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Puerto Rico Profile: Susana Torruella Leval

March 16, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

On March 1, The New York Times reported that El Museo del Barrio, a bastion of Puerto Rican art and culture in New York City since 1969, may soon join the ranks of the city’s largest and most prominent cultural institutions. El Museo has occupied part of a building on Fifth Avenue, near the northeast corner of Central Park, for close to 25 years. In the near future, however, the museum may have the chance to take over the building next door, where the Museum of the City of New York now resides and which offers almost ten times the exhibit space of El Museo’s current location.

Such a move would be a tremendous step forward for a museum that originated in a single public school classroom in East Harlem. It would also signify a major advance in prestige for New York Hispanics, who now constitute a third of the city’s population.

El Museo del Barrio was founded by a group of Puerto Rican parents, teachers, and artists who were inspired by the civil rights movement of the 1960s and were concerned that their cultural experience was not being represented by New York’s major museums. El Museo is at heart an educational institution, dedicated to providing a venue for the people of Harlem’s Hispanic community "El Barrio" to explore — and create — their own art and culture. After moving between several storefront locations, El Museo settled into its current home in 1977. In 1978 it became part of the "Museum Mile," the stretch of Fifth Avenue that includes such world-famous institutions as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim Museum.

Today, El Museo del Barrio is flourishing, operating on a $3 million annual budget and attracting some 60,000 visitors each year. The museum boasts a permanent exhibit on the pre-Columbian Taíno culture of the Caribbean that is unparalleled in the United States, and its education programs reach almost 20,000 New York City schoolchildren.

At the helm of El Museo at this time of great growth and promise is Susana Torruella Leval, the museum’s director since 1994. "This moment is so fabulous," she said in a recent interview at her office, which overlooks a beautiful garden and lake on the edge of Central Park. "We finally have a visibility and a different type of credibility."

Torruella Leval has been a central force behind El Museo del Barrio’s transformation from a small, grassroots endeavor to a major cultural institution. She has drawn much praise (and some criticism) by actively working to broaden El Museo’s funding, budget, and audience. She has also been instrumental in expanding the museum’s mission to represent all Latinos at a time when Puerto Ricans in El Barrio have been joined by large numbers of Mexicans, Dominicans, and Central Americans.

Susana Torruella Leval’s success is no accident. It stems from an excellent background in art history and museology, an enduring pride in her Puerto Rican heritage, and a belief that cities like New York, where so many cultures occupy a relatively small space, provide a unique opportunity for people to understand themselves and each other better.

She first came to New York from Puerto Rico in 1962, to attend Manhattanville College. There she studied art history and rubbed elbows with another ambitious young Puerto Rican woman, Sila Calderon, now the governor of the island. Torruella Leval later received a Master of Arts degree from New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts.

New York was at first a major culture shock to Torruella Leval, who experienced prejudice and hostility on a regular basis. "It was insane for the ignorance of the people who surrounded me," she said. "I don’t think that young people now can understand such ignorance."

In 1970, she applied unsuccessfully to work at El Museo del Barrio, then only a year old. Instead, she found a job at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) as a research assistant. "The MoMA was my great school of museology," she recalled. She thrived in an environment of "passionate, astonishing people" from whom she learned skills like the art of designing an exhibition. "That’s something that you have to learn, and you learn it from experience," she said. "There’s nothing left to chance. There shouldn’t be."

After MoMA, Torruella Leval moved to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she worked in a very different capacity. Leading Spanish-speaking groups on tours through the museum, she developed a new appreciation of an audience’s perspective. "I love the one-to-one contact that happens when you teach in galleries," she said. "I love the challenge of trying to approach people who might never have been to a museum, [in addition to] experts."

In 1990, with two decades of invaluable experience under her belt, Torruella Leval came to El Museo del Barrio as Chief Curator. "When I asked myself what I wanted to do," she remembered, "I realized that I really wanted to see if I could contribute to a place that had some personal resonance for me in terms of a cultural identity. That pull … led me to come back and try to help an institution that I perceived ten years ago to be at a very interesting moment."

El Museo del Barrio’s current expansive trajectory was just beginning when Torruella Leval arrived. During her years at El Museo del Barrio, both as a curator and as director, she has nourished that progress by applying lessons learned throughout her career.

From MoMA, she brought expertise in "how a great museum works" and a penchant for bringing in talent like Deborah Cullen, curator of El Museo’s current showcase of young Puerto Rican artists, a provocative exhibit entitled "Here and There/Aquí y Allá."

From the Met, Torruella Leval brought an ability to approach a museum from a visitor’s perspective. "It’s really interesting to try to gauge your audience," she said. "I found that really exciting, and I think that it also influenced me to think that the program here [at El Museo] has to have a little bit for everyone. Everyone who comes in through these doors should feel good about being here, whether they have a Ph.D. or whether they’ve never been to a museum before."

Susana Torruella Leval and El Museo del Barrio face interesting challenges as more and more people come through the museum’s doors. Torruella Leval acknowledged that there have been some growing pains, as some critics have charged El Museo with forsaking its roots. "You have to be very vigilant or you lose a connection that’s very important," she said.

She is unyielding, however, about the decision to create a more pan-Latino identity for El Museo, a move that has angered some Puerto Ricans in New York. She argued that Puerto Ricans have a special role among all Latinos in El Barrio because of their role in founding the community. "They opened the way, they led the way, they opened the doors for everyone else. And they should do it again. Once you open doors, you can’t close them again."

Looking to the future, Torruella Leval sees the continued growth of El Museo del Barrio and an expansion to a larger building as essential, despite the inevitable pitfalls. "We have to ask ourselves: Is bigger better?" she said. "If I can in the next building serve the Venezuelans, the Colombians, the Argentines, and the Puerto Ricans, then yes, to me that is better."

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