After nearly 40 years as president and CEO, Carlos Tortolero is stepping down from the National Museum of Mexican Art Dec. 31. Credit: Provided

PILSEN — Carlos Tortolero is stepping down as the head of the National Museum of Mexican Art after nearly 40 years at its helm.

Tortolero is retiring Dec. 31 from his role as president and CEO of the Pilsen-based museum he helped found. He said he’s looking forward to a retirement filled with writing, consulting work and spending time with his 2-year-old grandson.

“There comes a time when you need to say, ‘It’s time,'” he said. “And it’s the perfect time. We’re doing so well, and we have a great board and great staff.”

Tortolero was part of the team of educators who founded the museum in 1982, when it was called the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum. It opened its doors in 1987 at 1852 W. 19th St., and Tortolero has led it ever since.

The National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen on Nov. 15, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

The dream was to create a space to showcase and teach “the richness” of Mexican culture, Tortolero said. Over the years, people have told him a museum like this deserves be Downtown, but Tortolero said that would have defeated its purpose.

“It’s because you don’t understand what we’re trying to do,” he said he would tell people. “It’s not like we want to be Downtown, and we couldn’t get the space. No — my belief is it has to be in the community. It’s important that we had a home for Mexican culture.”

Maintaining free admission to the museum was one of the ways its art and education have been accessible to everyone, Tortolero said.

“The first thing that gets cut from schools is arts, so being free was always essential,” he said.

When Tortolero gets asked by other museum leaders how the museum remains free, he said he tells them it’s simple: “Just make it a priority.”

The Board of Trustees already started the search for the museum’s new president.

“I really believe the new person will take the museum into even greater things,” Tortolero said. “I always believe the people that come after me are going to do better than I have. The museum comes first, not my ego. I want the culture to flourish. I want the museum to flourish.”

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