On 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 protestors, 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.
In 1977, El Museo del Barrio moved to its current location, on the ground floor of a city-owned building on Fifth Avenue and 104th Street.
Photograph by Philip Scalia / Alamy
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.
A string of recent events has helped revive those fears. At the beginning of this year, El Museo announced that its annual gala would honor Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis, a wealthy German art collector with ties to Steve Bannon and the European far-right. After receiving dozens of angry messages, and a few alarmed calls from philanthropists, the staff disinvited her. But, a few weeks later, El Museo was swamped with fresh complaints over a planned exhibit devoted to the Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, who once claimed (and later denied) that a rape scene he performed for one of his films was real and not staged. The exhibit was eventually cancelled. And, in March, the appointment of Moura, a Brazilian curator who has worked for prestigious private collections abroad, reinforced a sense that El Museo’s leadership was increasingly disconnected from the community. One protester told me, “The institution got gentrified.”
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From his home, in Highland Park, New Jersey, Montañez Ortiz told me that he believes today’s protesters are guilty of “agoraphobic ethnocentricity,” refusing to understand themselves as part of an extended Latino “family.” “We are a genetic mixture,” he told me, evoking the Spanish term mestizaje, or the mixing of European, African, and indigenous blood. Arlene Dávila, an anthropology professor at N.Y.U., who signed the Mirror Manifesto, and who is working on a book titled “Latinx Art: Artists, Markets and Politics,” argues that this attitude ignores racial and class hierarchies within the Latin world. Latin-American artists routinely receive more support from governments, philanthropists, and art dealers than diasporic artists in the U.S., she told me. Figures like Kahlo and Rivera have plenty of other outlets; it’s the job of El Museo to give a platform to those who don’t. In a recent lecture at the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute, on 125th Street, Dávila said that it is a myth to insist “that racism only comes from the Whitney, from the outside, but not from within our communities.”
One afternoon this spring, I visited the artist and philanthropist Tony Bechara, who is the emeritus chair of El Museo’s board. Born in Puerto Rico in 1942, Bechara moved to New York in the seventies. He settled in a building near Union Square, where he still lives, in a loft on the top floor. He works in a spacious studio a few levels below. Tall and slim, with curly gray hair, Bechara sat with me there, at a table surrounded by several of his paintings, large canvases covered with square pixels of color. A show of his work, in 1985, was El Museo’s first exhibit of abstract art.
Juan Sánchez’s “Bleeding Reality: Asi Estamos” (right), from 1988, in the exhibition “Culture and the People.”
Photograph by Martin Seck / El Museo del Barrio
Bechara said that he supports El Museo’s role as a place for the community; he expressed regret over the board’s decision to honor the German princess. But he described the museum’s evolution as necessary for survival. “People forget that museums mean payrolls, they mean paying the bills, raising money,” he said. He recalled that the Kahlo and Rivera show drew more than seventy thousand visitors in just four months. From 1994 to 2002, El Museo went from being near bankruptcy to almost quadrupling its budget; the size of its staff quadrupled, too. Still, the institution has continued to struggle to raise the funds it needs. “We need to be relevant, we need to be players on the bigger stage,” he said. “Every museum in the world is being accused of élitism. So why should we be different?”
Across the art world, though, the standards are shifting, as artists and activists pressure institutions to balance financial considerations with social concern. The Guggenheim, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Met are among the institutions that have recently cut financial ties with the Sackler family because of its role in the opioid crisis; in July, the vice-chairman of the board of the Whitney stepped down amid protests over his ownership of a company that manufactures tear gas that has been used against migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. The disputes over El Museo have flared and receded over many years, but, before the event in June, protesters had never marched inside the museum’s galleries. When I spoke to Moura and Chapernel, they emphasized their commitment to El Museo’s roots, and discussed the steps the museum is taking to address the Mirror Manifesto’s demands. A new internal-evaluation process will expand the number of board seats and prioritize Latino representation on the board. A “vetting committee” will review the museum’s future programming, and a new Latino curator will be appointed in the coming months. “The political landscape is changing, and I celebrate that this is happening,” Chapernel said. “We need to be more careful than before.”
A photograph of Papo Colo’s performance piece “Superman 51” (1977), in the exhibition “Culture and the People.”
Photograph by Papo Colo / El Museo del Barrio
The “Culture and the People” exhibit, which is on view through the end of September, is a reminder that, whatever changes El Museo has undergone, its permanent collection remains a rich trove of Puerto Rican art. In the show’s first gallery, devoted to the museum’s early years, a photo by Maristany, from 1971, shows a group of beaming teen-agers lined up on East 106th street, celebrating El Museo’s first anniversary. In the middle of the room, a life-size replica of a colorful piragua cart, by Edgar Ruiz Zapata, honors the men and women who sell shaved ice around El Barrio in the summertime. A subsequent room features an image from a 1977 performance by the artist Papo Colo, who dragged fifty-one strung-together pieces of wood down the West Side Highway, a comment on Puerto Rico’s status as an unincorporated part of the United States. In the show’s latter half, works by Puerto Rican artists share gallery space with those of Chicanos, Cubans, and other Latin Americans. The concluding piece is a mink baseball glove, clutching a gold-leafed ball, made by the Dominican artist Freddy Rodríguez, in 2005, to honor the Major League catcher (and former Yankees first-base coach) Tony Peña.
One piece that was supposed to appear in the exhibit is missing: a self-portrait, drawn on a large silhouette cutout of pine wood, by the Puerto Rican activist Marta Moreno Vega. A former director of El Museo, and the founder of the Caribbean Cultural Center, Vega pulled her piece, in protest, ahead of the show’s opening. But one work of hers remains on display, in the second part of the exhibit, a room featuring a detailed time line of El Museo’s history: an article, from 1972, in which she articulates the vital role of community museums as spaces for people “seeking real art experiences which are not based on art as sorted wealth, but on art as a way of life.”
Walking east from El Museo into the heart of El Barrio, one encounters another art exhibit, installed on the city streets: a series of Hiram Maristany’s photographs of the Young Lords, which are blown up and plastered on the sides of buildings or chain-link fences, commemorating moments of protest that took place on those same streets a half-century ago. At 111th Street and Third Avenue, and on Ninety-ninth street, between First and Second, are scenes from the Garbage Offensive, in which activists halted traffic with a barricade of trash to protest the Sanitation Department’s neglect of the neighborhood. Further West on 99th Street, on the wall of P.S. 109, “March to Free the Panther 21” shows a protester clutching a Puerto Rican flag in her left hand, her right fist thrust defiantly in the air. Mirastany, who just turned seventy-four, has lived in El Barrio all his life. When I spoke to him about El Museo, he acknowledged that it is not the same place that it was in those years. “El Museo was a political statement,” he said. “It will never be what it once was—El Barrio is no longer what it once was. But we must still support the people who gave it life: the lowest, the poorest. You have to honor them.”