For more than four decades, native San Diegan Larry Baza worked tirelessly to ensure that the arts were prioritized and funded at the local, state and national level. He was also a prominent voice in the fight for equal rights for the LGBTQ community.
When he passed away from COVID-19 on February 20, just days short of his 77th birthday, there was an outpouring of love online for Baza as a person and a leader. Dedications came from government and community leaders who described him as an icon, cultural titan, changemaker, dear friend, fearless advocate and the kindest soul.
Heartfelt posts included statements from numerous organizations and civic institutions, from the New Children's Museum and San Diego Airport, mentioning "his commitment to inclusivity," to the La Jolla Playhouse, which said, "Larry dedicated himself fiercely and whole-heartedly to the recognition of the arts as a powerful force for change, as well as to the advancement and awareness of Latino, BIPOC and LGBTQ causes."
Larry dedicated himself fiercely and whole-heartedly to the recognition of the arts as a powerful force for change, as well as to the advancement and awareness of Latino, BIPOC and LGBTQ causes.La Jolla Playhouse
Baza first started working in the arts in the late 1970s as assistant director of the California Educational Theatre Association (CETA), promoting quality theater arts education for high school students. He followed that by becoming the associate director at Sushi Performance & Visual Art and serving as executive director of San Diego County's Public Arts Advisory Council in the '80s.
Proud of his Mexican and Chamorro heritage, Baza's impact across the county was especially felt during the 1990s when he was executive director of the celebrated Centro Cultural de la Raza that works to promote and preserve Chicanx, Latinx and Indigenous art and culture. (Baza actually was born at the naval hospital on Park Boulevard, just across the street from where the center would later stand.)
From 2007 to 2014, he and his husband, Tim Noel, ran the Noel-Baza Fine Art gallery in San Diego's Little Italy to highlight the work of local artists with an emphasis on Latin American art.
For the San Diego LGBTQ community, Baza was a tremendous force, joining the San Diego Pride board in 1990 and co-chairing the event with Vertez Burks two years later, marking the first time two people of color led the event. Baza was among those who were pivotal in making the event and the organization more inclusive — inspiring younger generations to continue to push for change.
At a 2011 rally the day before San Diego Pride, where he was celebrated as a Champion for his involvement in the fight for LGBTQ equality, Baza told the crowd of supporters, "It would be really nice if my dad were around… something momentous is going to happen in the parade tomorrow…there are going to be more than 350 active military marching for the first time."
He mentioned his father served in the Navy and after Baza came out to his parents. He recalled a conversation with his father: "One day [my dad] was talking about the [the pride] parade… he said, 'The military is not [going to be there,] will it?' I told him, 'No, Dad. Not yet, but we'll make it happen, we're working on it, Dad.'"
Working for positive change defined Baza's life. When Union Bank named Baza as a Local Hero honoree in 2012, he emphasized in a video segment the essential role art plays in city life:
"I've been involved in the civil rights movement, an activist in the arts community and as an LGBT person in the struggle for civil rights. I truly believe the arts create a vibrant society and healthy communities. And public art is yet another powerful tool in creating livable cities. A good public art project says, 'This city cares about a livable space.' That's the reward for me, when I feel like there's something the community will benefit from."Larry Baza
Baza's service shifted from the local level, serving on San Diego's Commission for Arts and Culture, to the state level in 2016, when he was appointed to the California Arts Council.
Lilia Gonzáles Chávez, Chair of the California Arts Council, remembers the first time she met Baza, more than 30 years ago, during his time at Centro Cultural de la Raza. "I was just getting started as an arts administrator. There was no training or support for people of color working in arts administration and almost no institutions with Latinos in management positions. I was starting work for a Latino cultural arts center in Fresno and sought him out for advice," recalled Chávez.
Chávez added, "I was initially put off by Larry because he provided a very grim and challenging look at the work required to maintain and develop a center of this type. After a few years of doing the work, I realized that Larry's candor gave me a realistic view of what I was confronting, along with good suggestions and support for being successful. He hadn't sugarcoated his lessons to me, and for that, I am grateful."
Baza and Chávez became reacquainted as colleagues thanks to their roles on the arts council, noting, "He had just ascended to serve as Chairman [in December], a position he viewed as the pinnacle of his professional career."
Another councilmember, founder and director of L.A.'s Avenue 50 Studio Kathleen Gallegos, said of Baza, "When he spoke, we would listen. He had a conviction in his voice and manner. He understood how there has to be communities/groups of people who come together to help move an issue forward."
She added that he emphasized the importance of the council's statewide regional partners "that are responsive to culturally specific communities like the Latinx arts community, or Indigenous art community. He understood that all of the California Arts Council's partners were vital to the health of the California ecosystem."
As for how his colleagues think Baza would want to be remembered, Gallegos felt "he would want people to remember his quiet strength, and that throughout his career he fought on the side of social justice."
Chávez said she thought Baza would want to be "remembered as a kind and righteous man."