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Has El Museo del Barrio Betrayed Its Mission?

There is a particular way to think about the conflict around El Museo del Barrio that hasn’t yet been broached by the art press: the shift in its priorities may be generational.

El Museo del Barrio’s annual Dia de Muertos celebration (all photos courtesy El Museo del Barrio unless otherwise noted)

What are the ramifications of a museum betraying its primary audience? This word, “betrayal” is not a term that has been used in the conversation so far, but is likely what lies at the bottom of the controversies now roiling around at El Museo del Barrio. In the past two months, distinct activist groups and a former director have taken the museum to task for what they see as an abandonment of its original, core mission.

According to PRIDA, (Puerto Rican Institute for the Development of the Arts, Inc.) Puerto Rican art and artists were once the focus of El Museo, but now the museum has:

a decades long list of revolving door hires of non-Puerto Rican directors, curators, etc., that are continuously out of touch with our community and whose positions at El Museo effectively just serve merely as a temporary vanity stepping stone on the international climbing ladder of career Museum directors, curators, etc.

This argument is articulated in PRIDA’s May 19 letter sent to Patrick Charpenel, the executive director of the museum, five days after the museum announced the appointment of Rodrigo Moura as its chief curator. The hiring of both Charpenel, who came to the museum two years ago from Mexico, and Moura, who arrives from Brazil, are glaring examples of the institution “hiring Pan-Latinos … whose vision is to replicate a European blueprint of an art institution.” In essence, PRIDA wants the museum to be a mirror in which the Puerto-Rican community might see itself, its history, and legacies. Indeed, Marta Moreno Vega, a former director of El Museo, withdrew her work from a current exhibition, Culture and The People, weeks before it opened for precisely this reason. She reportedly said, “The base of creating the museum was to make sure our community saw themselves reflected on the walls … and my feeling is that is not happening.” She also wrote, “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.”

PRIDA’s posture contrasts somewhat with the more nuanced position taken by another group of activists who have developed a “Mirror Manifesto,” within which they widen out the definition of El Museo’s core audience. Using the term “Latinx,”  the signees of the Mirror Manifesto recognize that El Museo’s targeted community consists of other US-based Latino groups. This community, according to the manifesto’s writers, are in part the “Puerto Rican teachers, artists, parents and community organizers” that founded it. But the rest of what makes up El Barrio, they say, includes “first, second, and third generations of Mexicans, Colombians, Ecuadorians, and Hondurans … El Salvadorian and Guatemalteco kids … Cubans … the Tejanos, the Chicanos.” Plus, there are the identities deeply embedded in New York’s history: the Nuyorican and Dominiyorker. These disparate groups are all collected under the term “Latinx,” which is distinguished from “Latin American” in that Latinx groups live in the United States, though they originate from a diasporic Latinidad.

Still, the signees of the manifesto also desire “a museum reflective of the community that founded it,” instead of, “an elitist institution for Latin American art.” Members of PRIDA and the signees of the Mirror Manifesto (there are 544 at this date, including Moreno Vega) were understandably frustrated and baffled by the choice of Charpenel for executive director in May 2017. That frustration has come to boil with the appointment of Moura, who was most recently an adjunct curator of Brazilian art at the São Paulo Museum of Art. Charpenel himself has admitted that “there is a lack of representation for Latino communities and Latin Americans in the US.” However, the members of El Museo’s community who have been deeply disappointed by its recent actions, want more than this admission. They insist that this acknowledgment must be supported by clear, demonstrative action, particularly in terms of staff hires and the makeup of the museum’s board.

Rodrigo Moura, Chief Curator, El Museo del Barrio (photo by gnzmarroquin)

The signees of the Mirror Manifesto use the document to make a series of very clear demands, while PRIDA’s letter poses some rhetorical questions and ends with the insistence that Puerto Rican art return as “first and foremost the main focus.” Therefore, to clarify the terms of the debate around El Museo, I will use the Mirror Manifesto’s specific demands as a launchpad.

From what I can tell, there are essentially five demands for substantive changes: 1) to expand the museum’s collection of Puerto Rican art; 2) to implement a residency program for emerging Latinx artists; 3) To make the chief curator a Latinx art historian and Latinx curator; 4) the installation of a “decolonizing commission to independently review the collection”; and 5) that the board of directors reconstitute itself to mirror the community. It’s not clear how much leverage the protest groups have with El Museo, and therefore not clear how likely it is to have the museum accede to the majority of these requirements. However, has already acceded to one demand: In late March, El Museo announced that it had developed a new post for a curator specializing in Latinx art. But, if despite this one concession, the museum is on its way to becoming an elitist institution for Latin American art, the question worth asking is why this is.

El Museo del Barrio’s annual Dia de Muertos celebration

There is a particular way to think about this conflict that hasn’t yet been broached by the art press: the shift may be generational. There is a tendency among immigrant groups to the United States to follow a particular trajectory with regard to cultural and social assimilation. This assimilation is correlated with income differences, social status, and differences in lifestyle. It has been observed that those born to first-generation immigrants tend to identify less with their parents’ home countries and more simply (or perhaps not so simply) as American. This situation may be analogous.

Perhaps El Museo is now inhabited by senior staff and board that do not reflexively see themselves primarily as representatives of the Puerto Rican community that brought them into being. Perhaps they recognize themselves as being part of a global contemporary, that while sprouted from Boricua roots, have cultural cache and greater resonance as part of a wider and more diverse Latinidad. What typically happens in a family dynamic where the second-generation children disavow their parents’ powerful and sentimental attachments to an identity that is more static and committed to properly standing in for the homeland, when they begin to lose their vocal accents, when they have greater purchase in their professional communities because they speak the common language, is conflict, anger, resentment, and a sense of loss.

Patrick Charpenel, Executive Director, El Museo del Barrio (photo by gnzmarroquin)

I asked Patrick Charpenel what he thought El Museo del Barrio’s mission is now and he told me that he thinks the museum “remains faithful to its roots” in being a “platform for Nuyorican artists.” But then he said something else that indicated the thinking that underlies the direction in which he and the board are taking the museum. He told me that part of serving the community consists of “problematizing things like identity and cultural production.” He insisted that the purpose of a museum is not to legitimize particular ideas or histories, but to problematize them. This distinction between definitions of the museum is at the heart of the current conflict. If El Museo takes on the role of problematizer, rather than linchpin in the construction of a Latinx discourse and community, then of course it slots in easily to the multinational conceptual art apparatus that loves nothing more than a puzzle linked to some sort of “global south” authenticity, while representing itself in the language of sophisticated aestheticized abstraction of these same cultural roots.

El Museo del Barrio’s annual Three Kings Day Parade

The activists questioning the motives and heart of El Museo del Barrio likely do feel betrayed, and they wonder what will become of “their” museum when it move more decisively toward questioning rather than affirming cultural identity, when it treats identity not as key constitutive part of one’s being, but as a series of signs used to talk about abstracted meaning. If this shift in El Museo del Barrio is indeed generational, then its current priorities may not remain. The tendency of assimilation is that over the course of time, the third generation typically wants to find its way back to an authentic history and know for certain that it is home.

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