Also known as: Marie Acosta-Colon, Marie Acosta Colon
Occupation: Arts administrator
Throughout her life, Marie Acosta-Colón has made a point of getting involved, be it on stage or off. Formerly active in the political theater groups Grupo Mascarones and the San Francisco Mime Troupe , Acosta-Colón has become a prominent advocate for art funding and an experienced arts administrator. She has worked extensively for the California Arts Council and is the head of the Mexican Museum in San Francisco.
Acosta-Colón was born on December 8, 1949, the second of five children in her family. Because her father was in the U.S. Navy, she lived in several states, including Hawaii, but most of her childhood was spent on the West Coast. Her father, Frank Acosta, is Native American; her mother, Beatrice, is Hispanic and a homemaker.
Acosta-Colón's political activism began during her college years when she was a political science major at Los Angeles Valley Junior College in Los Angeles, California. In the summer of 1968, she went to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago as a volunteer for presidential candidate Senator Eugene McCarthy . There she observed the violent police crackdown on anti-Vietnam war demonstrators that alerted the entire nation to the strength of the anti-war sentiment that had been building in the late 1960s. Acosta-Colón recalled that the convention — one of the most violent on record with bloody confrontations occurring between young demonstrators and Chicago police — changed her life. "The values I had grown up with were thrown into question, the beliefs in a government by the people and for the people. It was so obvious there was injustice going on. I came back [to California] and discovered that the politics of the day dictated that I had to become a more active citizen."
Her early life had not prepared her for what she saw in Chicago. "My father was in the service, and when you're in the service, you're not inclined to find other families questioning your government's practices toward other people in your own country. You pretty much believe that government is good, that government is fair and that everything is wonderful." It was then, she decided, that she was going to try and right "social, political, and economic inequities." She switched schools and attended California State University for two years, remaining active in the Chicano student movement .
Mexico , Acosta-Colón says, has always held a special place in her heart. In the summer of 1969, she traveled to Mexico City to study economics at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico. Prior to this time, Acosta-Colón had been thinking about becoming a lawyer. Her Mexican summer altered her decision. "When I saw the discrepancy of poverty and wealth in Mexico, law didn't seem the fix." The young student was repelled by the stark differences , she says, between the "haves and the have-nots." In 1971, she returned to Mexico — she never graduated from college — and became an actress with Grupo Mascarones, a theater group which performed plays with political themes in Mexico and the United States. She remained in Mexico until 1974. Looking back, Acosta-Colón remembers her years there fondly. "It was one of the more vibrant moments of our history. Salvador Allende was in Chile; the Vietnam War was on. It was much more compelling for me to be in Mexico where the theater I was working with was the center for international cross-fertilization of ideas and creativity. We had some of the finest theater directors from Latin America [working with us]."
Because of its limited budget and personnel, the theater group relied on its members to assist with some of the administrative tasks. In 1972, Acosta-Colón became the group's tour coordinator and company manager, responsible for publicity, sales, and booking. In retrospect, Acosta-Colón believes this early experience has given her a unique perspective for her work today. "If I'd gone through graduate school and studied for a business degree, I wouldn't have [the same awareness]. There's a whole other dimension of understanding the arts business if you've been an artist."
In the mid-1970s in the United States, many Chicano theater groups were beginning to gain notoriety. With nearly four years of stage and administrative experience to her credit, Acosta-Colón began to consider returning to America. She heard of work available with a traditional Mexican troupe and with the San Francisco Mime Troupe . She chose the mime troupe, she said in an interview with Carol Hopkins, because of her history in Mexico. "It seemed to me more could be said with an international or mixed perspective than with a culturally specific one. The mime troupe included people from different communities, and the plays were very accessible to a lot [of people]." The Tony Award -winning San Francisco Mime Troupe, known for its strong social commentary, was Acosta-Colón's "family" for eleven years.
For six years she was a performer with the only mime troupe "that talked," said Acosta-Colón. "I had a variety of roles. We weren't given a script and told, "Mold this character.' We had to form the character ourselves." Around this time, Acosta-Colón married. In 1978, her first child, Carlos Antonio Colon, was born. She later had another son, Nicolas. Having a young child made touring extremely difficult, Acosta-Colón stated. While the actress adapted to the changes in her life, fundamental changes were going on inside the mime group as well. The loosely organized troupe realized it needed more structure and decided to separate acting and business responsibilities in order to take pressure off the performers. In 1980 Acosta-Colón became the Troupe's general manager. She served in this capacity until 1985.
During this period, Acosta-Colón began serving on several arts-related panels and boards. In 1980 she was one of the founding members of the Arts Economic Development Consortium of San Francisco . For much of the 1980s she sat on several panels for the California Arts Council . From 1982 to 1984 she was a board member of the People's Coalition in San Francisco . Since 1984, Acosta-Colón has been a member of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters' National Task Force on Presenting and Touring . She continues to serve as a site evaluator for the National Endowment for the Arts as she has since she was first appointed in 1985. Her extensive background in the arts as an administrator, activist, and advocate have made her a valued participant on many boards. Acosta-Colón commented that "a lot of arts advocacy was brewing at the same time I became an administrator."
In 1986 she left the San Francisco Mime Troupe and became project director of the Professional Management Assistance Project, where she designed a statewide technical assistance program for multicultural arts organizations in California . Her work experience continued to grow. After many years of volunteering for the California Arts Council , Acosta-Colón was hired as a special assistant to the director in 1986. While working with the council, she coordinated California Dialogue II, the 1988 statewide conference of multicultural artists. In 1989, officials from San Francisco's Mexican Museum approached Acosta-Colón about becoming the art institute's third director. After some hesitation, she accepted the position. "For me the motivating factor was that this museum represented a unique opportunity for the Latino community," she told Hopkins. "Generally art and culture in this country are all based on Western European traditions. With this museum we have an opportunity of putting into place the contributions of an ethnic-specific community, one that has made great contributions to art and culture in this country."
The museum, located in San Francisco's Marina district, has a 19-member staff which oversees about 9,000 pieces ranging from pre-Columbian to Chicano art. Because space in the building is limited, only a small portion of the museum's collection can be exhibited at any given time. One of the museum's most notable collections belonged to former U.S. vice president and famed millionaire Nelson Rockefeller . During his lifetime of collecting, he sometimes purchased all of a Mexican artist's work at once, thereby obtaining obscure samples of some of Mexico's best craftspeople. After his death, Rockefeller's daughter chose The Mexican Museum as the recipient of his large and diverse collection of folk art. Under Acosta-Colón's leadership, the museum's budget has increased three-fold from around $550,000 to $1.5 million.
Reports indicate that more and more visitors are viewing the many exhibitions held at The Mexican Museum each year. Acosta-Colón is proud of the work she is doing. She strongly believes the Latino community needs a cultural place to call its own. "If people go through a civic or cultural center of a city and ... not see something that reflects them, the sense of ownership and contribution and the sense of belonging aren't the same as for the people who take it for granted. I want the museum to be that for the communities in the United States that emanate from Latin America, Cuba, Spain, Puerto Rico, and Mexico," she declared to Hopkins. Acosta-Colón also acknowledged that the proximity of the cultural institution is also important — to be relevant, it should be located in or near the community whose art it reflects. It has been Acosta-Colón's goal one day to build a new museum in the heart of San Francisco. In 1993 her goal was about to be fulfilled; the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency awarded the museum a new location in the Yerba Buena Gardens district where the new San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Center for the Arts, and other museums are now located. The following year, the museum received $7.5 million from a bond issue, which will be matched by fundraising. In March 1995, world-class Mexican architect Recardo Legorreta was named design architect for the new building, which is expected to open to the public in early 1998.
Acosta-Colón has remained politically active in her community. In 1989, five artists and arts administrators gathered in her kitchen and formed the San Francisco Arts Democratic Club . When asked if she might ever run for an elected office, she noted that people often ask her that question. "I wouldn't rule it out, but I don't see it in the cards. I'm very active in San Francisco politics but very specifically with issues having to do with the arts and trying to encourage legislators to utilize and fund the arts."
Even with cutbacks in the arts nationwide, Acosta-Colón is hopeful about the future. "I think in hard times the arts is often more creative and more responsive and has more of a social conscience than when times are good." Acosta-Colón, a self-described intense worker, is still affiliated with several Bay area committees and boards. She is presently serving as an appointee on the mayor's task force on cultural affairs. In 1991, she was named Woman of the Year by California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown for his district. Even with all of her accomplishments, as she looks to the future, Acosta-Colón considers something she once left behind in the past. She contemplates returning to school to fulfill her dream of becoming a lawyer. She once believed that the law had not corrected many fundamental inequalities in society. While her perception has not changed greatly, Acosta-Colón believes that a law degree would be of great value in her continuing community efforts. She told Hopkins: "If there was anything I could wish for, it would be a fellowship so I could get a law degree. I think I need that in order to continue to contribute at a greater level. That [would give me] the educational validity ... and flexibility I need for what I do next."