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El Museo Is Thinking Outside The Barrio


November 8, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved. 


Julian Zugazagoitia will become the new director of El Museo del Barrio in East Harlem this month. He will be the first non-Puerto Rican to run the museum, which was founded in the 1960's as a place of cultural pride for Puerto Ricans.

PHOTO: Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times


El Museo del Barrio officials were ecstatic: their Frida Kahlo exhibition was a blockbuster.

Before it ended in September, the exhibition drew more than 70,000 visitors over four months, tens of thousands more than usually visit the museum in an entire year. It even brought the stars and the paparazzi out one night for a showing of the movie "Frida," with the actress Salma Hayek among the hip New York crowd that strolled from the museum's theater to the gallery where Kahlo's self-portraits were on view along with works by Diego Rivera and other Mexican modernist painters.

It was the kind of exhibition that fit in with the officials' ambitions to make El Museo, on Fifth Avenue at 104th Street, a world-class cultural institution for anything Latino..

"El Barrio" is the East Harlem neighborhood that created El Museo in the 1960's as a place of cultural pride for Puerto Ricans, and as space for art not represented elsewhere. But around El Barrio, there are fears that exhibitions showcasing the likes of Frida Kahlo are helping subvert the museum's original function by gradually displacing the community-based artists it was intended for.

The debate over the long-term vision for El Museo is about to fall into the lap of Julian Zugazagoitia, 38, El Museo's newly appointed director, the first who is not Puerto Rican. A museum administrator and curator who was born and raised in Mexico, Mr. Zugazagoitia (pronounced soo-gah-zah-go-ee-TEE-a) takes the helm on Nov. 18 at a time not only of heightened criticism, but of post-Sept. 11 belt-tightening that has put a damper on the museum's dreams of expansion.

With his decidedly outsider's background, Mr. Zugazagoitia, who was executive assistant to the director of the Guggenheim Museum, could become a lightning rod for complaints from those worried that the museum is becoming estranged from its neighborhood.

"All we have is El Museo del Barrio," said Juan Sanchez, a painter, photographer and printmaker who is part of a campaign to keep El Museo true to its roots.

"Latin America never includes Puerto Rico as part of the Latin American experience in art, while we're also marginalized from the American scene," said Mr. Sanchez, who was born in Brooklyn to Puerto Rican parents. He has exhibited at El Museo and at major museums like the Museum of Modern Art. "The threat of El Museo losing its identity as a Puerto Rican institution is very critical for us."

Mr. Zugazagoitia has a doctorate in philosophy and aesthetics from the Sorbonne and vast international experience that includes serving as director of visual arts for the Spoleto Festival in Italy and as special adviser to the director of the Getty Conservation Institute and a consultant to it.

Until 1999, when he arrived in New York, he lived in Paris and elsewhere in Europe for nearly 20 years.

In an interview at El Museo's offices, Mr. Zugazagoitia was unfazed by the criticism. He said he hoped to channel "all this effervescence" into something constructive that moves beyond discussion to make El Museo's voice even stronger in the art world. "The community is close to the museum, and that's a positive thing," he said.

To some Puerto Ricans, El Museo's working-class, socially conscious origins make it a symbol as emotional as Vieques, the Puerto Rican island used by the United States Navy for target practice. The search for a new director over the summer set off a petition drive, rallies and calls for community participation in the selection, to no avail.

Now the same advocates, including artists, scholars and members of the cultural affairs committee of Community Board 11, are pressing for representation from their ranks on the museum's board in a campaign called "We Are Watching You." Museum officials said there was consensus among them to add such representation.

"It's not just about paintings; it's about our history," said Arlene Davila, an assistant professor of American studies at New York University who is among those who have met with museum officials.

But El Museo, which was so mismanaged in the mid-1980's that the city froze its government financing, has been able to thrive financially and gain more visibility by striking a balance between its mission and what is popular. In the 1990's, its mission was broadened to preserving and promoting "the cultural heritage of Puerto Ricans and all Latin Americans in the United States," taking into account New York's increasingly diverse Hispanic population.


It has made room for more works from Latin America, which Museo officials say connect that population with its historical and aesthetic past.

"We can't limit ourselves," said Tony Bechara, a painter who is chairman of El Museo's 23 trustees, 12 of them Puerto Rican, he said. "We tried that, and we were going bankrupt."

Critics say they welcome inclusion; El Museo has always shown other Latin American artists. But they want it to remain a Puerto Rican institution. Their wish list also includes proposals that Mr. Zugazagoitia said he would happily carry out, like permanent space for an exhibition documenting El Museo's history and new programs to train Latino curators and artists. But he said the real challenge is how much can be done in a more constrained financial climate.

"Sept. 11 can be seen as a turning point for many things, especially the ability of capturing and seizing corporate generosity," he said.

While El Museo remains on solid financial ground, officials said, it expects its financing from the city and private sources to shrink in the economic downturn. So far, board officials said, El Museo's budget continues to grow, and plans for a $6 million renovation, including a new courtyard cafe, are going forward.

But El Museo's expansion plans suffered a blow this year when Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg decided to give the renovated Tweed Courthouse in Lower Manhattan to the public schools system rather than to the Museum of the City of New York. That museum is just a block from El Museo, which had hoped to expand into its neighbor's site and acquire five times its current space.

The expansion may still happen, but for now El Museo must make do with only three gallery spaces, a 599-seat theater and offices scattered on two floors of the city-owned Heckscher Building.

The limited space allows for only a permanent exhibition of Taíno art, from the indigenous people of the Caribbean; an exhibition of items from the museum's 6,500-piece permanent collection that range from pre-Columbian objects to contemporary paintings and sculptures; and, in the third space, changing exhibitions of contemporary and historical art.

Mr. Zugazagoitia said finding more space, even outside the neighborhood, would be a priority. "For cutting-edge dance you go to BAM," he said. "For something of good quality that's Latino, you come here."

Mr. Zugazagoitia said that the museum represents Puerto Rican, Latino and Latin American communities "in that order," but that he also believes in balancing "the best of our past and the best of our contemporary art." While many are withholding judgment on him, the fact that he is not Puerto Rican reinforces what Mr. Sanchez, the artist, said was "a progressive move to convert El Museo to something else."

Mr. Bechara said Mr. Zugazagoitia was chosen for his knowledge of the art world and his personality, but also has a mandate to keep El Museo involved with its immediate community. For his part, Mr. Zugazagoitia said he was ready to talk with the museum's critics.

"I'm starting with a clean slate," he said.

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