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THE NEW YORK TIMES
El Museo Is Accused Of Forsaking Puerto Rican Roots
by MIREYA NAVARRO
January 15, 2001
El Museo has installed a permanent exhibition of Taino art, from the indigenous people of the Caribbean.
Three men with an entourage of camels and sheep paraded around the streets of East Harlem on Jan. 5 before settling down to distribute gifts among children at El Museo del Barrio, which sponsored the event.
A Three Kings Day parade may be an unusual activity for a museum, but El Museo, a cultural institution born out of the political struggles of Puerto Rican New Yorkers, has always juggled functions. One of them, its officials say, is upholding Latino traditions like the parade, which commemorated the journey of the Magi to Bethlehem to bestow gifts on the baby Jesus.
But these days, El Museo is also juggling the tasks of staying true to its Puerto Rican roots while rapidly gaining visibility as a bigger cultural force in New York City. In the last 10 years, it has tripled its staff to 30 and almost quadrupled its budget to $3 million, museum officials said.
Last year, the museum, at 104th Street and Fifth Avenue on Manhattan's Museum Mile, obtained its first endowment, $1 million from the Ford Foundation. And in October, it installed a permanent exhibition of Taino art, from the indigenous people of the Caribbean, which has 125 pieces and is the most comprehensive presentation of such art in the country, said the museum's director, Susana Torruella Leval.
Most of the pieces are on loan from private collections and major museums. The installation, with pieces from Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Haiti, is a major step toward making the museum a center of Taino scholarship, Ms. Torruella Leval said.
Susana Torruella Leval, the museum's director, at the Three Kings Day Parade. She says El Museo is "expanding horizons."
"We're ready to have national and international visibility," she said.
El Museo del Barrio came out of protests staged against the city's major museums in the 1960's. The protesters wanted the museums to decentralize their collections and create cultural centers more responsive to a wider range of the city's population, said Marcos Dimas, a painter who was an adviser to the museum's first board and who also founded Taller Boricua, an artists' organization in East Harlem.
In 1969, a group of artists, teachers and political organizers inaugurated El Museo from a public school classroom as a Puerto Rican neighborhood cultural center, financed by the Board of Education. According to the museum's official history, "El Museo defined itself as an institution that would educate through a collection of culturally significant objects and as a place of cultural pride and self-discovery for the Puerto Rican founding community."
Its early shows through the 1970's included exhibitions of Puerto Rican folk art and collective exhibitions of Latin American artists working in New York. From 1969 to 1976, the museum migrated among storefronts in East Harlem before it found its permanent home at the Heckscher Building, opposite the Conservancy Gardens in Central Park at 1230 Fifth Avenue, in 1977.
The museum now offers a mix of art and community and educational programs. It has a permanent collection of about 6,500 pieces, from pre- Columbian objects to contemporary paintings and sculpture, and changing exhibitions of contemporary and historical art.
And while Puerto Rican art still represents a large part of its programming, the museum has reduced the number of Puerto Rican exhibits in recent years to make room for more Latin American works, in efforts to respond to the population changes of East Harlem, or "el Barrio," the neighborhood that was a gateway of Puerto Rican migration into the United States but that now is home to increasing numbers of other Hispanic immigrants. In the 1990's, the museum broadened its focus, expanding its mission to preserving and promoting "the cultural heritage of Puerto Ricans and all Latin Americans in the United States."
The museum has gradually diversified its staff, board and exhibits, and today is as likely to have a gallery devoted to Mexican or Salvadoran art as to Puerto Rican art. Mostly as a result of what Ms. Torruella Leval describes as "expanding horizons and opening doors," El Museo has attracted new audiences, and has not only survived, but also thrived.
Among its about 55,000 annual visitors compared with about 16,000 10 years ago 45 percent are not Latino. "An important factor of that growth has been the ability to create linkages and partnerships with new constituencies," said Ms. Torruella Leval, who is Puerto Rican.
But among Puerto Rican New Yorkers, who founded the museum in the heat of the civil rights movement to give a place to Puerto Rican culture in the city, some have seen the museum's evolving identity with alarm. In recent years, critics have denounced its expanded mission and pan-Latin efforts as an erosion of the museum's Puerto Rican core.
For these critics, what is troubling is not that the museum has opened its doors to other groups in fact, it has always shown other Latin American artists but what they view as the stated goal of giving it a more Latin American, and less Puerto Rican, image. Some critics said the Puerto Rican slant of the museum was still there only because of public vigilance. A few years ago, when a rumor circulated that the museum board was considering changing El Museo's name to something more Latin American, an uproar ensued in letters and columns in the Spanish- language press denouncing the move as a way to "de-Puerto Ricanize" the institution. (Museum officials denied that a name change was being contemplated.)
"The barrio may change, it may have more Mexicans, but that doesn't mean the museum should turn Mexican," said Franklin Flores, one of the critics and a painter who attended the museum's art school in the 1970's. "Preserving the art and culture of Puerto Rico should be the primary mission."
Some critics said they understood the need for diversity and growth, but accused the museum of straying too far from its grass-roots beginnings. To Manuel Vega, a New York visual arts artist who attended and later taught art workshops at the museum, the place has lost its bohemian soul, acquired the character of "one of these Fifth Avenue institutions" and seems more welcoming of tourists than of its neighbors, many of whom remain poor. "It's like Epcot Center," he said. "You pay the ticket and you see the pretty show."
But El Museo also has many defenders. Sandra Perez, executive director of the Association of Hispanic Arts, which promotes Latino art and culture in the city, praised the museum as trying to embody the diversity of Latino experiences.
"We can't dismiss the fact that it's considered a premier institution, and that status is deserved because there's a lot of great work featured that would have never been shown by the major institutions in this city," she said.
The museum has been operating in the black for the last three years, museum officials said, and is now talking expansion, even into other locations. It is also planning yearly conferences on Taino archaeology, and next fall is expected to hold a major Brazilian exhibition.
The city, which once froze the museum's financing in the 1980's, citing a pattern of financial mismanagement, including government funds that were unaccounted for, now gives it rave reviews.
"It's a real player along Museum Mile and in the city because of the ways the art is curated there and things are shown," said Lynne King, deputy director of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, which gives El Museo nearly a fourth of its budget a year, about $700,000, including rent in the city-owned Heckscher Building. "It's so well done."
Pepon Osorio, a Puerto Rico-born artist who has exhibited in the museum and recently moved to Philadelphia from New York, said resistance to seeing such a historic institution move from the periphery to the mainstream was understandable, but should subside.
"They're moving faster than the community wants to move forward," he said. "But you have to move forward if you want to create a presence in the United States and New York. If we want to be taken seriously, we have to be in the mainstream."
Mr. Dimas, of Taller Boricua, said the proprietary feelings Puerto Ricans have about the museum derive from their need to have their culture set apart, since they come from a Hispanic culture with century-old ties to the United States.
"To the North Americans, we're Latin Americans, and to the Latin Americans, we're North American," he said. "That in itself is an issue that the museum refuses to deal with directly."
But Ms. Torruella Leval considers Puerto Rico very much part of Latin America, and said its artistic contribution should be put in that larger context. She stressed, however, that with Puerto Ricans accounting for a majority of the museum's 20-member board, a third of its staff and a large, and consistent, portion of exhibitions, there was nothing to fear.
"They need to be reassured," she said of the founding Puerto Rican community, "that they will always be at the center of our mission and that the expansion shouldn't be a concern because it doesn't endanger their place."