Entering through the large glass doors facing Fifth Avenue, firmly planted on Museum Mile, El Museo del Barrio is the only institution of its kind that sits on the mile-long cultural walkway. It houses more than 8,000 works in its collection, spanning from Taíno and pre-Columbian objects to contemporary installations by Latin American, Caribbean and Latinx artists, but its origin story is really what sets El Museo – the oldest museum centering Latinx art in the United States – apart.
The museum’s two-part exhibition titled Culture and the People: El Museo del Barrio, 1969-2019 has ushered in its 50th anniversary. It includes selections from the permanent collection and a historic timeline that embodies the revolutionary history of El Museo. Curated by Susanna V. Temkin, El Museo’s curator, and co-organized by Noel Valentín, El Museo’s permanent collection manager, the institution opened the first part of the exhibition on April 11.
“I’ve tried to include a range of work that I think people are very familiar with and that they might see on a day-to-day basis in El Barrio,” Temkin tells me. “I really want to emphasize what I hope would be in some ways something familiar, but also a discovery and a re-discovery of what El Museo is and the type of issues that we want to bring to light through our art and through various educational and public programs that we do here.”
The exhibition is divided into three thematic sections: “Roots,” “Resistance” and “Resilience.” Within “Roots,” visitors are met with the newly acquired suite of photos by Hiram Maristany – an El Barrio-raised photographer, the official photographer of The Young Lords and former director of the museum – that capture El Museo’s early moments at its one-time storefront location, and children in and around the institution. From the archives, a poster with a photo by Maristany, which reads, “!Nosotros somos El Museo del Barrio!: Primer aniversario,” shows a diverse group of children in front of the museum’s former headquarters. Other works in this section, which reference colonial and Indigenous ancestries, include stone-made relics of the Taíno culture; sketches from Mexico City-born, PR-raised artist Nitza Tufiño’s “Neo-Boriken” (the ceramic tile mural is currently installed in the subway station on 103rd Street), and the iconic Young Lords’ poster with four purple automatic rifles with the words “Health, Food, Housing, and Education” on each, among other pieces.
In “Resistance,” a poster by Puerto Rican painter, sculptor and printmaker Domingo Garcia commemorates the eight-hour occupation of the Statue of Liberty by 30 Puerto Rican nationalists on October 25, 1977. This section is a nod to El Museo’s activist origins, highlighting historical events and honoring national and fallen heroes. There’s also a new piece by Puerto Rican artist Ivelisse Jiménez, “Intervalos, confines y territorios”; puertorriqueño Rafael Tufiño’s La Plena poster, which centers the Afro-Puerto Rican musical genre; and several photos from Perla de León’s series, South Bronx Spirit, to name a few, comprise the final section. Ending this sector centering identity, survival and the preservation of cultural traditions was intentional, reminding those who step inside its doors that its mission is to uplift Latinx art and artists.
“It is our role to be a platform that presents and portrays the complex and ever-changing reality of what it means to be Puerto Rican, Latinx, and Latin American,” says Patrick Charpenel, executive director at El Museo, in an email response. “Rather than idealized or exoticized, our communities deserve an institution that advocates in a strong way for its place and inclusion in the art historical canon.”
Founded in 1969, not yet an institution but a project, El Museo began in a District 4 public school classroom on East 116th Street. Spearheaded by destructivist artist and educator Raphael Montañez Ortiz, alongside Puerto Rican parents, artists, community organizers and educators, the city-supported art initiative was by and for Puerto Ricans. It reflected the community it served. In the last few years, the museum has faced several internal issues, including financial and staffing problems. Not only did they see a significant amount of turnover in less than a decade, in 2017, The New York Times reported that a former staff member accused a coworker of “employee intimidation.”
“Staff is threatened with the possibility of being fired, they are pitted against each other,” Berta Colón wrote, according to The NYT. “During this period of transition without an executive director, Carlos has created an environment that promotes distrust, fear of retaliation, and isolation.”
And for some time, there’s been plenty of disapproval from the community as well. The museum started as a Puerto Rican-focused institution, but in 1994, it was amended to include Latin American art, as evidenced in Visiones, El Museo’s plan for growth. Whether to garner more funding or to reflect El Barrio’s rapidly changing demographic, that, and decades of changes, has drawn immense criticism from former directors, staffers, artists and community leaders.
While the 50th anniversary is supposed to be a celebration of the museum, the latest exhibition has only placed El Museo under further scrutiny. Though the institution states that it remains dedicated to Latinx and Latin American artists, some don’t believe it reflects the neighborhood where it’s located or represent Puerto Rican and other Latinx communities. As a result, many El Barrio natives and activists have spoken out about the present and future of the museum.
Less than a month before the exhibition debuted, Dr. Marta Moreno Vega, second director of El Museo, released a statement on Facebook detailing why she chose to withdraw her self portrait. In it, she mentions how El Museo is “excluding the communities it was created to serve” and “not addressing the issues that are impacting our people.”
“What has happened is that the homegrown community has been marginalized in its own institution and that’s the issue,” Moreno Vega tells me. “If you have an elitist economic vision of what art is from Latin American countries and what those people look like who hold that point of view, most of us don’t reflect that. That’s why we built El Museo to reflect who we are away from home in the urban areas that our parents forcibly came to because they couldn’t make it in colonial settings that were [prejudiced] and discriminatory in their own homes.”
Similarly, the “Mirror Manifesto,” an open letter pointing out El Museo’s missteps and the community’s demands, is pointing out how the museum tends to showcase Latin American artists instead of US-based Latinxs. The missive urges El Museo to acknowledge their concerns and implement several important changes, such as the expansion of its collection of Puerto Rican art, implementing a residency program for emerging Latinx artists, and ensuring that the Chief Curator be a Latinx art historian and Latinx curator.
“We demand that the staff mirrors and represents the diverse Latinx communities, and that it is racially diverse,” the letter reads. “The Board of Trustees’ willful disregard of the mission of El Museo del Barrio is self-evident by their decision to hire [Rodrigo Moura,] a Director and a Chief Curator from Latin America who have no experience living in the United States and little knowledge of the art and social struggles of Puerto Ricans and Latin Americans in the United States.”
Instead, the letter states that the museum should be focused on the Nuyoricans, Dominiyorkers, Mexicans, Colombians, Salvadoran, Ecuadorians, Hondurans, and Cubans that live in and surrounding New York. It adds that grouping Latinxs and Latin Americans has led to the erasure of Latinx artists.
“Recent calls to steer the institution back towards its intended mission therefore have remained unanswered,” the letter continues. “In order to reinvigorate working and emerging Latinx artists to invest their energy in an institution that has gone out of its way to communicate that it cares nothing for their cultural production, the institution must take radical steps to more clearly define what it is. EL MUSEO DEL BARRIO MUST BE EL MUSEO DE LOS BARRIOS. It must fulfill its original mission or relinquish control to the community of Latinx scholars and artists to steer it back on course. It must DECOLONIZE.”
In response to recent concerns, Charpenel says that the Nuyorican and Puerto Rican community will always remain at the heart of El Museo. “As our founding members, the museum was created to address the cultural marginalization experienced by Puerto Ricans in New York City. Later expanding our mission to serve all Latinx and Latin American communities in the United States and beyond, we continue to embrace the legacy of the Puerto Rican community and aspire to be a catalyst for social justice through art and culture. Together with our community of neighbors, artists, visitors, and supporters, we will continue to explore our individual and collective experiences in this country and explore what it means to be Latinx.”
Part 1 of “Culture and the People: El Museo del Barrio, 1969-2019” is open until September 29, 2019. Part 2 opens June 11 and closes on the above-mentioned date.