After a Year of Renovations, El Museo del Barrio Reopens With a $5 Million Makeover and New Leadership
The museum looks to start a new chapter after years of turmoil.
Last week, New York’s El Museo del Barrio reopened its doors for the first time in 10 months, having completed an extensive renovation to its galleries. The $4.85 million upgrades, which were paid for with city funding, include improvements to the heating, air-conditioning, and humidification systems and were one of the first major decisions made by director Patrick Charpenel upon taking over the post last September.
It’s a major positive development for an institution that has struggled in recent years. Amid financial difficulties, El Museo has cycled through a number of directors and senior curatorial staff since 2010, when former director Julián Zugazagoitia decamped to Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. His replacement, Margarita Aguilar, was fired after two-and-a-half years, and then launched an unsuccessful wrongful termination suit against the museum in 2013.
There were also several rounds of layoffs and staff furloughs, with hours being slashed from six days a week to four in January 2013. (Since 2016, the museum has reinstated Sunday hours, with visiting hours five days a week.)
The chief curator role has also been something of a revolving door, with longtime staffer Deborah Cullen—tapped this year to direct the Bronx Museum of the Arts—leaving in 2012. Her successor, Chus Martinez, departed after only a year without organizing an exhibition. Charpenel recently hired Susanna Temkin, previously the assistant curator of the Americas Society in New York, to replace the outgoing Rocio Aranda-Alvarado, now at the New York-based Ford Foundation.
Charpenel, formerly head of Mexico City’s Museo Jumex, succeeded Jorge Daniel Veneciano, who departed abruptly after two years on the job in August 2016. The director took the reins last fall, as the museum began to look towards its 50th anniversary. (El Museo was founded in 1969 as an alternative art space honoring the cultural achievements of Puerto Ricans, though its purview has broadened over its five decades of existence.)
The institution last underwent renovations during Zugazagoitia’s tenure, a $35 million project that added a glass-front facade from architectural firm Gruzen Samton to its Beaux-Arts building. While the museum was closed this time around, three off-site exhibitions were held, at the Hunter East Harlem Gallery, the School of Visual Arts Chelsea Gallery, and the Longwood Art Gallery @Hostos. Renovations are still ongoing at the institution’s theater, El Teatro, which contains landmarked murals, illustrating children’s fairy tales, by Willy Pogany (1882–1955).
Now, the reopened galleries are hosting two new exhibitions: “Liliana Porter: Other Situations,” the first institutional solo show in New York for the Argentinian artist Liliana Porter (1941–) in over a quarter century, organized by Savannah’s SCAD Museum of Art; and “Down These Mean Streets: Community and Place in Urban Photography,” which travels from the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC, and showcases inner-city photography by 10 artists.
As the museum kicked off the fall season, artnet News spoke with Charpenel by email about his hopes for the institution, his plans for the upcoming semicentennial, and El Museo’s vital role as a voice for New York’s Latin American community.
El Museo has struggled financially for some years, with layoffs and fluctuating visiting hours, as well as turnover in the director role. What steps are you taking to ensure its future financial health and stability as it approaches its 50th anniversary?
My main objective once I arrived, a year ago this month, was to stabilize the finances of the museum. I am pleased to announce that we have added nearly a dozen engaged board members, re-engaged major funders, and connected with new ones. More importantly, we are actively looking at ways to increase our staff capacity to properly support our ambitious plans.
Our team has done the extraordinary with limited resources these past few years, and we hope to support them as we continue growing and presenting thought-provoking programming and exhibitions.
How has the museum’s mission and vision grown and changed over the last half-century, and what do you see as its place in the New York City arts and culture scene for the 21st century?
In an effort to reflect the changing ethnic demographics in our city and country, El Museo del Barrio remains steadfast in its mission to present and preserve the art and culture of Puerto Rican, Latinx, and Latin American communities in the United States.
Our vision is to be a platform that is truly representative of the voices, stories, and perspectives from these under-represented communities in the arts. It is important now more than ever for the museum to remain committed to inclusiveness.
How important is it for the Latinx community to have their own distinct voice in the New York art scene?
At a time when our contributions in this country are under-recognized, it is important for the Latinx community to have a cultural enclave where they can express themselves, and their history and legacy, through the arts.
We are united in solidarity with the countless Puerto Rican, Latinx, and Latin American artists and cultural producers who have been presenting extraordinary work.
What are you most excited about with the upcoming Liliana Porter and group photography shows?
These two shows represent who we are in very distinct ways. “Down These Mean Streets” beautifully depicts how Latinx photographers saw their neighborhoods transforming in the post-World War II era, when migration patterns led many Latinos into urban centers around the US, including our very own El Barrio, the South Bronx, East New York in Brooklyn, and East Los Angeles, just to name a few. Our continued presence in these communities unequivocally shaped their culture and character, as these neighborhoods continue to evolve today.
Liliana Porter is an incredible artist with strong roots in New York City, where she has lived since 1964, and whose work is represented in El Museo del Barrio’s collection. She creates humorous and expressive art that questions conventional approaches to space and time. Her work addresses universal concepts from a playful perspective, using diverse materials from graphic production and photography to videos and her well-known use of souvenirs, toys, and cultural icons.
The two fall exhibitions are traveling shows, but what can fans of the museum look forward to from new curator Susanna Temkin?
We are currently finalizing our 2019 exhibition, but we can say that our curatorial team will be organizing an exhibition featuring our permanent collection. Debuting in the summer of 2019, the show will coincide with El Museo del Barrio’s 50th anniversary, when the museum received official incorporation in June 1969. The show will honor the history and legacy of the founding Puerto Rican artists and will also include works by the many outstanding Latinx and Latin American artists who are within our collection.
“Liliana Porter: Other Situations” and “Down These Mean Streets: Community and Place in Urban Photography” are on view at El Museo del Barrio, 1230 Fifth Avenue, New York, September 13, 2018–January 27, 2019, and September 13, 2018–January 6, 2019.
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