A Community-Generated EL MUSEO DEL BARRIO Letter Shifts Debate on Museum’s Future

Mar 29, 2019
8:55 AM

Photo courtesy of El Museo del Barrio

El Museo del Barrio is a cultural institution, a testament to a New York City neighborhood built from the energy of Puerto Rican activism 50 years ago. Lately, there has been an ongoing debate about the museum’s future, one that seems to pit the museum’s foundational Boricua roots with a changing city that has become more Latin American. The tension rose after news of a new curator who worked at the São Paulo Museum of Art raised serious questions about where the El Museo was going. After five decades of existence, would it stick to its activist roots or would it follow the track that is more “global” and “Latin American?”

Such news led to criticism. For instance, on March 22, Marta Moreno Vega, a former El Museo director, wrote the following public post on her Facebook wall (as first reported by Art News):

I just withdrew my self portrait from the exhibition at El Museo del Barrio entitled Culture and the People. I have stated previously and I repeat El Museo is excluding the communities it was created to serve. In its origins the parents who fought for the then school project wanted their children and their children to learn and value their history and continue the legacy of their inheritance that was invisible in the schools. As I grew El Museo as second director, the concept continued to grow as we became a 501 C3 independent of the school district addressing the issues and challenges faced by our underserved communities. El Museo was about challenging inequity, providing a creative thought process and creative expressions that would lead to solutions with the brilliant eyes of our artists.

It is now an institution divorced from our communities not addressing the issues that are impacting our people. Caught up in the art for art sake framework of Eurocentric institution that devalued our vision and perspectives and presence it is rendering invisible the artists, scholars, creatives that it was served to center.

I refuse to have my work in an institution that devalues the contributions of El Barrio’s creatives, those of us that have changed the art world insisting that culture be at the center of the voices that have been nurtured at home. Do not allow our children, our people, our history, our inheritance, our communities to be erased.

As a result of the debate, a community-generated letter called the “Mirror Manifesto” was published online. The letter’s opening stated:

On the future of El Museo del Barrio and who it belongs to.

The recent events unfolding at El Museo del Barrio has stirred up furious debates about the direction the museum has taken. A direction that attempts to morph the museum, founded by Puerto Rican teachers, artists, parents and community organizers, from a museum reflective of the community who founded it, to an elitist institution for Latin American art. A market driven endeavor. While a cursory glance at this maneuver might not find cause for alarm, and might even be seen as an impetus to celebrate “latinidad,” unpacking the intersections of this dilemma is necessary.

It requires us to first contend with “El Barrio’s” identity. While Puerto Ricans were instrumental in the foundation of the museum, it is not strictly a Puerto Rican museum. It is a museo “del Barrio.” Further, demographic changes in East Harlem and the overall growth of the Latinx diaspora in the last 50 years render the nationalist led push to make El Barrio mean “Puerto Rican” null. If El Museo is to be resuscitated, we must lay these claims to rest and set about addressing who we mean when we say El Barrio.

If El Barrio means neighborhood, or enclave, and we are defining the institution as encompassing a diasporic latinidad, then what we are contending with is what is now being called “Latinx.” Loosely defined, this is the Nuyorican, the Dominiyorker, the first, second, and third generations of Mexicans, Colombians, Ecuadorians, and Hondurans that make up a barrio in the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, and New Jersey. It is the El Salvadorian and Guatemalteco kids in Silver Springs, Maryland, the Cubans in New Jersey, the Tejanos, the Chicanos. It is the dreamers and the migrants who identify with a U.S. lived experience. It is the children of immigrants at the border and the children of recently arrived Puerto Ricans in Orlando and Pennsylvania Post-Maria, that have and will grow up here.

This is distinct from Latin America and should not be confused. For too long, this ambiguity has rendered Latinx artists invisible. Latinx artists continue to be marginalized, underrepresented, and erased. El Museo has shamelessly latched on to this ambiguity and forfeited its original mission. It has done very little as an institution to foster and cultivate Latinx Art.

It also added this:

Recent calls to steer the institution back towards its intended mission therefore have remained unanswered. 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.

The letter included a series of demands, including these:

  • We reject the old-fashioned cultural nationalism that wants to mimic colonial hierarchical structures placing all other Latinx diasporic communities in second-class stakeholder roles ( i.e., Puerto Ricans vs. the rest ). We also call El Museo to respect and expand its collection of Puerto Rican art, and ensure this history and collection is not erased as it expands its mission and collection.
  • We reject the institution’s fetishization, classist, and hollowed oversimplification of Latin American art for branding and funding purposes, particularly when these market-driven dynamics result in the systemic exclusion of Latinx art, artists and cultural workers.
  • We demand the museum dedicate substantial resources to implement a residency program for emerging contemporary Latinx artists.
  • We demand that the Chief Curator should be a Latinx art historian and Latinx curator, (whether this expertise is gained from an academic program, or from direct experience and recognition in the field), and that all curatorial staff at El Museo be equipped to mount exhibitions that speak to the Latinx experience.

The list of signatures from El Museo de los Barrios has grown and grown.

Now, after much debate, this is where El Museo is at. According to a March 28 New York Times article, El Museo executive director Patrick Charpenel responded. As the opening lede of the Times story said:

Still trying to contend with a territorial tug of war over its mission, El Museo del Barrio announced this week that it is planning to hire a curator who will focus on “the art and culture of historically marginalized Latinx communities in the United States.”

The story also added this:

In his new email, the director said the next curator will play an important role in increasing the visibility of Latinx cultural outreach, “including but not limited to Puerto Ricans, Chicanos, Afro-descendants from the Americas and LGBTQ populations.”

Yet it is still unclear if Charpenel is even close to specifically responding to the community-generated letter.

As for Moreno Vega? On March 27, she posted a link to the Mission Manifesto on her Facebook, saying the following: “Community Response to El Museo! I agree and signed on! So should we all!”