A few times during her talk last week, historian and curator Yasmin Ramírez looked over at the copy of Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era by Julia Bryan-Wilson sitting on the table in front of her. It wasn’t a look of love. Each time she referenced the book it was, at least in part, with a sense of frustration that despite being one of the only books devoted to the subject of the Art Workers’ Coalition (AWC), Bryan-Wilson largely left out the involvement of black and Puerto Rican artists, all of whom played critical roles in the efforts of the group.
The talk was a teach-in organized by Arts & Labor, one of the working groups that formed through Occupy Wall Street. Arts & Labor’s goals involve “exposing and rectifying economic inequalities and exploitative working conditions” within the arts, and also seeking out new and/or adapting old institutional and organizational models that are more equitable and inclusive.
The Art Workers’ Coalition formed in 1969, growing out of the anti-war movement but taking on different goals that embraced not only an anti-war stance, but also a demand for a variety of reforms within New York City museums — from giving both museum visitors and artists seats on the board of every museum to including black and Puerto Rican artists on the staff to paying artists (read the AWC’s 1970 list of nine demands here). Unfortunately the AWC, as a larger group, disbanded fairly quickly, ending its activities in 1971. However, per Ramírez, rather than focusing on their short life as a larger collective, it’s worth noting that they did achieve both short-term and lasting changes:
- the hiring of the first black curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Lowery Stokes Sims;
- free hours/days at many NYC museums;
- demanding that museums engage with their surrounding communities and create education programs;
- driving institutions to hire and show work by people of color, specifically black and Puerto Rican artists, as well as women;
- the New York State Council on the Arts created the “Ghetto Arts Program” (scroll down to “Special Programs” at this link to read some of NYSCA’s 1970s language about this program) aimed at black and Puerto Rican artists — certainly problematic in retrospect, but an initial step in building community-based arts programming;
- and, as Ramírez suggested, perhaps the most important results were the larger projects led by artists who were involved in the AWC, such as Taller Boricua, El Museo del Barrio, and the Studio Museum in Harlem, which carry on to this day and were part of a larger goal to decentralize the art world — i.e. challenge the fact that power and wealth in the arts is highly concentrated among very few arts institutions and organizations.
Given the overlap in goals, and also the geographic location of both groups, it’s no surprise that Arts & Labor has taken an interest in learning more about the work of the AWC. And it was particularly good to see Arts & Labor (A&L) present the teach-in with Ramírez, accompanied by Marcos Dimas, co-founder of Taller Boricua and member of both AWC and the Puerto Rican Art Workers’ Coalition (PRAWC), after A&L came to understand that the history of the involvement of people of color was largely missing from the overviews they initially examined.
Early in the discussion Ramírez posed the question, “What would a history of the AWC look like if it foregrounded artists of color?” As photos came up later in the talk showing artists of color holding signs demanding representation, including one that read “Tokenism is Dead,” it was difficult not to think about the fact that more than four decades later we’re still struggling to achieve real inclusivity in the arts, across the board, and that tokenism is far from dead. But Ramírez’s commitment to foregrounding Puerto Rican artists, as well as women and black artists, in her telling of history, along with Dimas and Taller Boricua’s steadfast commitment to maintaining an artist- and community-centric ethos, provide strong counterpoints to the self-defeating assumption that there has been no progress.
The talk also demonstrated the deep importance of people within communities being able to give voice to their own history in larger forums as a way to counterbalance histories that would and have largely erased them. That need to give voice to history also made up the subtext of everything that Ramírez and Dimas shared — the struggle by various Puerto Rican artists to make themselves visible and to participate in the process of situating their work within the larger arts framework.
Dimas was one of a small group of young emerging artists who were selected to participate in the BrooklynMuseum’s Contemporary Puerto Rican Artists exhibit, which had a short run at the museum in early 1969. Still a student at the School of Visual Arts, pursuing his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, when the exhibition was mounted, Dimas said that, at the time, he “felt invisible, aesthetically,” given the near complete lack of representation of work by other Puerto Rican artists in institutions around the city.
Following that exhibition, Dimas worked with fellow artists Adrián Garcia, Manuel “Neco” Otero, Armando Soto, and others, to found El Taller Boricua. El Taller built not only on the groups’ artistic work but also their connections to the movement to decolonize Puerto Rico, as well as their desire to support efforts to improve the lives and well-being of Puerto Ricans living within New York City. It began primarily as a workshop engaged in political print-making, but quickly expanded to become a community space that hosted educational, artistic, and political organizing events and workshops.
Just prior to the founding of Taller Boricua, the already established Puerto Rican artist Rafael Montañez Ortiz, began putting together El Museo del Barrio, which, in its early days, had no physical space, but held exhibitions in schools and community centers serving Puerto Ricans in New York City.
Together, in 1970, Ortiz and the artists who founded Taller Boricua co-founded the Puerto Rican Art Workers Coalition. The group, which grew to include other artists, participated in numerous AWC actions, from the New York Art Strike against War, Repression, Racism, and Sexism on May 22, 1970, which was a response to the shooting at Kent State earlier that month, to the 1970 takeover, with Faith Ringgold, of Thomas Hoving’s office at the Metropolitan Museum of Art when Hoving was serving as the musem’s director. The PRAWC also worked at times with other revolutionary political groups focused on the East Harlem community, such as the Young Lords and Real Great Society.
Both Ramírez and Dimas’ sharing not only gave an account of the ways in which a large web of artists from multiple communities were participating in large-scale political struggles, but also the way in which the Puerto Rican artists that make up the bulk of Ramírez’s focus extended their work to include many activities that were not strictly art-making. By bringing forward Taller Boricua (where, I should mention, the talk was held), Ramírez seemed to be highlighting that the revolutionary viewpoint that grew out of PRAWC was one in which artistic practice could include institution-building, education work, helping to provide food and shelter to fellow community members, healthcare, and more. In addition, she focused on the ways that in El Museo del Barrio’s early days, and throughout Taller Boricua’s history, there was an emphasis on exhibiting work that demonstrated the artistry not only of recognized artists, or those who participated in art-making as a primary occupation, but also those from the community who engaged in creative activities not typically considered worthy of gallery display (ex. she noted that El Museo de Barrio’s first exhibit, which was hung in schools before the museum had a permanent space, consisted of needlework by Puerto Rican women living in the city).
Unfortunately it would be impossible to recount and attempt to contextualize everything that was discussed over the course of the evening, because it covered a lot of territory. But perhaps at the root of much of what was being said, was the notion of establishing through-lines in history and in communities.
It’s clear from the talk that while many histories of the AWC and the founding of El Museo del Barrio and El Taller Boricua focus on the critical years of 1968–1970, the history extends far beyond that brief time. Many of the artists who were part of that cultural revolution in the city have carried on their work, and, in particular, artists such as Dimas, have steadfastly remained involved in community-based work and art-making, carrying forward the struggle that began long before those years and hasn’t ended yet. In fact, Lee Quiñones, considered by many to be one of the most influential artists participating in the graffiti movement that flourished in New York City in the 1970s, was present at the event and joined in the discussion for a little while during the Q&A. Quiñones’ presence led Ramírez to highlight the way in which the continued presence of community-based organizations, particularly Taller Boricua, have helped established a “lineage” for Puerto Rican artists in the city. She went on to note: “I feel really happy that we’ve all found each other and there’s a continuum.”
Another important part of establishing that lineage, which grew out of PRAWC’s work was The Art Heritage of Puerto Rico, a major collaborative exhibition in 1973 involving El Museo del Barrio and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (among others), which, according to Ramírez, was “the first and is still the only comprehensive show on Puerto Rican art from the pre-Columbian to today.” Ramírez has published a paper (available as a PDF online) about the exhibition that gives a sense of the context in which it was created and also the some of the controversy and exclusion that it resulted in.
That paper, along with an essay by Lucy Lippard published in 1970 (available online as a PDF, h/t AFC), give a sense of the ways in which the time of the AWC and PRAWC, as well as the institutions that grew from it, including institutions like El Museo del Barrio, have been far from perfect and have often gone against their founding principles. At no point in the talk did either Ramírez or Dimas attempt to paint a falsely rosy picture of the AWC, the PRAWC, or their offshoots. And it was clear from Dimas that it has remained a struggle to keep Taller Boricua open and committed to its early goals. What the talk did provide, however, was clear evidence that while the PRAWC and the AWC may have been short-lived as collectives, the ripples from those early days have helped to shape and build alternative institutions and models of community-involvement that are great examples to study, for those willing to look outside of largely white-washed and depoliticized histories.
- Yasmin Ramírez’s paper linked above, “The Activist Legacy of Puerto Rican Artists in New York and The Art Heritage of Puerto Rico,” is published by the International Center for the Arts of the Americas at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, as part of their Documents of 20th-Century Latin American and Latino Art project, which consists of a digital archive that can be freely accessed.
- Listen to an oral history interview (on video) with Marcos Dimas, co-founder of Taller Boricua.
- MoMA holds a collection of materials related to El Taller Boricua, view the reference page here.
- Original documents from the Art Workers’ Coalition, which were part of Primary Information’s PS1 exhibit about the AWC, can be downloaded here.
It’s also worth noting that Ramírez is working on a book that builds on her dissertation, “Nuyorican Vanguards: The Puerto Rican Art Movement in New York.”
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