The exhibition “Culture and the People: El Museo del Barrio, 1969-2019” is a golden anniversary survey of wonderful art from the collection of a New York museum that is in the process of being torn apart.
El Museo was founded half a century ago, in a politically agitated time, in Puerto Rican East Harlem, the Barrio. It identified itself as a community art space. Its first shows were in a public school classroom on East 123rd Street and it stayed within the immediate neighborhood until 1977, when it moved to its present address, a city-owned building on Fifth Avenue at 104th Street.
That move to what is now called Museum Mile — the moniker was invented by one of El Museo’s early directors, Jack Agüeros — carried the germ of battles to come. An institution that had initially been a showcase for Puerto Rican art, which was unwelcome by other city museums, started to open its doors to a wider range of Latinx (the gender-neutral term for Latino/Latina) and Latin American art. Its board of trustees, once recruited from the working-class barrio, began to diversify ethnically, economically and socially. So did its administrators and curatorial staff.
For those who believed that New York needed a major platform for work from South America, which had gained an elitist cachet, the expansion seemed positive. But for those who foresaw that art by Latinx artists — particularly artists of Caribbean descent working in the United States and already marginalized along lines of class and race — would only be further pushed out of the spotlight, the shift in direction, which amounted to a change in institutional mission, felt like a betrayal.
For years, the tension continued, sometimes in quiet stretches, lately in a series of detonations. Directors have quickly come and gone. The board has experienced shake-ups. Community-based protest has escalated, inflamed by managerial gaffs.
In January, for example, the chronically financially strapped museum invited a wealthy German aristocrat to be honored at its 50th anniversary gala. When her extreme right-wing affiliations came to light the invitation was withdrawn. Soon afterward, a planned career survey of the Chilean-born filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky was scrapped after the museum learned that he had once boasted of raping one of his actresses.
Then last spring, the museum’s director, Patrick Charpenel, who came to the job from Mexico in 2017, announced the hiring of a chief curator from Brazil, Rodrigo Moura. Ever since, Latinx scholars, artists and activists have been up in arms.
Earlier this month some of them gathered in the galleries where “Culture and the People: El Museo del Barrio, 1969-2019” is installed to read a manifesto. It demanded that the museum “re-dedicate itself to its unique mission of exhibiting and collecting the art and culture of Puerto Ricans and all Latin Americans in the United States” — in other words, that it focus on the “the Nuyorican, the Dominiyorker, the first, second, and third generations of Mexicans, Colombians, Ecuadoreans, and Hondurans that make up a barrio in the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, and New Jersey, and the dreamers and the migrants who identify with a U.S. lived experience. This is distinct from Latin America.”
It’s important to note that El Museo’s 50th anniversary exhibition, drawn from the permanent collection, is a show of Latinx art. And, with contributions from nearly 80 artists, several of whom were crucial to the institution’s foundation, it had an activist charge from the start.
In the early days, photographs and prints, inexpensive to make, easy to distribute, and adaptable to a fast-changing topical content, were popular media. The photographer Hiram Maristany, East Harlem born and raised, took the neighborhood as his subject and documented the activities of the New York chapter of the Young Lords, social justice activists who modeled themselves on the Black Panthers. (For a public art project, “Mapping Resistance,” concurrent with the museum show, the artist Miguel Luciano has enlarged several Maristany pictures to mural size and installed them outdoors throughout the barrio.)
The Young Lords are also recalled in an unsigned poster in which their four communal concerns — health, food, housing, education — are emblazoned on the barrels of AK-47s. When this print appeared in 1970, polemical printmaking already had a long history in Puerto Rico itself. Examples seen here from the 1950s, by masters like Rafael Tufiño and Lorenzo Homar, form the bedrock of El Museo’s collection.
The collection also has work by artists affiliated with the print collective Taller Boricua (Puerto Rican Workshop), which made its debut in the barrio the same year El Museo opened. As in so much of creative activity in that place and time, aesthetics and education were in sync, with Taller artists working in schools and on the street. Fifty years later, the workshop remains active under the direction of one of its founders, the artist Marcos Dimas, and regularly schedules exhibitions at the Julia de Burgos Performance and Arts Center, a few blocks east of El Museo.
There’s one there now. Titled “Realidades Remembered,” and organized by Mr. Dimas and the writer Humberto Cintron, it’s a small, fascinating blast-from-the-past with a roomful of posters and a series of episodes from the cultural news show “Realidades,” produced by WNET from 1971 to 1977 — the only bilingual television show in the United States at the time to focus on broad-spectrum Latinx history, politics and everyday life.
El Museo’s exhibition tackles that history too, beginning with a dozen stone sculptures, carved from 1200 to 1500 A.D. by Taíno people, indigenous inhabitants of the Caribbean. Taíno imagery recurs in paintings by several contemporary artists — Diógenes Ballester, Juan Sanchez and Mr. Dimas — and in sketches for a vibrant ceramic mural by Nitza Tufiño that enlivens the walls of a main barrio subway stop at Lexington Avenue and 103rd Street.
Abstraction gets a section of its own with fine paintings by Tony Bechara and the wonderful, under-known Myrna Báez (1931-2018). Ivelisse Jiménez, who lost more than two decades of work when her San Juan studio was leveled by Hurricane Maria, has a new paper-and-plastic wall hanging here. And there’s a 1959 painting, plain as a blank page, red as a valentine, by Carmen Herrera, who is now, at 104, an art market star but was barely acknowledged by the mainstream art world in 1998 when El Museo, under the direction of Susana Torruella Leval, gave her a solo show.
Looking around the galleries you can tick off the same contemporary styles and trends — abstract painting, Minimalism, Conceptualism and so on — that you’ll find at MoMA, or the Guggenheim, or Art Basel. In that sense, El Museo’s collection is savvy and up to speed. What distinguishes it overall, and makes it invaluable, is the content of much of the work, with its references to specific everyday lives.
Those lives encompass the pleasures of appetite. Yellow plantains in a 19th-century still life by Francisco Oller look ripe for the picking. A 2006 collage called “Barrio Boogie Movement” by Rodríguez Calero generates the free-fall elation of the sidewalk breaking it depicts. And Freddy Rodriguez’s homage to the Dominican catcher Tony Peña — a gold-leafed baseball nestled in a mink-lined glove — is a rush of pure fan love.
If you find yourself depressed on whatever island you’re on, pick up a passport designed by Adál Maldonado that will admit you, no questions asked, to El Spirit Republic of Puerto Rico, the African-Spanish-Taíno neverland he’s invented.
Or read the Nuyorican poet Pedro Pietri’s handwritten, heart-singing “Spanglish National Anthem.”
Or look at Perla de Leon’s “South Bronx Spirit” photographs from 1979. It was a time when that immigrant enclave, ruined by “urban renewal,” was being vilified in the news media, but they illuminate the true beauties there.
In much of the show — organized by Susanna V. Temkin, chief curator of El Museo, and Noel Valentin, the museum’s permanent collection manager — the roles of artist, artisan and activist blend. An installation by Nicolás Dumit Estévez, “The Flag (La Bandera),” is both a one-man museum and workshop, dedicated to a Latinx artifact: a homemade Dominican New York flag. In a 2007 video, “Maquila” by Ana de la Cueva, we see a sewing machine at work, stitching, to a jaunty dance beat, a map of the United States and Mexico. Then the music stops and the machine abruptly punches out a scarlike red line: the United States-Mexican border.
When El Museo opened in 1969, its first offering was a show of needlework — embroidery, crocheting and knitting — by Puerto Rican women. We learn this from the detailed Institutional Timeline that wraps around the walls of two galleries and amounts to an absorbing show in itself. It reveals what the institution has been, and suggests what could be.
References to the museum’s internal conflicts are duly if discreetly included. The emphasis is on the record of exhibitions, the best of which have been at least as adventurous and stimulating as any done by the city’s large, rich museums over the same period.
And there is evidence that Latinx and Latin American art have coexisted in this institution, occasionally in the same exhibition, as was true in the excellent “Nexus New York: Latin/American Artists in the Modern Metropolis,” organized by Deborah Cullen in 2009.
I do think there’s room for both and that coexistence is the way forward. I also know that this is easy to say. El Museo’s 50th anniversary show does not right wrongs of exclusion, past or future. Latinx art, as opposed to Latin American art, remains an underprivileged field, marked with class and economic associations that keep it out of elitist collections and museums. (Tellingly, Ms. Herrera, who was born in Cuba but has lived in the United States since 1954, is rarely marketed as Latinx; nor is Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose mother was of Puerto Rican descent.)
El Museo has championed Latinx art and culture from the start. It is the major institution to do so, and must continue to prioritize that. But it is also the only major museum in a position to explore and demonstrate a Latinx-Latin America connection, which is real, rich and complex. Ultimately, El Museo’s most valuable job — which should also be its joy — will be to reveal that link. But it will only be able to do so, and mend its currently tattered, siloed and self-destructive state, if all sides agree to lay down their arms and work, with passion, together.
Culture and the People: El Museo del Barrio, 1969-2019
Through Sept. 29 at El Museo del Barrio, 1230 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan; 212-831-7272, elmuseo.org.
Mapping Resistance: The Young Lords in the Barrio
Through Sept. 30 in the neighborhood around El Museo del Barrio; elmuseo.org.
Through Aug. 3 at Taller Boricua Gallery at Julia de Burgos Performance and Arts Center, 1680 Lexington Avenue, Manhattan; 212-831-4333, tallerboricua.org.