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Museum Hopping Beats The Post-hurricane Blues

By Brenda A. Mari

September 10, 2004
Copyright © 2004 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

Well, now that Tropical Storm Jeanne has left us in the wet, and the oozing humidity, iffy electrical network, and fidgety drivers drive us insane, a bit of sophistication would do us good. When civility becomes vital, indoor recreation, then, is the name of the game. And what better way to escape the hot-oven humid afternoon than cooling off while breathing in some fine art peace.

Puerto Rico’s dynamic art scene continues to evolve and respond to the island’s cultural phenomena. Even though the cutting edge pops up on the streets, glitzy galleries and artsy lounges, there is nothing quite like the museum experience. Here everything is nicely displayed. Somewhere in this seamless array of incarnated opinions, a modicum of civility soothes our core in such uncertain, crazy, frayed times.

Discover the gold in the digested culture that surrounds you and benefit from the superb air-conditioning tropical art institutions must invest in. Let’s just hope the voracious fungus hasn’t done a number on the art pieces.

Swing by the Santurce area of San Juan and visit two of the top art institutions on the island, the Puerto Rico Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art of Puerto Rico. Voila! You’ve got yourself a very posh, refined and tranquil breather from the hectic, imperfect, chaotic norm.

Puerto Rico Museum of Art (Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico, MAPR)

San Juan’s answer to the Ponce Museum of Art and cleverly affiliated with the Smithsonian, this is the big guy (and the most recent) in the metro area, boasting the most facilities for all you fine art aficionados. What was once part of San Juan’s Municipal Hospital, built in 1920 by architect William H. Shimmelphening, the West Wing, got a much-deserved restoration by well-known local architect Otto Reyes-Casanova. Inside, Puerto Rico’s art history is displayed chronologically. You’ll see lots of 17th century virgins, one in particular by local master José Campeche. Move on to the idolization of the jíbaro lifestyle with works by Francisco Oller to Puerto Rican public ads in the 50s by Lorenzo Homar and the bold mural style of the 70s of Augusto Marín.

The East Wing houses the temporary exhibits and the newer, more contemporary stuff. Here’s where the new exhibits pan out, the kids get to interact, and the performances and movies get shown. There is almost always something going on, whether it is a class on wood carving saints or a book reading. Recent exhibits include Hector Mendez Caratini "El Ojo de la Memoria," (The Eye of the Memory) a reflection of Puerto Rico’s Taíno roots through the use of photographs, and the series "Personajes," which give us a glimpse of Puerto Rico’s famous. Recently there have been more avant-garde shows like "Performance en Vivo" featuring the works of cutting-edge artists like Papo Colo.

Enhanced by a jewel of a sculpture garden and pond (complete with huge, ever hungry goldfish), the museum’s outside patio is as much a haven for weary city folk as any. It has sculptures from 14 different artists and plenty of tropical plants to commune with. No wonder they hold Tai Chi and Yoga classes in such a peaceful, perfectly designed corner. There’s even a top-rated restaurant, Pikayo, whose food I have never had the pleasure to dine on. There is also a small, yet sophisticated store with lots of neat things to take home.

Museum of Contemporary Art of Puerto Rico (Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Puerto Rico, MAC)

Personally having been part of this museum’s pivotal move and struggle to settle into the restored Labra building in the heart of Santurce, I can say that this is the most extensive collection of grassroots, contemporary art on the island. Most of it was donated by the artists themselves. The museum itself, as an institution, arose from a private initiative to promote artistic and cultural discovery on the island and provide a forum for emerging artists during the mid 80s.

The Labra Building was once a dilapidated public school from the turn of the century that was suffering from inner city despair, until architect Otto Reyes was appointed by the government to remodel it and the MAC took it upon itself to fill the space with noteworthy art.

The space is an oasis within the chaos of Santurce. Right now they have the Casa Candina Ceramic Biennial and the comprehensive Permanent Collection, with works from renowned Puerto Rican artists such as abstract artist Noemi Ruiz, color-loving Rafael Trelles and the Van Gogh-inspired Arnaldo Roche Rabell. Exhibits that are soon to open include Nelson Sambolin on October 7, where there will be a performance, live drawing, dance and piano. On October 11, part of the Polygraphic Triennial of Puerto Rico will open, featuring works by the multi-faceted Antonio Martorell, "airmail" painter Eugenio Dittborn and digital prints by Yolanda Fundora. On October 29, digital graphics by Alejandro Quinteros will take center stage.

The grounds are neatly manicured; the spaces ample and welcoming. The store has more offbeat things than that of the MAPR and you can also buy inexpensive works of art from well-known artists.

More art in Santurce

There is, of course, more than enough museums in Old San Juan than you can shake a stick at. But that, my dear friends, is subject for another column and a completely different journey through the backdrop of Puerto Rico’s diverse history.

Santurce also boasts plenty of galleries that are showing off the latest on the street, like the Galería de Arte at the University of the Sacred Heart, which is now showing "El espacio del objeto," a collection of everyday objects as seen through the eyes of industrial design. There is also a newer crowd showing off at the eclectic, loft-styled Roka Espacio, which has rotating exhibits every month. By the way, they’re having a New York-style flea market this Sunday, September 26, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Who knows what you can find there. At least you’re off the crazy streets.

Yet another well-put gallery is Petrus Galerus, now in a two-level loft in Miramar. They host some of the best and poshest openings in town and display the up-and-coming artists. They now have a collective representation that is sure to please the modern art connoisseur.

So there you have it: options to escape the sweltering humidity and the insanity of a place that is still, believe it or not, recovering from such a mild atmospheric phenomenon. Enjoy at your own leisure.

The Lowdown

Puerto Rico Museum of Art

300 De Diego Avenue



Open: Tues. - Sat.,10 a.m - 5 p.m.; Wed, 10 a.m. - 8 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. - 6: p.m. Entrance: $5 adults; $3 kids, students and senior citizens.

Museum of Contemporary Art of Puerto Rico

Rafael M. Labra Building

Stop 18, Santurce


Open: Tuesday - Sat. 10 a.m - 4 p.m.; Sunday 1p.m. - 4 p.m.

Entrance: $3 adults; $1 students; free, senior citizens, members and registered artists.

Intitute of Puerto Rican Culture, Museums and Parks Program
199 Callejón de la Capilla
Old San Juan

787-977-2700 , 787-977-2701

Check out this neat interactive museum route from the Institute of Culture.

These guys will ultimately let you know where is what.

Galeria de Arte USC

Inside the grounds of the University of the Sacred Heart


Roka Espacio

1800 Ciales Street, Corner of Diez de Andino St.


787-723-75 34


Petrus Galerus

Hoare Street, Miramar


Brenda A. Mari is an editor/reporter for The San Juan Star, an accomplished web copywriter and a fan of everything unusual. She can be reached at

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