Located on a six-and-one-half-acre site on Lady Bird Lake near downtown Austin, Texas, the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center (ESB-MACC) provides a venue for Mexican-American-themed visual and performing arts. The complex consists of a 30,000-square-foot facility with classrooms, exhibit galleries, and performance space as well as a 22,000-square-foot outdoor plaza. In November 2011 the center was rededicated in honor of Austin cultural arts leader and political activist Emma S. Barrientos, who died in 2009.
Conceived in the late 1970s by a group of artists and cultural leaders who wanted a venue for displaying and teaching Mexican American art and culture, the ESB-MACC project progressed slowly. Although the city of Austin created a series of task forces beginning in the mid-1980s and dedicated the downtown site to the cultural center in 1993, recurring economic downturns delayed construction until early 2006.
The project’s funding came from a combination of municipal bonds and private donations. After rejecting a proposed bond issue in 1992, Austin voters approved $10.9 million in bonds in 1998 and an additional $5 million in bonds in 2007 for the facility. The first fundraising campaign, with a goal of $40 million, began in 2001. In 2005 the city of Austin used a $1.5 million federal grant to fund the center’s engineering and construction contracts. The design contract cost $1.8 million. Originally scheduled to begin in 2003, construction began in January 2006, a few months after the 2005 ceremonial ground breaking. During the two-year delay, construction costs increased by almost a third.
Mexican architect Teodoro González de León designed the center with CasaBella Architects of Austin serving as the project architects and Solis Constructors, Inc., as the construction contractor. The cultural center’s 2000 master plan contained three phases. The first phase, which cost $16 million, included the classrooms, exhibit space, and theater that opened in 2007. The architecture has white concrete panels embedded with marble aggregate and large windows. Austin American-Statesman architecture critic Jeanne Claire von Ryzin described the design as a type of “international modernism” with subtle references to “meso-American” forms. Since its opening, the ESB-MACC has hosted exhibits by local, regional, and national artists as well as provided educational programs in visual and performance arts, including a Latino Arts residency program.