The following article written several years ago, offers a vignette of one of the most important art collectors of our time in El Paso, Texas. El Pasoans will now have to visit Austin to see a collection we lost because of unfortunate decisions by city leaders.
By Miguel Juárez
Collecting is a disease you’re born with. But it you’ve got the cure, stay away from El Pasoan and collector Juan Sandoval. Sandoval, a librarian with the University of Texas at El Paso Library, lives inside a work of art. Several years ago, visitors to his Sunset Heights apartment were greeted at the door with an elaborately painted Italian fountain, which Sandoval brought back from a European trip. Visitors often joked tongue-in-cheek that if the fountain contained water, they’d reach into it, dip their fingers and bless themselves before entering Sandoval’s artistic sanctum. Since then, Sandoval has moved to two separate addresses and each time, his collection which is comprised of over 1,000 paintings, sculptural objects, books, design objects, prints, music, etc. has moved with him, until this year when he donated his collection.
Artwork used to hang throughout Juan’s entire apartment, which itself, had been the subject of numerous writings. Writer Jeff Harter once wrote that Sandoval’s apartment “has become a pack-rat celebration of global culture,” and that “people who die at cultural events probably go to a heaven resembling Juan’s apartment, though perhaps a tad more spacious.”
The collector, of Ute-Apache-Spanish-French and Irish descent, was born in El Valle de San Luis in Montevista, Colo., to a family of eleven. He attended school in Denver and moved to El Paso in 1981 after working at the University of Oregon in Eugene. In the following quote Sandoval traces the origins of his collecting growing up in a humble family:
When it comes to collecting, you don’t have to be rich, you don’t have to have a lot of money, but if you have a good eye, you can collect all kinds of interesting things. When I was young, I collected rocks. We didn’t have much. I collected interesting sticks. I collected leaves. I remember many years ago, one of my sisters made me bury my rock collection. It was extensive, yet I know exactly where those rocks are located in Colorado.
Sandoval began developing his art collection in 1964 by purchasing an artist proof from a friend in college. Sandoval says that even as a student, everyone would visit his apartment even then even though he was very poor. The collector stated:
I used to pay $45 rent, but I always had a knack for making my place look interesting. The furniture was raggedly but I covered it with nice fabric and cloths. I had my Picasso, Blue Period posters and leaves and everything hanging. And all the kids would bring their parents when their parents came to visit to see my little humble apartment. It’s kind of embarrassing, but they always liked what I did.
In 1971, Sandoval, in a conscious effort to lead an “ecological existence,” decided not to purchase and maintain an automobile, and instead use that money to buy art. Sandoval said he has always bought books and art, even before he bought food. And his apartments always became centers similar to Gertude Stein’s, like little salons where everyone used to hang out. “I didn’t have a television for years, until I came to El Paso and an Iranian gave me a black and white television and he ruined my life,” Sandoval said. Sandoval says he could have done a lot of traveling, he could have bought nice clothing, but for over twenty years, he had dedicated his life to collecting art.
Sandoval’s collection is diverse. He has mainly concentrated on the Mexican-American/Chicano/Hispano experience eventually expanding into other Latin American artists. His major holdings include Mayolica and Talavera pottery from Puebla, Mexico, and substantial works by Latin American and Chicano artists and photographers such as: Francisco Zuniga, Corky Gonzalez, Luis Jimenez Jr., Jose Cisneros, Mexican photographer Manuel Carrillo and Oaxacan artists. Sandoval, who says he buys what he likes, authenticates his pieces from exhibit catalogs and books that he also collects. “The late El Paso painter Marta Arat (whose works are also included Sandoval’s collection) said that I have an intuitive sense, everybody says I must have a good eye,” the collector said.
As a collector, Sandoval says, you really have to go your own way. “If I had listened to people, especially to Hispanos, I wouldn’t had bought any of the work that I bought.” Sandoval met Mexican Photographer Manuel Carrillo when Carrillo was almost 80-years-old and he would travel El Paso from Mexico City. Sandoval and Carrillo became good friends and the collector bought 75 of his photographs. He said Carrillo would often tell him:
Juanito, you know that I’m very old and you probably won’t see me again. You won’t have another chance. You better buy some more of my photographs. He kept me in debt for several years.
Sandoval’s most valuable work of art includes a photograph by Andre Kertesz, various Luis Jimenez Jr. prints which have appreciated in value and a one- hundred-year-old Persian rug that has been estimated at $150,000. “But it is hard to place a value on things,” Sandoval says. One of his favorite objects is a paperweight by Chris Busini, which was valued at $3,000. Sandoval said people should buy art intelligently. On collecting art, he stated:
A lot of people will buy a lot of junk, they’ll buy the objects they need in their lives many, many times over. If they’d waited to buy quality items, they’d have them around for the rest of their lives and maybe would have passed them on to their kids.
Among his lithographs, etchings and sculptures, Sandoval also collects autographs. He has also collected objects which some of us may not think of as collectible:
I’ve been invited to so many luncheons with all the premier intellectuals from Mexico—Carlos Fuentes, Jose Luis Cuevas, and many interesting poets and writers. I got some acid-free paper, cut it into a certain format. Wherever I’ve gone, I’ve carried it with me and collected maybe 150 autographs—mostly of Mexican, and Mexican-American writers and artists.
In his quest to display his collection in the best possible light, Sandoval has also transformed his living space into a unique ambiance. With natural light blocked out to protect the artwork, numerous halogen and designer lights located throughout his apartment, bounced off the ceiling, provide the lighting. How does one live a life surrounded by art, the collector stated:
A librarian from Paraguay once told me, as he sat listening to classical music, that I should charge. He said he would pay fifteen dollars to come and enjoy this environment just for fifteen minutes but Antonio Piña-Mora, the Chihuahuan muralist, stated it best, the apartment itself is a unique work of art, but it is a little difficult living in a work of art.
Sandoval said several years ago, he once inquired about insuring his collection and was told that it would cost him about $12,000 a year to insure and it could probably not be totally insured. “The person told me my collection was worth about a million and a half dollars but of course until you sell it, you wouldn’t have the money in your hands,” the collector said.”
Sandoval had hoped to leave his collection to an institution that would make it available to children and to young people. He said that after hundreds of people had visited him in a Tour of Homes, a home style show-case several years ago, a thirty-something woman asked if she could stay longer. “When she finished looking, she said, ‘You know, I used to be ashamed of being Mexican, but just looking around here and seeing all these beautiful Latin American and Chicano objects has been a healing process—that says it all,” Sandoval said.
Update: Sandoval has since retired from UTEP. For years the collector had hoped city leaders would build a Mexican Cultural Arts Center where he could donate his collection. After many visits from potential museums, the collector recently donated his collection to the Mexic-Arte Museum in Austin, Texas. Sandoval said museum staff arrived in a large moving truck, cataloged, packed and then took his collection to Austin.
Sandoval received a gracious thank you letter from Sylvia Orozco, Mexic-Arte Museum Executive Director. We have to thank former city manager Joyce Wilson for only allotting $5 million for a Mexican American Cultural Center in a city with close to an 80% Mexican American population and to the current city council for shoving it into the El Paso Public Library. Sandoval said he lost hope in the City of El Paso creating a world-class Latino Museum and in the process we lost an important art collection built over a life-time. So now in addition to young people leaving El Paso, evidently, so is its art.