El Museo del Barrio, an East Harlem institution founded by Puerto Rican New Yorkers to promote underrepresented Latino artists, will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2019. El Museo’s annual gala, held this year on May 2, is set to honor cultural philanthropists and advocates in a night of fundraising for the museum. However, one of the 2019 honorees, Gloria Von Thurn und Taxis, proved controversial. Scholars of Latinx art history openly opposed the museum’s decision to honor the German princess who is infamous for her rightwing politics and cozy relationship with former White House Chief Strategist, Steve K. Bannon. Today, El Museo announced it would be rescinding its “Ambassador of the Arts” award for the princess, whose relationship to the museum remains unclear.
Once nicknamed “Princess TNT,” Princess Gloria Von Thurn und Taxis is a reformed punk partier turned conservative Catholic and art collector. She, along with Steve Bannon (whom she calls a close friend), are actively involved in a rightwing movement that sees Pope Francis as a threat to the religion, bemoaning his liberal politics.
In 2001, she was criticized for her comments on a talk show in which she spoke of the AIDS crisis in Africa, saying of the epidemic, “the blacks like to copulate a lot.” In 2008 she followed up on these comments, saying that Africans have a lot of sex because of the continent’s high temperatures.
Saying that El Museo would no longer honor the princess, the museum wrote in a statement sent to Hyperallergic:
As a cultural institution founded on the principles of inclusion, civil rights, and diversity, El Museo del Barrio is committed to honoring individuals that uphold those values and support the elevation of Latino and Latin American art and culture both in the United States and beyond. As a result, El Museo del Barrio has decided to part ways with H.S.H. Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis.
The controversy surrounding El Museo’s award for the princess began with a tweet by Ana Dopico, a cultural critic and associate professor at New York University, who called the award “staggering & shocking.”
Dopico continued her comments in an email sent to Hyperallergic, saying:
El Museo was founded by New York Puerto Rican activists, educators, and artists whose community had been excluded from elite institutions in New York. It grew out of the multi-racial Puerto Rican community in New York and founded around the work of Puerto Rican artists … It is puzzling to see the Museo’s Gala honoring a person with little evident connection to that mission or to the community that founded and named El Museo. Thus far, she has not been known as a benefactor of El Museo.
After learning of the museum’s decision, Dopico wrote to Hyperallergic: “I hope the Board and El Museo’s state funders and private benefactors go forward with a greater commitment to the institution’s history, its mission, and the community it was founded to serve.”
Some cultural advocates are still not pleased with the museum’s decision.
Yasmin Ramirez, a Nuyorican scholar, professor, and former curator at El Museo, told Hyperallergic, “The fact that the museum dropped Princess Gloria from the honorees list after hearing criticism is less a sign of its ‘sensitivity’ to our community than evidence that the museum’s leadership lacks integrity and insight into how to move the institution forward.”
Alex Gonzales, who served on El Museo’s board for two years, tells Hyperallergic he was invited to lead a committee for the museum’s 50th anniversary but was perturbed to see Princess Gloria’s name on the roster. Gonzales told Hyperallergic in a phone interview on Wednesday: “It’s absolutely clear that a cultural institution needs important people with deep pockets — I just think that those people have to be aligned philosophically with the institution and I don’t think Gloria is. It perplexed me deeply when I was asked to host a committee with that name on it. I couldn’t put my name on that.”
He continued, “I was perplexed as to how the board came to the decision of honoring her as a top honoree. It does not seem to me that her views align at all with those of a Latinx institution. Her very public comments on the AIDS epidemic in Africa alone would have raised red flags. They were completely inhumane and voiced publicly on live television … So the question that I ask of El Museo was: What are these alignments? Why are you honoring this person? And I’ve yet to receive an answer.”
Liliana Porter, a contemporary Argentinian artist whose work is currently on view at El Museo in a solo exhibition titled Other Situations, told Hyperallergic in an email, “ … I cannot even imagine that somebody at the Museum had the bad idea of inviting this person. I am very surprised, and can only say that it is completely [inadmissible]. We are living in a very difficult time, with an extraordinary crisis of values, of [a] sense of solidarity, of humanity, becoming more and more reactionary and dangerously fascist. We cannot afford to make mistakes like this. I am glad the Museum withdrew from its intentions, but we should take this as an alert; we are all responsible for our future.”
The New York Department of Cultural Affairs tells Hyperallergic it has currently allocated $668K for operating and energy costs in the current fiscal year to El Museo but does not oversee the programmatic decisions of the private, nonprofit cultural organizations that receive city funding. A representative told Hyperallergic, “The City was not informed ahead of time or consulted, which is standard procedure for fundraisers and honoree decisions made by private nonprofits.”
Princess Gloria wrote to the New York Times about the controversy, saying: “I am disappointed to what degree the society is divided today and that there seems to be absolutely no room for tolerance whatsoever. My conservative religious views have absolutely no impact on my open mind on cultural diversity and inclusion. I have been friends with all sorts of people of different political and religious views all my life.”
Other awardees for the landmark anniversary gala include Ella Fontanals-Cisneros, a Cuban-born philanthropist and art collector; Craig Robins, an American entrepreneur, art collector, and philanthropist; and the museum’s founder, educator and artist Raphael Montañez Ortiz.
Arlene Dávila, a professor and scholar of Latinx studies who worked at the museum as a curatorial assistant, calls the honorees aside from Montañez Ortiz “random,” especially for the celebration of El Museo’s 50th anniversary. Dávila said in a phone interview with Hyperallergic:
These are people that do not have an involvement with this institution. They may be promoting Latin American artists, but I wonder how many Latinx artists are in their collections. How many Puerto Rican and Latinx artists have they promoted? How many times have they visited El Museo or been to East Harlem? Of course, it’s easy to be appalled by the princess because she’s a European rightwinger, and it’s easier to wonder and to call alarm. But I think its important to see the two other honorees, that the whole direction — who even thought this was a good idea? I think that beyond Raphael Montañez Ortiz, the honorees should be people that represent, that have helped build this community for the last 50 years. I would like to see those people honored.
Dávila told Hyperallergic, “El Museo has separated from its original mission.” She said the museum has not nurtured local Latinx artists or curators, choosing instead to import talent from Latin America, “aligning its interests with Latin American collectors.”
Karen Mary Davalos, a scholar of Chicano and Latino studies museum practices and cultural centers, told Hyperallergic, “[El Museo is] not really focused on Puerto Rican, Nuyorican, or US-Latino artists. It’s becoming a Latin American institution.” She continued, “This sort of mission drift is completely inspired by a misunderstanding of the value of Puerto Rican-Nuyorican art and the value of US-Latino artists. They assign more value to Latin America, Latin American born artists who migrate to the United States and get educated in this country.”
Dávila continued, “This is an institution that has been letting the community down for decades now, and it has consistently not heard what the community of artists, community board members, scholars, and people have been clamoring for — for an institution that really represents the Latinx community.” She added that the inclusion of Latinx people of Black and Indigenous descent, as well as curators and artists of different class backgrounds, is crucial for the development of the museum to truly align with its initial mission upon its founding 50 years ago, of representing the Latinx community in the arts.
Correction: An original version of this article identified Arlene Dávila as a former curator at El Museo del Barrio. Dávila was a curatorial assistant at El Museo.
This article has been updated to include a quote from Liliana Porter, whose exhibition Other Stories is currently on view at El Museo del Barrio through January 27.