East Harlem's El Museo del Barrio, by definition, is a museum by and for the neighborhood. Founded in 1969 by a group of Puerto Rican artists and educators, it started as a project explicitly stemming from the fact that Latinx artists were absent from mainstream museums. But longtime residents of the neighborhood and activists say that over the years, the museum has turned its back on its immediate community.
On Tuesday, demonstrators took over the museum gallery during the opening party for their newest exhibition, which celebrates 50 years since its founding. (It also happened to be the Museum Mile Festival, with museums from 82nd to 105th Streets available to check out for free). There, they read a "Mirror Manifesto" expressing their concerns over the cultural institution, according to Hyperallergic. The open letter has over 570 signatures, as well as messages of support, from artists and activists. In the letter, they call out the museum for not being representative in its board and curation choices, and for not supporting local artists, saying it's left the neighborhood altogether (a statement reflected in the T-shirts they wore, which read "El Museo Fue del Barrio").
"It has done very little as an institution to foster and cultivate Latinx Art," the letter asserts. "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."
Activists pointedly protested during the opening of a Culture and the People, a two-part exhibition that commemorates the museum's 50th anniversary with a series of works by an estimated 80 Latinx artists that muse "on the activist origins and pioneering history of the institution," according to a press release. The museum also has a visual digital archive in partnership with NuevaYorkinos, which documents New York City's Latinx communities.
El Museo del Barrio, pictured on its first anniversary. (Resnicow and Associates)
Update: Following El Museo del Barrio's decision to hire Rodrigo Moura (formerly the associate curator of Brazilian art at the Museu de Arte de São Paulo) as Chief Curator, former director Marta Moreno Vega withdrew her piece from the exhibition in anticipation of the show's unveiling this week, and Marina Reyes Franco cancelled moderating a panel at the Museo. "Think about it, they had to get a visa," Debbie Quinones (former Chair of the Cultural Affairs and Preservation committee) told Gothamist, adding: "[They] couldn’t find one person in the US to fulfill it?"
Activists say that this is just one of the ways that El Museo's mission increasingly doesn't work to elevate Latinx artists from the immediate community. (The museum also recently faced scrutiny earlier this year, in a contentious, now-canceled retrospective of Alejandro Jodorowsky, the Chilean-born film director, following his comments on sexual violence in his film El Topo.) Over the years, activists say, the museum has moved towards bolstering high-profile Latin American art, and hasn't made good on instilling resources, such as studio residency programs, that help to nurture their local creative community.
"The Museo has the opportunity to...utilize their unique position in advocating or becoming a force for professional development for US Latinx artists and Puerto Rican artists," Quinones says. "I think that that’s the issue. Instead of focusing on this crisis of identity where you’re trying to dance on the European stage, and frame or formulate the Museo into something that was founded for different purposes...How do you then redefine that paradigm or that rubric or metric that moving forward, into the next 50 years, is balanced?"
In an emailed statement regarding the Mirror Manifesto, El Museo del Barrio said: "We appreciate the feedback from our community and the recognition of the importance of the breadth and range of the Latinx experience. We are already in the midst of a number of new initiatives—including expanding our curatorial team with the call for a Latinx Curator and other programs that will launch in the future. In doing so, we will strengthen and advance our advocacy role, nurture professionals in Latinx art, and foster the growth of artists at all stages of their careers, especially emerging artists."
Update: This article has been updated to reflect that following Moura's announcement as curator, one artist (Marta Moreno Vega) withdrew her piece from the exhibition, and that the visual archive is an initiative and partnership with NuevaYorkinos.