Latino Art in NYC: A Short History of El Museo del Barrio

El Museo is an indispensable center, home to some of the best resources on Latino art in New York City and the United States.
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El Museo del Barrio, also known as El Museo, is one of the main institutions dealing with Latino art and culture; it functions both as a museum and as a cultural institution. El Museo is an indispensable center, home to some of the best resources on Latino art in New York City and the United States. What is most impressive though is how the museum functions as an educational center, opening its doors to all members of the community and really making use of their resources. It is a special place with its own personality that brings together Latino culture, family, art, education, and fun.

El Museo del Barrio was founded in 1969 as a consequence of the Nuyorican and national civil rights movements. Between 1966 and 1969 several public demonstrations, strikes, boycotts, and sit-ins were held in New York City. In Harlem, African-American and Puerto Rican parents, teachers, and activists demanded that their children be able to receive an education that addressed their diverse ethnic backgrounds and cultures. This was essential, considering that by 1967, it was these groups of students who composed the majority of the public school population. El Museo was created in response to these community needs and to campaigns that called for major art institutions to represent a variety of non-European cultures in their collections and programs. At this time, most of the museums in New York were either completely ignoring or severely lacking in representing non-Western and minority work, especially Puerto Rican work.

In 1969, Rafael Montañez Ortíz, founded El Museo with the help of Puerto Rican parents, educators, artists and community activists. In its beginning stages (1969-1976) El Museo ran in a public school (1969-1976), then in a brown stone, and then in several storefronts. In 1977 it moved to its current and permanent home on Fifth Avenue and 104th Street.

When El Museo was created it defined itself as "an educational institution and a place of cultural pride and self-discovery for the founding Puerto Rican community". As the city's Hispanic population evolved and diversified, El Museo's mission became more broad and decided to focus not solely on Puerto Rican culture but also on Latin American and Latino art and culture: "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." Rafael Montañez Ortíz described the transition as a difficult but worthwhile one: "Moving out into the larger world never is [not painless], but in my view it doesn't make sense to remain forever underclass. Culture has the right to move out of the barrio too. For Puerto Rican culture to be integrated into Latino culture and then into the larger world culture -- that was always my vision."

El Museo del Barrio works closely with its community. It is located in El Barrio which is also known as East Harlem or Spanish Harlem. The neighborhood is located with Harlem River to the north, the East River to the east, East 96th Street to the south, and 5th Avenue to the west. East Harlem has historically had numerous immigrant communities. Currently there is a population of around 120,000 people and is home to one of the largest predominantly Latino communities in New York City.

Before being known as Spanish Harlem, the neighborhood was called Italian Harlem. After the First World War, many of the Puerto Ricans taking residence in New York City moved to a small area of Italian Harlem and this space became known as El Barrio. During another wave of immigration after World War II, the area slowly grew to encompass all of what had previously been Italian Harlem as Italians moved out while Latinos moved in. Since the 1950s, East Harlem's population has dominantly been residents of Puerto Rican descent. Many of the people who live in East Harlem are called Nuyoricans, a term to describe New Yorkers who are second- and third-generation descendants of Puerto Rican ancestry. Considering the history of El Barrio, it is easy to see the importance of the connection between the institution and its location. Just as the residents of East Harlem benefit from El Museo by getting an institution where they can learn about their own histories and culture, El Barrio also benefits from being in a location that is flourishing with the art and culture that it aims to teach about. As El Museo states in their purposes, they attempt to "enhance the sense of identity, self-esteem and self-knowledge of the Caribbean and Latin American peoples by educating them in their artistic heritage and bringing art and artists into their communities."

El Museo's move in 1977 to upper Fifth Avenue helped to bridge both the community of El Barrio and also the touristic museum visiting world, exposing more people to their collection while maintaining their priorities. In 1978 El Museo became a founding member of the Museum Mile, an association consisting of nine of the city's most distinguished cultural institutions that range across 20 blocks on Fifth Avenue. Other museums include the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim Museum, the Jewish Museum, and The Museum of the City of New York. Because after the move the museum was more accessible and became a part of a prestigious association, the museum became more well-known and thus there was a huge increase in non-Latino visitors, which make up 40% of El Museo's audience.

In 1977 New York Mayor Edward Koch made El Museo a member of the Cultural Institutions Group (CIG). CIG is composed of 31 cultural institutions that are housed in city-owned buildings. They range from large, world-renowned museums like The Metropolitan Museum of Art, to small more community based institutions like The Studio Museum in Harlem and El Museo. The city provides substantial public funding to the institutions in CIG in return for the continuation of their public programs and positive influence on the New York City community. This marked the first and only museum dedicated to Latino culture that the city has provided so much support to.

El Barrio has really seen El Museo as an important part of their community, although there has been some tension between the institution and the residents of East Harlem. In the early 2000s, El Museo catalogs from the 1970s discarded in a dumpster were found and inspired the formation of a community-board-run campaign called We Are Watching You. Participants felt there needed to be reformation and that the community had to be given more of a voice. They demanded more local representation on the museum board, more Puerto Ricans on the staff, a greater attention to Puerto Rican culture, more displays of local Latino artists and more emphasis on the history of El Barrio. In 2002 there was a town-hall-style meeting when Julián Zugazagoitia was chosen to be the new executive assistant because We Are Watching You felt that there was not enough input from them or the community in the decision making process.

The museum tries to fulfill their mission statement in ways beyond the walls of their exhibitions; they have many public programs aimed at young kids, families, and adults. These programs go hand in hand with the museum's education initiatives as they are aimed to create an ongoing dialogue around the core of the museum's mission and exhibitions. In the words of Stephanie Spahr LaFroscia, the museum's Senior Manager of Public Programs who I interviewed, "[our programs] pull out threads of dialogues and ideas that are not fully explored within the exhibitions." El Museo does not charge for most of these programs, because they place the importance of accessibility at the center of all of their programs.

An obstacle El Museo must overcome is finding ways to make itself relevant to the audience they served since they opened and make it relevant to the changing community of El Barrio. El Barrio now is undergoing gentrification, with younger people moving in causing housing to become less affordable for the families that currently live there. There are also different groups coming in and diversifying the neighborhood, such as Bangladesh and other Asian communities. Stephanie LaFroscia said that "the changing community is a challenge to us, we are now serving different families, not just Latino families who speak English or Spanish, there are also languages the staff doesn't speak."

According to Stephanie LaFroscia, one way they keep their programs relevant is that though their programs do try to make things particular to certain cultures, they also make sure to universalize their themes. An example of this is the Day of the Dead celebration El Museo holds: though they make sure to it stays true to the Mexican tradition, they put the celebration into a larger context, creating family and youth programs that also discuss topics everyone can relate to, such as memorializing loved ones who passed away. At the same time that they are celebrating specific Mexican traditions like pan de muerto and alters, they also make the celebrations accessible to others by asking "how do we all do this in our own lives?"

I have found that every time I visit El Museo, I'm always left with the desire to come back. There is a very friendly atmosphere when you walk in and security guards and staff are very willing to talk to you about the institution and the art works. This is especially important in a cultural institution that aims to be a part of a community, a goal which El Museo has proven to care about and complete to the best of its abilities. As one museum visitor stated on El Museo del Barrio's Facebook page: "El Museo in NYC is a small but significant museum. I will remember my visit there."

This post was orginally published on Nicholle's Let Talk Race blog.


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