How a UTEP Librarian Became a Latino Art Collector

Originally published November 14, 2014

By Kristopher Rivera / UTEP News Service

Three locks on the white, paint-chipped door to Juan Sandoval’s flat secure his treasures. The red brick building housing his apartment is a stone’s throw away from The University of Texas at El Paso, with Juárez neighborhoods and Juárez Mountains as a backdrop.

Sandoval, a UTEP librarian since 1981, opens the front door and makes his way up a steep staircase. Its walls are embellished with framed paintings, and paper-mache alebrijes – brightly colored Mexican folk art sculptures of fantastical creatures – dangle from the ceiling of the stairway. Also hung along the walls are Sandoval’s bicycles – his main mode of transport, as he does not possess a driver’s license.

Juan Sandoval, pictured in his home, has collected more than 1,000 Latino artworks. Photo courtesy of Kristopher Rivera.
Juan Sandoval, pictured in his home, has collected more than 1,000 Latino artworks. Photo courtesy of Kristopher Rivera.

Up the stairs and to the left reveals his eclectic and extensive art collection of works by local and international artists such as Manuel Acosta, Marta Arat, Francisco Delgado, Gaspar Enriquez, Luis Jiménez, Carmen Lomas Garza, Francisco Toledo, Nahum Zeñil, Marta Chapa and others, many who have become his friends.

“I’ve been very lucky that I generally meet, for some reason, good persons, good humans, and a lot of them happen to be creative,” Sandoval said. “I don’t necessarily like a lot of the things I buy, but I bought them just to help (the artists) out. Then they kind of take off. Many of them have gone on to have very successful careers. So that benefits me.”

Sandoval’s short, husky frame carefully maneuvers around his flat in his usual uniform: a black button-up shirt, black Levi 501s, white sneakers and designer glasses.

“[People] must think, ‘Oh, that poor little old man on his folding bicycle, he can’t afford a car,” Sandoval said with a smile.

Sandoval owns more than 1,000 works of art, which he said have increased in value both monetarily and culturally.

He doesn’t expect to receive any compensation for the work because he plans to leave it as a legacy: the Juan A. Sandoval Collection.

“A lot of art was not acquired with the idea of benefitting materially; it was purchased for the purpose of helping artists who were having a rough time,” Sandoval said.

A tiny painting by Pavel Acevedo from Oaxaca, Mexico hangs in his personal library.

When Acevedo received his visa and missed his flight to Mexico City, his first visit to the U.S. was to Sandoval’s home. Immigration had taken so long, Acevedo’s wife had to leave before him. To save money, Acevedo asked to stay with Sandoval until he could catch a flight the next day.

“So I went to the bridge and met him; he slept on my couch,” Sandoval said. “When he walked in you could see how proud he was to view one of his works of art hanging in a private home. He had never seen his work displayed in anybody’s home before.”

Acevedo and his wife now reside in Riverside, California, and his career is doing very well, Sandoval said.

Two years ago, Sandoval was in Oaxaca, Mexico – which he considers his second home – and met up with a friend at La Bastida, where working artists display their art.

“He said, ‘Juanito, ayúdame (help me). I have to buy shoes for my kid. Why don’t you buy this painting?’” Sandoval said. “I really didn’t care for it. It was the Virgin de la Soldedad, the patron saint of Oaxaca. I went ahead and bought it and two days later he says, ‘Juanito, you don’t know how that helped me. I bought my son shoes, now he can go to school looking okay.’”

On another occasion, Sandoval bought some other items from the same artist who offered him two serigraphs by an Oaxacan artist who has enjoyed success in San Francisco, Sandoval said.

“He said, ‘Pues (well), give me 200 pesos for each one.’ That’s $20,” Sandoval said. “I walked into a gallery in Oaxaca and there were two of his lithographs. One was selling for $1,700 and one for $2,000. I didn’t even know who he was. So I have all these fortunate encounters or accidents.”

In his book, art historian Jorge Vargas refers to Sandoval as an important collector of Latino art.

Vargas also considers actor-comedian Cheech Marin an important collector of Latino art. Marin’s large art collection traveled throughout the country and was featured by the El Paso Museum of Art.

Sandoval believes his art collection is much more extensive. He lends out his art to museums and galleries outside of El Paso, but soon he will have to find a permanent home for the artistic legacy he will leave behind.

“When you first buy art, you start buying many disparate items and as your knowledge and taste becomes more sophisticated, you realize that there should be a focus,” Sandoval said. “I decided to build a collection of Latino and Hispanic art which could be left as a cultural legacy to some organization that would make it available to Hispanics in general.”

Sandoval would like for young people to have future opportunities to experience his art collection.

Adair Margo owned the Adair Margo Gallery in El Paso for 25 years and sold Sandoval many works.

“Once, over a lifetime, when you’ve collected, you just end up with this treasure of a collection which not only tells you about so many different people and what was important to them, the artist and who they represented and what they did,” Margo said. “But it also tells you something about Juan Sandoval, the person. So it is a treasure, it’s invaluable.”

Margo is the founder of the Tom Lea Institute, an organization that promotes the work of one of the region’s most famous artists.

“Juan’s collection, it is important to the Latino world, but it’s also important for the whole world,” Margo said. “Juan is an example of the perfect collector. He didn’t have a lot of money to spend. He got to know artists, he got to know galleries.”

Sandoval bought art at many art benefits. He said he is always in debt to artists who allow him to make payments for their work.

Eduardo Díaz, executive director of the Smithsonian Latino Center, stopped by the El Paso Museum of Art in January 2014 for the opening of the Gaspar Enríquez show and saw a sample of Sandoval’s Latino art collection. The Juan Sandoval Art Collection had 24 pieces on exhibit at the El Paso Museum of Art between September 2013 and February 2014.

He also knew of Sandoval after meeting him at the Latino Art Now Conference in Washington D.C. at the Smithsonian in early November 2013.

He said Sandoval plays an important part in the total ecology of collecting Latino art.

“These collectors recognized instantly the importance of collecting the work because they have the consciousness, they were committed to the community to such an extent that they viewed it was important to collect the work and keep it in a way that would preserve it for posterity,” Díaz said.

He added that Sandoval recognizes the inherent value of the art and the artists themselves.

“At a time, Latino art itself was flying way below the radar, nobody was considering it,” Díaz said. “Latino art was considered that of the other, a little bit exotic in some kind of form, when in fact it’s not.”

Díaz added that since Latinos comprise 17 percent of the U.S. population, and are the majority in places like El Paso, this art is part of the mainstream.

“It’s pretty clear that Latino art is part of American art … it is American art first and foremost,” Díaz said. “It just happens to be worked on by Gaspar Enríquez, Carlos Ramon Garza, Cesar Martinez or whatever artist is in Juan’s collection.”

In early December 2014, Díaz will visit Sandoval’s home to view his collection.

“I have been a reluctant art collector all of my life,” Sandoval said. “I didn’t go out of my way to buy art. Art came to me and, by buying art from people I knew or who were sent to me, I was fortunate and built up a legacy which I will leave to some deserving organization.”