lourdes Ramos said—but the first phase could start soon, thanks to a $10 million state grant.

She says the funding “means the future of MOLAA.”

After 28 years in its East Village location and a previous expansion that was completed about 15 years ago, the museum is ready to grow up and out: The overall project will add a second story to the main building and expand the facility’s footprint toward Seventh Street.

The changes will also enlarge the museum’s education space, create a new theater with 200 to 300 seats for lectures and programs, rebuild and upgrade storage for MOLAA’s nearly 1,400-piece collection, create new garden spaces, and incorporate water and energy efficiency into the design.

“The vision is to take the museum to the next level,” said Ramos, who has headed MOLAA since 2017.

Guests browse the collection at MOLAA on Thursday, Sept. 28, 2023. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

“With this expansion, there’s no doubt that we’re going to extend the influence” and public awareness of both the museum and the city it calls home, she said.

Storied site

Some Long Beach residents may know the long and noteworthy history of the museum’s location. According to a timeline put together by MOLAA docents, the building that now houses the galleries was originally built around 1910 as part of one of the first West Coast movie studios, which turned out a number of silent films. In 1929, after the studio closed, two of its buildings were converted to an indoor roller skating rink and auditorium with a pipe organ.

The rink’s popularity waned by the 1950s, and the site sat abandoned until health care magnate Dr. Robert Gumbiner bought it around 1975, turning it into medical offices where he also displayed items from his collection of Latin American art.

After retiring from the healthcare industry, Gumbiner devoted himself to growing what had been a mini gallery in his medical offices into a full-fledged (but still small) museum; MOLAA’s first incarnation opened in 1996. Already looking to go bigger, Gumbiner chose an architect and spent years planning a major renovation and expansion project–adding the current facade, lobby and gift shop–which was unveiled to the public in 2007.

MOLAA in Long Beach, Thursday, Sept. 28, 2023. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

Since its opening, the museum has broadened its focus beyond fine art from Spanish-speaking Latin American countries to include work from Chicano and Latino artists in the U.S.

MOLAA bills itself as the only U.S. museum “dedicated to modern and contemporary Latin American and Latino Art,” and Griselda Suarez, who teaches in the Chicano and Latino studies dept at Cal State Long Beach, agrees that it’s unique.

“MOLAA is really the only museum institution dedicated to all the Latine representations under the umbrella in the United States,” said Suarez, who also serves as executive director of the Arts Council for Long Beach.

“This is the only space for that, so they fill a large role in the country, not just in Southern California.”

Phased expansion

This summer, state Sen. Lena Gonzalez’s office announced the award of $10 million in state funding for MOLAA, which Ramos said will help get the first phase of the expansion underway. A building retrofit and expansion of the research center and education facilities will be among the earliest projects.

That will allow the museum to serve more students, which was good news to Christine Whipp, the visual and performing arts coordinator for the Long Beach Unified School District.

Am artist’s rendering of the proposed expansion of MOLAA in Long Beach, Thursday, Sept. 28, 2023. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

A grant-funded program makes it possible for every fifth-grader in the district to visit MOLAA, where they take a tour tailored to their age group and do hands-on art activities, and the museum also offers “educator nights” to help teachers of any subject learn how to incorporate art into their lessons.

But student programs are often booked out for months, and Whipp said the events for teachers are popular and fill up fast.

Some students may not have been to an art museum before, so it’s important that they can go to one that’s in their town and is culturally relevant to their families or friends and neighbors, Whipp said.

“Museums are pretty rarefied spaces,” she said. “We want to change that. We want it to be viewed as a place where everyone is welcome and it’s part of their community.”

As soon as the state disburses the $10 million in funding, museum officials will move ahead with completing the project design, building the first phase and raising money for the later phases of expansion, MOLAA Vice President of Content, Innovation & Outreach Solimar Salas said.