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Son takes over mother’s legacy at Latino Art Museum

by Andrew Alonzo | aalonzo@claremont-courier.com
Coinciding with the day it opened 20 years ago, the Latino Art Museum in Pomona reopened on Saturday after shutting down due to COVID-19 restrictions a year and five months ago. Although about 100 people came to witness the historic gallery’s reopening, LAM founder and former director, Graciela Nardi, was not there for the milestone. Sadly, she passed away in December 2020.

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But cutting the gold ribbon on Saturday was the museum’s newest director, her son Matias Nardi, 42, who agreed to take the torch from his mother shortly before her passing.
“She was a person that was for the people,” Mr. Nardi said. “After her passing, I had thousands and thousands of messages about her and a lot of the messages…some were the usual ‘my condolences’ but so many others were in-depth paragraphs of people explaining how much she helped them and gave them an opportunity to even birth their art career or exhibit for the first time.”
Moving from Argentina to the United States in 1985, Graciela opened a small café in Louisiana, the Café del Arte, where she displayed local artists’ work and invited musical acts to perform. Mr. Nardi said, “It was interesting to think that was the foreshadowing of what would happen years later with the museum.”
In the early ’90s, his father landed a job as a professor at Cal Poly Pomona, and the family relocated to Claremont. Ms. Nardi later met David Pion-Berlin, a secretary on the museum’s board of directors for the last 10 years.
“She had her museum in Claremont for a very short time, maybe a year, and that’s where I met her. I walked in and asked if she would like to exhibit one of my paintings, she said sure,” Mr. Pion-Berlin, who is still a Claremont resident, said. “She was so generous and so wonderful. She had the ability to connect with so many artists around the world…and it’s just devastating to lose her.”
In August 2001—just two months after earning her bachelor’s degree from the University of La Verne—Ms. Nardi founded the Latino Art Museum in Pomona. Her son said that after receiving her diploma, his mother started thinking about either owning another gallery or becoming an art teacher at an art school.
“I think that the concept of marrying a gallery and the art school kind of birthed the concept of the museum,” he said. “Whether it was an artist there displaying their work or a musician there performing, she was the biggest cheerleader for everybody.” In addition, Pomona was a great location to establish the museum, as the only other Latin American arts museum was located 46 miles away in Long Beach.
According to a news release, “Through her community activism and kindness, Graciela became known as the ‘Madrina’ or godmother of the Pomona Arts Colony.” As she steered the art museum in its infancy, she also attained her master’s in fine arts in 2003 from University of La Verne. She created her own art, helped the community learn art through the museum’s classes and displayed thousands of original works from artists across Southern California.
In September 2020 during his mother’s birthday, Mr. Nardi noticed she had lost weight and was not looking as well as she did earlier in the year. In October 2020, Ms. Nardi was diagnosed with cancer and given just two months to live. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, no one was allowed to visit relatives at the hospital so the Nardis spoke over the phone separated by the window of her first floor room. Two weeks before her passing, her son was granted an opportunity to be at her side as a translator since the hospital did not have a Spanish-speaking doctor.
He seized the opportunity to actually be next to her and they had a 12-hour discussion about life and about how to proceed with the museum.
“She said, ‘look as far as the museum goes, I know you do all these other things in Los Angeles and this is not your main business…I don’t want to impose onto you for you to have to carry this on. However, I would love to see the museum carried on in some way,’” he explained. She also said, “’See what you can do. At the most, what I’ll tell you is just try. As long as you try and it doesn’t work out, you can at least say you tried. But if you don’t try at all…then that would make me sad.’”
Mr. Nardi works as a music producer, songwriter, DJ and event coordinator in the greater Los Angeles area, but rather than putting that on hold, he added being the directorship of the LAM to his schedule.
“Even though this is totally out of my field, I’m going to figure this out…It’s the least I can do for everything that she’s done for me and my life,” he said. “And I have to honor her. I have to come through because I would have personally felt like a failure if I did not come through for her.”
Mr. Nardi designed the original ‘LAM’ logo when he was 19 and helped his mother schedule performers for concerts the museum hosted in the past.
With the help of his local and international DJ friends and the online streaming service Twitch, he hosted a 24-hour concert in March, which generated $10,000 in donations, more than enough to pay off the museum’s debt.
Mr. Nardi is already formulating new ideas for what is to come, including more live and interactive performances. One thing he said will not change is the museum’s dedication to supporting local artists.
“I’m going to try and push the envelope forward as far as taking the foundation she already created, and putting my twist on it now of keeping a balance between the traditions that she created for it, and adding in a younger energy into it as well.”
The Latino Art Museum is located at 281 South Thomas Street, inside the Historic Founders Building in the Pomona Arts Colony. Patrons can support the museum by donating online or by purchasing artwork from the late founder and other artists currently on display. For more information, call the museum at (909) 766-0169.

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