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Latinx Scholars, Curators, and Artists Urge El Museo del Barrio to Stay True to Its Mission

A letter penned by a group of Latinx artists, scholars, and community activists accuses the museum of straying from its identity and mission.

Juan Sanchez, “Untitled (Las Tres Marias)” (1981) from ¡Presente! The Young Lords in New York, held partly at El Museo del Barrio (photo by Vic Vaiana for Hyperallergic)

In the latest chapter of a series of controversies dogging El Museo del Barrio in Manhattan’s East Harlem neighborhood, a newly-released open letter penned by a group of Latinx artists, scholars, and community activists accuses the museum of straying from its identity and mission.

Titled the “Mirror Manifesto,” the letter charges El Museo del Barrio with abandoning its original charter as an incubator and home for underrepresented Latin American art in New York and around the country. The activists claim that the museum has turned its back on its community to pursue a new market-driven agenda that fetishizes and oversimplifies Latin American art for branding and fundraising purposes.

Accusations include “elitism, white washing, LGTBQIA exclusion and anti-blackness” — all of which are described in the letter as aggravating the misrepresentation of Latinx art rather than remedying it. It goes on to criticize the museum for failing to launch a studio residency program to support emerging artists, and for neglecting to represent the wide diversity of the Latinx community in its choice of board members. The letter demands that substantial resources be directed towards resolving these issues, in addition to a demand to form a “decolonizing commission” that would independently review the museum’s collection and to make recommendations.

After stumbling into multiple controversies in the past few months, and walking back decisions like rescinding a philanthropy award for German Princess Gloria Von Thurn und Taxis, the museum’s recent hire of Brazilian curator Rodrigo Moura as its chief curator has brought the community’s discontent to a boil. Moura, who is the former associate curator of Brazilian art at the Museu de Arte de São Paulo, is a particular thorn in the activists’s side.

“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,” the letter says. The activists demand the appointment a chief curator who is a Latinx art historian and Latinx curator, and a curatorial staff composed of people who “speak to the Latinx experience.”

Two major art figures in the Latinx art community have announced their disengagement with El Museo del Barrio in response to its decision to hire Maura. In a statement posted to Facebook, Marta Moreno Vega, one of El Museo’s founders who served as its second director, said she had pulled her self-portrait from the exhibition Culture and The People: El Museo del Barrio, 1969–2019. That show is divided into two halves, with the first part, a permanent collection display, scheduled to open on April 11 at the museum. “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,” Vega wrote.

Curator Marina Reyes Franco canceled her participation in a panel with Latinx artists that she was invited to moderate at the museum. “The hiring of Rodrigo Moura as chief curator is only the latest misstep in a series of decisions that have taken the museum in a direction away from Puerto Rican/Latinx artistic community and concerns,” Reyes Franco wrote in a statement sent to Hyperallergic, nodding to other recent controversies at El Museo. “With all the merits and recognition that he has, I am definitely not the only one who questions the reason and relevance of this designation for El Barrio and the Latinx community in New York.”

The question of Maura’s appointment is part of a larger debate over the identity of the museum as it celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Founded by Puerto Rican artists, educators, and community activists in the late 1960s, El Museo del Barrio’s mission was to support and promote marginalized Latin American artists living in the United States. Times have changed since then, the activists write, and thanks to wealthy Latin American collectors, Latin art is now duly represented in the collections and boardrooms of major institutions like the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Furthermore, demographic changes, marked by a general growth of Latinx diasporas in East Harlem over the last 50 years, may require a new and more inclusive definition for the term El Barrio (neighborhood), which until now was associated with the Puerto Rican community at the museum. The activists suggest that the museum adopts the term “Latinx” to represent the wide array of Latin American and Caribbean communities in the United States.

What started as a worthy cause, the activists add, has since aged into an archaic world view that makes a colonial-style use of the definition “Latin American Art” as a blanket term, thus erasing the cultural needs and particularities of the local Latinx community. As a result, they say, new generations of Latinx artists have come to see the El Museo as irrelevant: “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.”

“We fight because we care about the museum,” said artist Scherezade Garcia, one of the letter’s signees, in a conversation with Hyperallergic. Garcia, whose work is featured in the museum’s collection, stresses that while a majority of the museum’s staff has the best of intentions, its board has made decisions that are worlds apart from the museum’s original intent. “We demand more inclusivity in a museum that is rooted in activism. El barrio is constantly changing, and the Museo del Barrio should change with it while remaining conscious of its roots,” she added.

Juan Sanchez, artist and Professor of Art and Art History at Hunter College wrote in a comment to the letter, “The founding of El Museo del Barrio was our way to decolonize our reality, racial and ethnic identity, creative expression and history … We should always defend it and wrest it from those who want to change it.” In another comment, Jesus Papoleto-Melendez, a founder of the Nuyorican poetry movement, wrote, “We cannot support a system that seems to hire international art workers while we ignore our own artists and intellectuals who have dedicated their lives to this study.”

“We appreciate the feedback from our community and the recognition of the importance of the breadth and range of the Latinx experience,” El Museo del Barrio told Hyperallergic in an email. “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.”

El Museo del Barrio “must decolonize,” the activists insist, or hand the reins over to a new guard of Latinx scholars and artists who will steer it back on track.

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