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March 12, 2004
Much is said about Puerto Rico's art scene. Throughout the years, the island has served as the home base for some very well-known artists, as well as the inspiration for many more.
Graphic arts in general are highly regarded here. So much so that every first Tueday of the month thousands of people flock to Old San Juan for the monthly Noches de Galeria (Gallery Nights). On this night, the art galleries in the old city stay open past their normal operating hours so people can head over after work in search of some new art and some fun.
Whether Gallery Nights, which began as an effort by the municipal government and the businesses in Old San Juan to spur economic activity in the city during the week, are centered around art or fun depends on who you ask. But in any case, if you happen to be in San Juan on the first Tuesday of the month, you cannot miss out on this Old City tradition.
To get a crash course on Puerto Rican art history, your first stop is the Puerto Rico Museum of Art in Santurce (only a short drive from Old San Juan). The museum is only about 3 years old, and although small, it is very well designed and has a good collection of Puerto Rican art that runs from old school portraits done during the Spanish colonization of the island, to more recent works by local artists like Domingo Garcia, Rafael Tufiño and Lorenzo Homar.
The museum also has its share of new art. The second floor has several display galleries that are constantly changing as different artists take over the space for installations.
One of the more interesting recent installations is by New York-based Puerto Rican artist Pepón Osorio. Osorio's installations recreate markedly Puerto Rican living spaces. The installation at the MAPR is that of a barber shop (three bona fide barber chairs and all) full of Puerto Rican regalia, from flags to old photos of local boxers. His recreation of the space is so accurate that you literally feel like you could sit at one of the chairs and ask for a trim (in Spanish, of course).
After you have gotten your fix at the museum, it will be time to head to Old San Juan for a night full of art.
The first stop is just outside the city walls at the Arsenal de La Puntilla.
This colonial building, right by the edge of the San Juan Bay, has become a nest for some of Puerto Rico's more reknown artists.
Recently Charles Juhaz, a former Yale graduate and now a professor at the Puerto Rico School of Plastic Arts, had a multi-installation exhibit that lasted several months. In the courtyard Juhaz installed a structure made of plumbing pipes, and throughout the duration of the exhibit different artists submitted alternative structures with the pipes, which Juhaz assistants would quickly start recreating. So while the exhibit lasted several months, those who ventured every Gallery Night, got to see a different central scuplture every time.
Once inside the Old City you want to head to Galeria Sin Titulo on Calle Luna. This gallery has become a breeding ground for upcoming artists.
Located on the second floor of a building that falls directly on the shadow of the back entrance to the San Juan City Hall, Sin Titulo has some of that New York something-great-tucked-in-a-corner feel. Exhibits here change every month, so the gallery is always cooking something up.
Further up the hill from Sin Titulo, you can wander into the Liga de Arte building, which overlooks the Plaza del Quinto Centenario (Quincentennial Square). The Liga de Arte is an art educational center where children and adults can sign up for classes in painting, sculpting and photography. Once the hub of new art in Puerto Rico, nowadays exhibits range from new artists to some established ones.
For some one-stop viewing, just across the street from Liga de Arte is the Museum of the Americas.
The Museum of the Americas has several exhibit halls where artists from all over the hemisphere showcase their works. The large courtyard in the middle of the building make this a great place for big exhibits with a lot of free wine and cheese, the obligatory diet of art critics.
And just before you start feeling the effects of some chronic museum fatigue (you know you have it when every painting starts looking the same) head a little further up to the School of Plastic Arts.
The school has become the quintessential art school in Puerto Rico, a title that used to belong to the University of Puerto Rico's Visual Arts Department. The artists exhibiting here are students, so on most occasions you get to witness some interesting dressing in the audience, good music and some very conceptual pieces.
The school might not have the best art at display on Gallery Nights, but they always have the best art show. And for travelers, this is the place to get a real dose of San Juan's bohemian art scene.
By this time, the bars and restaurants on San Sebastian Street, only two blocks away from the school, are bustling with people. The galleries are closing, and there is nothing left to do but stay up late in the Old City.
Puerto Rico Museum of Art
J.A. del Rosario, a business reporter for The San Juan Star, is a remedial guitar player and an incorrigible nightcrawler. He can be contacted at: : email@example.com