Con Edison Immigrant Artist Program Newsletter, Issue No. 28
Featured Organization: El Museo del Barrio
El Museo del Barrio was founded in 1969 by artist and educator Raphael Montañez Ortiz and a coalition of parents, educators, artists, and activists who noted that mainstream museums largely ignored Latino artists. More than 40 years later, the museum has grown to be New York’s leading Latino cultural institution. El Museo’s current exhibition, “The (S) Files 2011,” is the museum’s sixth biennial of the most innovative, cutting-edge art created by Latino, Caribbean, and Latin American artists in the greater New York area. This biennial spreads all over the city, featuring a record 75 emerging artists in seven different venues.
Beyond showcasing art and artifacts in their exhibitions and collection, El Museo promotes an appreciation and understanding of Caribbean and Latin American culture with programs such as Super Sabado,Nuevo Cine movie night, the Speak Up! / Speak Out! spoken word series, and El Barrio Today Walking Tours. To continue its tradition of empowering individuals to shape their community, El Museo will be the venue host for the first Social Justice Artists’ Convening on September 21st. IAP Program Officer Karen Demavivas interviewed Gonzalo Casals, El Museo’s Director of Education & Public Programs, about the museum’s vision and programs.
IAP: In 1969, El Museo del Barrio was introduced as “a neighborhood museum of Puerto Rican culture.” While its conception and location framed it as a museum aligned with a specific community, how has El Museo expanded its programming and partnerships to promote not just Puerto Ricans, but a more diversified community in El Barrio today?
GC: The museum started as a response to a need. In the late 1960s during the social justice movement, the Puerto Rican community was very big in New York and mostly in El Barrio. The majority of kids in the public school system in El Barrio were Puerto Rican and African American and there were a lot of parents putting pressure on the Department of Education because the curriculum didn’t represent their culture. There was a need for the public school system to acknowledge the culture. There’s a really nice section of the book Bodega Dreamsby Ernesto Quiñonez where he talks about how he would go to school and they were told ‘Your culture doesn’t exist; it’s not worthwhile’ and how that impacted second generation Puerto Ricans’ behavior and attitude towards their culture. Finally, the Department of Education, which back then was the Board of Education, appointed Rafael Montanez Ortiz, a Puerto Rican artist-educator, to write a curriculum. He went the extra mile and founded a museum in a classroom. If you look at the history of many museums, this is very unusual. Usually they originate from a group of very wealthy people who have a collection or an endowment, so this was really created by the Puerto Rican community in response to a need.
Throughout the history of the museum, the Puerto Rican community, our founding community, has had a lot of impact on not only the museum but the neighborhood. They opened the door for all of us, like myself, an Argentinean. However, the demographics in the neighborhood – in El Barrio, in the city, in the country – changed. It called for the museum to expand its mission and open up to other cultures beyond our Puerto Rican founding community. Our mission is to celebrate Puerto Rican, Latino and Caribbean American culture in New York. With that said, we stay away from “nationalisms.” If I invite you to go see an Argentinean film, you’re going to ask me what the film’s about. “Argentinean film” doesn’t define anything to anyone. We present issues and themes that are interesting to audiences that we serve: Latinos and non-Latinos. It would be a disservice to any artist to say, for example, “Come see the work of this Cuban artist.” Again, it doesn’t speak much about the artist.
We always recognize, in many ways, the Puerto Rican community as the community that opened the doors for all of us. We expanded to other groups and other communities but we always make sure we understand the individuality of each person within those communities.
Working with Latino communities, a lot of people think about language. A lot of people in my generation who grew up here, grew up with their parents saying “Don’t speak Spanish; learn English because that’s the future” and they still consider themselves Latinos. Or you have recently arrived immigrants from Mexico who speak Nahuatl and they move into English. So ‘Latino’ or ‘Latino American’ is this weird construct that we try to avoid because it wipes out the individuality of each of us and how we understand ourselves.
IAP: How does El Museo, then, use its programming to help a community beyond nationality come together around a social issue?
GC: One example that shows every aspect of the work that we do is the celebration of El Dia de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead). There’s nothing more ‘Mexican’ than that. Mexicans have been celebrating that for 3,000 years, since the Aztecs. But if you look at the universal value that lies within the celebration, which is honoring the loved ones who passed away, you will somehow connect with that no matter who you are or where you come from. So if I am able to bring you to this museum and show you how this specific group of people relates to that universal value and let you reflect on the connections between the way, in this case, Mexicans do it and the way you do it, that’s what bridges cultural understanding, which is one of the objectives that we have. You go from a very universal theme to a very individual theme by doing that exercise. That reflection is what makes you feel like part of a larger community.
Super Sabado showcases the spirit of El Museo in a variety of programs when there is free admission every third Saturday of the month. There are concerts, film screenings, spoken word, activities in the galleries and storytelling. Each Super Sabado is presented around a theme. Sometimes the theme is a cultural celebration like Three Kings Day and Day of the Dead. Sometimes it’s based around an exhibition that we do, like “The (S) Files” block party in July. “The (S) Files” is all about art that takes inspiration from the street, so we complemented that in a different medium like break-dancing at the block party. Sometimes the theme is “Art and Activism.” One month, we addressed healthy eating habits. Access to healthy food options is a big issue in this neighborhood. For many years, the neighborhood defined what the museum means. We want to use art to bring awareness to different things.
IAP: What are some of the neighborhood’s current needs?
GC: We are starting to work more with teens and youth. There’s a huge problem in the neighborhood with youth violence. Every year we hire several artists to create a Day of the Dead altar within the tradition but with a contemporary take. The altar is always in honor of someone. This year, we’re going to talk about the victims of everyday violence that we all suffer from. Every time you suffer from an act of violence, a little bit of you is lost because of fear. We’re going to reflect on what we lose because of this subtle everyday violence. We ask youth, ‘Where is this violence coming from? Why is it happening? How can we protect ourselves?’ There’s a huge need for after school programs in the neighborhood.
One of the things that makes El Museo interesting is our location on Fifth Avenue. We’re the smaller museum next to the Guggenheim and the Met. We’re on the Museum Mile, but at the same time, we’re in El Barrio. This is a dual personality in many ways. To many people, we’re the entrance to El Barrio. A lot of people come to El Barrio to see El Museo and decide maybe to have lunch here. We’re very conscious of that; that’s why we created our walking tour around the block of El Museo. The idea is not to present a comprehensive history of the neighborhood, but to bring people into El Barrio to reflect on how a group impacted and made changes here. We want them to reflect on how people, in this case Puerto Ricans, impacted the area they live in and, at the same time, on gentrification that is happening all over New York and more and more in El Barrio. New people who come into the neighborhood, who aren’t aware of its history or dynamics, may have the best intentions to make the neighborhood better, but their projects can create displacement and aren’t aligned with the values of their neighbors who have lived here for years. The El Barrio Today Walking Tours create a space for reflection to look at the neighborhood from that lens.
IAP: How do you create that space for reflection?
GC: We repeat the same strategy over and over again. We use art to start these conversations. El Barrio’s rich in murals. There are the more traditional murals, but also there is the Graffiti Wall of Fame. There are also the community gardens, a perfect example of civic engagement. And we go back to the need. The murals are there because all these artists in this neighborhood never had a platform or an outlet for their art in a museum or a gallery. The community gardens are there because people needed a space for communal recreation. Then you have Central Park; the community didn’t feel welcome in this park. To me, the Puerto Rican community is a really good example of how you act upon your needs and create your own solutions. Again, El Museo is a response to a need. So, we go through the neighborhood in theseEl Barrio Today Walking Tours looking at all these strategies in which a specific community shapes a neighborhood. We use the art as a way to start these conversations.
IAP: I just went to a mural unveiling at Modesto Flores community garden near East Harlem Cafe. It’s a mural of Frida Kahlo and Julia de Burgos and it’s meant to reinforce a solidarity between the Mexican and the Puerto Rican communities. It was an Art for Change sponsored event.
GC: It’s a beautiful mural. The artist who did that, Yasmin Hernandez, was an “(S) Files” artist, so it was a very nice synergy. I was glad she did that. To the outside, a lot of people see the Latino community as one group, but there are many groups and waves. Puerto Ricans have been here for the longest, there’s an influx in the neighborhood of Mexicans, there’s Ecuadorians – the situations are very different and very unique. That use of art to start a dialogue interests me; what I found very interesting was not just that the mural subjects were a Mexican and a Puerto Rican, but that they were two women who were activists. That was very powerful to do.
IAP: Your support of the Social Justice Artists’ Convening fits with El Museo’s history of social engagement through the arts. Could you comment on El Museo’s participation in the dialogue?
GC: For every program that we present, we pay as much attention to the content as we do to how it’s delivered. In a guided tour of the galleries, we try to remove ourselves from the position of the educator or the lecturer; we want to make it a conversation that incorporates the knowledge and experiences of every person on the tour. Each tour is different because there are different individuals. We start each tour asking a question to gauge who are the people we are working with and to start a conversation. Our Speak Up / Speak Out! spoken word series works the same way. We’ll pick a poet once a month, give them resources, and let them choose the lineup or theme. We’re the platform. We open the door and you use the space.
In the case of the Convening, we’re providing a platform for it to happen – not just with the physicality of the space but enabling it to happen in a museum with a history like ours. Opening the door and framing the conversation, for us, is just as important as what each of us has to say or contribute to the conversation. The Convening is going to start with a tour of the neighborhood, using the neighborhood as the perfect frame for the conversation.
IAP: At this point, how do you see El Museo as a museum with an international reach? There is the Latino diaspora that is in New York City but the museum also deals with a lot of international artists residing in South America and other countries, alongside immigrant artists who live here.
GC: Jokingly, we say internally here at El Museo: El Barrio is a state of mind. There are barrios in Brooklyn, in Queens, in the Bronx, and everywhere in the country and the world. New York City’s Latino community is not the largest in the country, but it is the most diverse so that’s why we focus more on the Latino experience in the city. However, in the same way we like to bridge cultures, we find it interesting to create connections with artists in Latin American countries. We’re working on a Caribbean project with Latino artists living in Europe. We all need to create code words and labels to understand each other and make sense of the world, but the art always connects immigrants and everyone else living in and visiting the city.
Our galleries offer a space where people feel safe talking about things they usually don’t feel comfortable talking about. Anybody can come to New York and experience that, and it’s very powerful. We try as much as we can- and it’s very difficult because everybody comes with an expectation of what a museum is- not to tell you one absolute truth but to provide a space for reflection. Every two weeks I sit with our security guards and we just look at art. We talk about art and come to our own conclusions so when you go to the galleries, you’re going to be approached by our security guards who say ‘If you want, I can tell you which one is my favorite piece.’ We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback because people feel engaged in a very respected way, a very horizontal way. ‘Let me just share with you what I like.’
IAP: I actually just had a nice exchange with one of the guards when I was in the galleries downstairs looking at “The (S) Files 2011” show. I was looking at Hatuey Ramos-Fermin’s installation about taxi drivers in the city. When I asked him a specific question about the piece, he responded with knowledge and enthusiasm. He seemed happy to be in that space and looking at the art while the rest of us were in the space.
GC: Even the tone with which they tell you ‘Don’t do that’ is different.
IAP: You’ve been talking about a more horizontal and empowering educational engagement than other museums on the Museum Mile, which tend to cultivate a more elitist, expert sphere in which curators dictate which artists get represented. As a museum, you are still accountable for who you show and you are perceived as experts of Latin American art. How do you deal with the politics of that?
GC: I don’t think we’re trained to stay away from that. Everybody’s doing Latino now, and we’re happy. The Museum of Modern Art is having a whole exhibition on Diego Rivera in the fall and it’s great. We strive to go a little deeper since we know the subject matter from within, in a more specific way. Our curatorial department is developing new scholarship, creating new opportunities and going into the most obscure situations to bring in new themes. In the next five years, growth at El Museo will be about deepening: doing more research about our collections, giving more access to scholars and promoting new scholarship around our art. If anything, because of our history and being a smaller museum, we’re more flexible. We can still present that level of scholarship and have an impact on the cultural production in the city, in the country. At the end of the day, it’s all about human worth. Because we are a smaller size and don’t deal with as much of a bureaucratic infrastructure, we can preserve the worth of the individual.
IAP: How do you see the future of public programming at El Museo? What are some themes you’ll be developing across the board?
GC: Next year’s going to be very big for us. In the second week of June, we’re opening a show that’s been in the works for at least 8 years. It’s called “Caribbean: Crossroads of the World.” It’s a collaboration with The Studio Museum in Harlem and The Queens Museum of Art and it’s going to be a three-venue exhibition. The exhibition is the tip of the iceberg; we’re going to do a lot of programming to celebrate Caribbean culture and look at the crossroads of culture and religion that, in many ways, relates to what we’re experiencing in New York.
The third iteration of our permanent collection next year is going to center on Caribbean artists who went through a personal crossroads. We’re using the exhibition to explore cultural crossroads and we’ll use our permanent collection to talk about crossroads in a very personal, individualized way.
We want to continue our current programs but, at the same time, we’re looking for different models to accomplish our objectives. Like any other cultural institution in the country, we went through a lot of budget cuts so we have to rethink models. We want to maintain our relationship with our audience. Right now, we’re featuring 8 to 10 “(S) Files” artists in a video series and it’s going well. We figured if we want to put new scholarship and new resources into our collection, maybe once a month we can feature an object in the collection with the voice of the artist through video. Is it educational? Is it promotion? It’s a hybrid. We could have an artist talk and have 100 people here and there’s a cost to that. What if we used those resources to do a series of 10 videos? I’ll put it online where it’ll reach more people than that over a longer duration. We’re looking at new ways of accomplishing our objectives. At the end of the day, you want to reach the audience and you need a platform. Maybe the platform isn’t about all of us getting together in this space. Maybe we need to use another medium.
IAP: Thank you, Gonzalo, and we are thrilled to collaborate with El Museo del Barrio in engaging our diverse communities.