A note from COPOMIAO President Basil M. Russo: Each month, we’ll honor a woman of Italian descent to spotlight their contributions, from culture and industry to philanthropy and activism. April’s Donna Distinta Award goes to Marianna Gatto, a museum curator, historian, intellectual and author who is unifying Italian America through high-concept exhibits, viral content and eye-opening research — much of which focuses on our people’s indelible impact on the West Coast. Marianna is a bridge between our past and future, and I’ve been honored to work alongside her.
“Growing up in Los Angeles, there were few mirrors for Italian Americans,” recalls Gatto. Italian Americans are typically assumed to be from the East Coast or Chicago. My family arrived in Los Angeles after settling in Colorado. As a kid I couldn’t understand how I fit in the Southern California mosaic, let alone the Italian American mosaic.”
In the mid-1990s, Gatto learned about a historic building on the edge of downtown Los Angeles that had served as an Italian community gathering place in the early 1900s. “I was floored,” recounts Gatto. “It signified that Italian Americans had a place historically in the city, a history that was never spoken of.”
Weeks later, Gatto visited the building—Italian Hall (current home of the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles) for the first time. “The building spoke to me,” Gatto says. “I imagined the weddings and events that took place there, the many lives who passed through the space. I said out loud in the the empty space, ‘This needs to be a museum and I want to be the director.’”
Years passed. Gatto finished college and began graduate school. She worked as an educator in one of the most disadvantaged neighborhoods of Los Angeles before becoming a museum administrator for the City of Los Angeles. It was through this and Gatto’s involvement in the Italian American community that she began interfacing with the Historic Italian Hall Foundation, the nonprofit that was trying to restore Italian Hall and resurrect it into a community center.
The project had encountered various obstacles, largely involving funding and bureaucratic red tape (the City of Los Angeles owns the building.) In 2008, Gatto, with the leadership of legendary political consultant Joe Cerrell and the Foundation, spearheaded a campaign that resulted in an allocation of substantial public funds to renovate the Italian Hall.
In 2010, Gatto left the City to helm the museum, which was still a work in progress. “We faced challenges with funding and visibility. While Los Angeles is home to the nation’s fifth-largest Italian American population and the Italian presence in the region dates to 1827, people were simply unaware of this history.” To generate awareness, Gatto, on behalf of the Foundation, wrote and curated Sunshine and Struggle: The Italian Presence in Los Angeles, an exhibition that welcomed over 50,000 visitors. She also created the museum’s signature event, Taste of Italy, an upscale Italian food and wine tasting that draws 2,500 attendees.
In 2016, after raising considerable private funds and entering into a historic partnership with the City of Los Angeles, the IAMLA opened as a dynamic museum chronicling the history of Italian Americans in Southern California and the nation. Its permanent exhibition, which Gatto authored and co-curated, is accessible online. “People across the globe interact with its content,” says Gatto.
As IAMLA’s director, Gatto procures most of the museum’s major gifts, writes and curates exhibitions, designs programming, authors educational curricula, grants, and oversees preservation, advocacy, and marketing. She also writes the histories of the museum’s elite cadre of donors known as the Founding Families.
Among the temporary exhibitions she has created are The Sicilian Cart: History in Movement; Italianità: Artists of the Italian Diaspora Explore Identity; Woven Lives: Exploring Women’s Needlework from the Italian Diaspora; and Fantasy World: Italian Americans in Animation.
As a historian, Gatto’s research focuses on Italian Americans in Los Angeles and the West. Her book, Los Angeles’s Little Italy, was released in 2009; her second work, Beyond Little Italy: Italian Americans in the City of Angels, is forthcoming. Gatto’s writings are featured in several publications; she is a contributing editor for the Italian Sons and Daughters of America’s journal. Gatto has appeared in films including The Italian Americans on PBS; Finding the Mother Lode: Italian Americans in California; A Little Fellow; and La Cucina Italiana in Los Angeles.
Gatto has also collaborated on the designation of Tuna Canyon, a WWII-era detention center for Japanese and Italian Americans, as a historic site. She is a frequent lecturer on the Italian American experience and has facilitated training for corporations and entities including the Department of Homeland Security.
Gatto co-chairs the Museums and Cultural Institutions Committee of the Conference of Presidents of Major Italian American Organizations (COPOMIAO) and consults for various groups. She was honored by the State of California in 2019, and in 2021, the Italian republic awarded her the Cavaliere dell’Ordine della Stella d’Italia (Knight of the Order of the Star of Italy).
“We started from the bottom,” says Gatto. “There were times when I wondered if the museum would ever reach fruition. Now we are working on creating an endowment so that it can exist in perpetuity.”
Marianna Gatto is the executive director and cofounder of the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles (IAMLA). Her career in public history, non-profit leadership, museums, and education spans more than two decades.