The Battle Over the Soul of El Museo del Barrio
n a hot Tuesday evening in June, a salsa band played on a stage set up outside El Museo del Barrio, at Fifth Avenue and 104th street. The road was closed to traffic for the Museum Mile Festival, an annual block party for the art institutions along that uptown stretch of Central Park. Gathered around the musicians—elegantly dressed in black suits, white shirts, and tight ties—was an informal crowd of some sixty people. At a booth nearby, kids drew on canvases with markers provided by El Museo. Behind the band, on top of the museum’s glass entrance, bold black letters welcomed visitors with a statement: “The Museum Is a School: the Artist Learns to Communicate. The Public Learns to Make Connections.”
The museum was introducing the second installment of “Culture and the People: El Museo del Barrio, 1969-2019,” a two-part exhibit commemorating the institution’s history. Between songs, the executive director, Patrick Charpenel, a bald man dressed in a trim suit, stepped onto the stage to deliver welcoming remarks. The museum was celebrating fifty years, he said, representing “Puerto Rico, Latinx, and Latin-American cultural production in the U.S.” He added, to scattered cheers, “¡Vivan los latinos! ¡Viva el Museo del Barrio! ”
Charpenel did not mention that the question of whom, exactly, El Museo represents has become a source of bitter tension within the institution’s network of artists and administrators. While he spoke, a group of about a dozen protesters gathered across the street, at the entrance of Central Park’s Conservatory Garden. Yasmin Ramírez, an art historian, was wearing a T-shirt printed with images of the Young Lords, the Puerto Rican civil-rights group whose East Harlem chapter is also celebrating a half century of history this year. After Charpenel spoke, the protesters wound through the crowd, distributing flyers and black shirts that read “El Museo Fue del Barrio”—“The Museum was from the neighborhood.”
Later, inside the museum, the protesters read from a printed statement called the Mirror Manifesto: a three-page text, signed by almost six hundred people, that accuses El Museo of abandoning its core values as a museum for the community of East Harlem, known in Spanish as El Barrio. The board today includes only one member who lives in the neighborhood and no Latinos or people of color, the document notes; Charpenel and the museum’s new chief curator, Rodrigo Moura, have backgrounds working with private collections in Latin America but little experience with Puerto Rican and Latino artists in the United States. One of the protesters, Debbie Quiñones, is an East Harlem native who first visited the museum as a teen-ager, in the nineteen-seventies. “We demand that the staff mirrors and represents the diverse Latinx communities,” she read from the pages. Parents in the crowd held their kids’ hands while they watched; young hipsters listened attentively. (“What is Latinx?” one of them asked. “A gender thing,” his friend responded.) “The museum represents us—we want to be seen,” Quiñones concluded, her voice breaking. Then she and the other protesters dispersed through the galleries, chanting, “Decolonize this museum!” and “We will not be erased!”
Like the Studio Museum in Harlem, which opened on Fifth Avenue in 1968, El Museo del Barrio grew out of the energies of the civil-rights movement, as a space for those shut out of the predominantly white mainstream art world. Before 1967, according to the art historian Susan Cahan, fewer than a dozen exhibits in major institutions in the U.S. featured the work of African-American artists. A 1969 photography exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Harlem on My Mind,” became notorious for ignoring the input of artists from the neighborhood. El Museo del Barrio’s founder, Raphael Montañez Ortiz, was part of a coalition of artists and community members fighting for representation in New York museums. After a Harlem school district asked him to design a curriculum to educate children about Puerto Rican heritage, he instead envisioned a museum for the same purpose. “The cultural disenfranchisement I experience as a Puerto Rican has prompted me to seek a practical alternative to the orthodox museum,” Montañez Ortiz wrote, in an article published by Art in America, in 1971.
In contrast to most New York City museums, El Museo was founded without the help of wealthy patrons. Its first location was a windowless storage room at P.S. 125, on 123rd Street. It moved several times in its early years—to another school, a townhouse, a storefront—searching for a stable home. One of the museum’s first shows, “The Art of Needlework,” was dedicated to the crocheting techniques of Puerto Rican women. The revered East Harlem photographer Hiram Maristany, whose images were included in that exhibit, told me, “When the old ladies I photographed came to see the show, there was a level of pride, a level of respect.”
In 1977, El Museo’s fourth director, the Nuyorican poet Jack Agüeros, moved the museum to its current location, on the ground floor of a city-owned building. Agüeros expanded the collection of indigenous Taíno art, hosted the first National Latino Film & Video Festival, and founded an art school for neighborhood kids. He was also the first director to propose that El Museo expand its purview. Prior to his tenure, all but one of the museum’s exhibits were devoted to the work of Puerto Rican artists. By the time Agüeros stepped down, in 1986, he had invited Colombians, Panamanians, Hondurans, and other Latin Americans into the galleries as well.
El Barrio was changing, too: by 2000, the number of Puerto Rican families in East Harlem had decreased by almost half, and a third of the neighborhood’s residents were Dominican or Mexican. El Museo’s board added other Latinos and non-Latinos, including some who lived outside of the neighborhood. There were angry debates within the museum over whether Puerto Rican art should remain central to its mission. In 2002, the museum appointed its first non-Puerto Rican director, a Mexican executive from the Guggenheim; that same year, it mounted an exhibit devoted to Mexico’s most famous artists, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. To some within the community, élite Latin-American interests were eclipsing the institution’s homegrown mission.