Why Is Director Jorge Daniel Veneciano Leaving El Museo del Barrio?

Veneciano had only been with the museum two years.

Jorge Daniel Veneciano. Courtesy of the Sheldon Museum of Art at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, Nebraska.

New York’s El Museo del Barrio is losing its executive director, Jorge Daniel Veneciano, after just two years, the museum announced August 12. Veneciano will depart at the end of the month.

Recent years have seen a great deal of turnover in top leadership positions at the museum, as well as financial difficulties. Former chief curator Chus Martínez, for instance, was only on staff for just over a year before leaving for a new post at the FHNW Academy of Art and Design in Basel in January 2014.

On the directorial level, Julián Zugazagoitia resigned in 2010, and was replaced in August 2011 by Margarita Aguilar. She then stepped down after two years at the post, amid major controversy. In 2013, Aguilar filed a gender discrimination suit, claiming she had been wrongfully terminated, following comments made by board members. (According to Art in America, a board member allegedly urged Aguilar to “pluck her eyebrows, lose weight and wear more expensive clothing.”) The case was later dismissed.

Jorge Daniel Veneciano and Rocio Aranda Alvarado at El Museo del Barrio's Gala. Courtesy of BFA.

Jorge Daniel Veneciano and Rocio Aranda Alvarado at El Museo del Barrio’s Gala. Courtesy of BFA.

Veneciano, who joined the museum in March 2014, is leaving “to pursue new opportunities.” El Museo is dealing with his abrupt departure by enlisting Berta Colón, the deputy director of institutional advancement, and Carlos Gálvez, the deputy executive director, to co-direct in the interim.

Unsurprisingly, the museum is taking an optimistic view of the situation. “After almost three years at El Museo del Barrio, Jorge Daniel leaves a legacy of outstanding exhibitions and programs, increased attendance, and deepened community engagement,” said board of trustees chair María Eugenia Maury in a statement.

But how much of a “legacy” can be left after only two years?

Reflecting on his tenure in a statement, Veneciano noted that it had been “an honor to lead El Museo… As a team, we have been able to elevate the museum’s stature and lift its service capacities to new heights.”

The museum has been on shaky ground for some time, as its original purpose, to be a reflection of the local Puerto Rican community in East Harlem, is threatened by gentrification; the area is currently 55 percent Hispanic, according to a recent city spotlight.

“We’re in crisis mode right now, and as far as retaining the Puerto Rican and Latino identity in the neighborhood, we’re in red alert,” a resident told the New York Times nearly a decade ago. The question then remains: Who is the museum for?

El Museo del Barrio at night. Courtesy of El Museo del Barrio.

El Museo del Barrio at night. Courtesy of El Museo del Barrio.

“The mission of El Museo del Barrio is to present and preserve the art and culture of Puerto Ricans and all Latin Americans in the United States,” reads the institution’s current mission statement, adopted in 2000. According to a 2003 paper by Yasmin Ramirez for the Smithsonian Center for Latino Initiatives, the expanded mission may fail on these promises by neglecting the Puerto Rican diaspora, and some critics are worried that it is attempting to water down its message (and raise its profile) by a focus on becoming a pan-Latin American art museum. After all, it now bills itself as “New York City’s only Latino museum dedicated to Puerto Rican, Caribbean, and Latin American art.”

At the moment, the museum seems to be primarily concerned with staying afloat. Board member Héctor R. Cordero-Guzmán told the Wall Street Journal that Veneciano’s departure coincides with the end of several planned donations and that El Museo “needs to figure out ways to replace some of the major gifts and add to its funding base to keep operating at the level that it is.”

A search committee is being formed by the museum’s board of trustees to find a permanent replacement for the outgoing director.

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