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.
The museum has failed to launch a studio residency program, it has failed to create an environment where intellectual work for us, by us, can be incubated. It has failed to cultivate diverse board members that represent the Latinx community. It has failed to expand board members beyond funding/development needs, or made sure to its boards’ institutional actions, partnerships, and programs correspond with its mission. Instead, it has responded to shallow market trends forcing Latinx artists who are struggling for visibility to try to function under the blanketed term Latin American art by virtue of their last names.
Given the continued failure of El Museo del Barrio to fully embrace its responsibility to the many diasporas that make up the Latinx communities in NYC and across North America, generations of Latinx artists pouring out of BFA, MFA, & PhD programs have come to see the El Museo as irrelevant.
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.
Latinx artists, cultural workers, scholars and concerned residents reject the elitism, white washing, LGTBQIA exclusion and anti-blackness perpetrated in the museum against its own museum goers and community of artists.
-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.
-We demand the implementation of a decolonizing commission to independently review the collection and to make recommendations on the necessary structural changes that must be made to carry the institution into the future.
-We demand that the staff mirrors and represents the diverse Latinx communities, and that it is racially diverse. The Board of Trustees’ willful disregard of the mission of El Museo del Barrio is self-evident by their decision to hire 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.
-We demand that the board of Directors also mirrors the community and is racially diverse. If after 50 years, The Board of El Museo del Barrio only has 1 member that lives in East Harlem and no members of Dominican or Mexican- American descent, no members from the African American community is because this Board of Trustees does not want Latinx and people of color at the table and on the staff.
-We demand this public institution either be held accountable to its public mission, or else call the city to stop the public funding of a board practicing exclusion.
The current board must be restructured with members that are committed to the mission of El Museo del Barrio and reflect the Latinx population in New York and the United States.
The future belongs to the generations of Latinx artists emerging in more disparate pockets throughout the US, poised to shape U.S. culture and to present a vision not yet materialized. El Museo Del Barrio must comply or be rendered irrelevant.
Finally -- Decades ago one could make the case that El Museo Del Barrio had a responsibility to exhibit art from Latin America because no other museums in New York were doing so. However, thanks to the patronage of wealthy Latin American collectors, Latin American art has generous institutional support in New York’s most prestigious museums. The Museum of Modern Art is home to the Cisneros Research Institute for the Study of Latin American Art; the director of the institute serves as MOMA’s curator of Latin American art and there are endowed curatorial positions at The Metropolitan Museum. Given that art from Latin America is well represented and supported in New York, it is timely and necessary for El Museo del Barrio to re-dedicate itself to its unique mission of exhibiting and collecting art by Puerto Ricans and Latin Americans living in the United States—in other words, that it focuses on Latinx art and artists.
Our children, young artists, and arts professionals want and need to see a future for themselves at El Museo del Barrio. That will not happen if El Museo del Barrio is demonstrating that only upper class people from Latin America will gain employment there, and that art made in Latin America is more important to exhibit than art made by Latinx peoples in the United States. Monthly entertainment programs such as Super Sábado are not substantive community engagement strategies. Unlike other major museums in the city and beyond, El Museo del Barrio does not offer artists residencies or have professional development programs for young curators and scholars.
How can we abide the absurdity that El Museo del Barrio was the first Puerto Rican/Latinx museum in the USA and after 50 years lags behind other museums that are increasing their collections of Latinx art and employing Latinx arts professionals?
We need change now.
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