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Rushing Puerto Rico’s Premier Museum To Completion

by Lance Oliver

May 19, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

Workers are hustling about. Where dust now flies, Puerto Rico’s most priceless paintings must hang in a clean, beautifully appointed and climate-controlled setting in just six weeks. Where ground is now being plowed, a lavish garden is promised. There are still no seats in the theater.

Yet the staff at the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico looks busy but excited, not rushed and worried. The museum is due to be inaugurated on June 29 and opened to the public on July 1, and one way or another, everything will be ready by then, assures Executive Director Carmen Teresa Ruiz de Fischler.

There has been no lack of landmark projects in recent years, from new highways to the North Coast Superaqueduct to new cruise ship piers to the price-tag king of them all, the Urban Train. And Gov. Pedro Rosselló’s plans to erect a giant monument in Puerta de Tierra suggest even more attempts to leave a lasting tangible legacy. But despite all of the above, the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico may well be the grandest of them all.

Ultimately, the museum will become the preeminent home for Puerto Rican art of all types. But the inaugural exhibition, which will remain on display through the end of the year, will feature the greatest Puerto Rican paintings.

Many of those works have been in storage, preserved by institutions such as the Ateneo Puertorriqueño and the Puerto Rico Tourism Company, but rarely seen for lack of a suitable place to display them.

The Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico will provide that space. It includes 130,000 square feet of space including galleries, classrooms and workshops, a theater, a computer lab, a conservation lab, and an entire floor of office space for the museum staff.

The variety of those facilities, and the staff’s equally varied plans, mean the museum will be open evenings and weekends and will serve many different segments of the community.

Classes and workshops aimed at both children and adults will be offered, including evening classes that will allow more people to participate.

On the second floor, opening onto the five acres of landscaped gardens, the Family Gallery features interactive and hands-on displays designed to delight children. The Family Gallery and the grounds just outside make the museum an appropriate place to visit for families with children too small to spend all day in a regular gallery.

Space will be let for use by the museum’s sponsors and other corporations for special events and the theater is also equipped to host a variety of activities. The critically acclaimed Pikayo restaurant will relocate from its spot in the Condado to the third floor of the museum, just across the lobby from the theater. Along with the museum store, it will provide other incentives to visit the museum.

The site itself represents an interesting renovation. Located in the heart of Santurce in San Juan, it was once the municipal medical center and consisted of a complex of 13 buildings. By 1975, only the surgical hospital building remained and it was abandoned.

The site was owned by the Government Development Bank and former President Marcos Rodríguez-Ema, with the support of the governor and advice from former Tourism Company Director Luis Fortuño, decided to donate the land and funds totaling $55.2 million for the project. With the support of the Bank’s board and the governor, he was able to push through such a large donation and get the project started.

Architects Luis Gutiérrez and Otto Reyes, chosen for the museum project, studied old photos of the hospital to return it to its original appearance. Additions and changes were removed. The original roof tiles were rehabilitated, repaired and replaced. A section of the original fence along De Diego Street was found and used as a model to create a new one in the identical style.

What was once a hospital actually lent itself well to use as galleries.

"We joked that they designed the building to be a gallery and used it as a hospital for all those years, because it is perfect for a museum," Reyes said.

Grafted onto the back of the old hospital is the five-story addition which includes the other facilities. Parking was built underground and the design of the addition was kept as compact as possible so the gardens could be as expansive as possible.

Dust still coats the marble and the paintings are still stored safely away. But if the museum even comes close to living up to its billing (and the basics are already there, in place), it will be one of the grandest of the public works projects Puerto Rico has undertaken in what has been a hectic decade of building.

Lance Oliver writes The Puerto Rico Report weekly for The Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached by email at:

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