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‘We Need Change Now’: Activists Circulate Open Letter on Future of El Museo del Barrio

An open letter has been directed to El Museo del Barrio in New York.

WILLIAM ALATRISTE

A group of Latinx artists, activists, educators, and scholars has issued an open letter to El Museo del Barrio demanding change at the East Harlem institution, which has been embroiled in a number of recent controversies.

Titled “Mirror Manifesto,” the letter, which has over 200 signatures from across the United States, claims that El Museo’s current leadership has attempted “to morph the museum, founded by Puerto Rican teachers, artists, parents and community organizers, from a museum reflective of the community who founded it, to an elitist institution for Latin American art,” and calls for new hiring practices, the creation of an artist-residency program, and a new direction for its institutional identity. “El Museo del Barrio must be El Museo de los Barrios,” it reads.

The letter comes days after artist and activist Marta Moreno Vega, who is one of the document’s signers, pulled a work from the museum’s upcoming anniversary exhibition over concerns that the museum was no longer serving its original, core community, a point that is central to the letter’s demands.

Asked about the letter by ARTnews, the museum said in a statement that its “mission expanded more than 30 years ago to reflect the diversity of El Barrio and Latinx communities across the United States and beyond. Through our exhibitions, programming, and educational initiatives, we are committed to portraying the complexity and interplay between Puerto Rican, Latinx, and Latin American communities in order to present a robust picture of our individual and collective experiences.”

In their open letter, the activists detail recent tensions that have roiled the museum and list seven points for the museum to address in order to “decolonize” and “take radical steps to more clearly define what it is.” Among its signatories are artists Amalia Mesa-Bains, Judith F. Baca, Teresita Fernández, Hank Willis Thomas, Firelei Báez, Shellyne Rodriguez, william córdova, Juan Sánchez, Patrick Martinez, Alicia Grullón, Jorge González, Christina Fernández, Iliana Emilia García, Lina Puerta, Lisa C. Soto, and Scherezade García-Vázquez; curators Marina Reyes Franco, Elizabeth Ferrer,  Naoimy Guerrero, and Eva Mayhabal Davis; scholars Karen Mary Davalos, Charlene Villaseñor Black, Arlene Dávila, Adriana Zavala, Ananda Cohen-Aponte, and Yasmín Ramírez; Condé Nast chief creative director Raul Martínez; former El Museo worker María Alexandra Garcia; and activists Debbie Quiñones and Monxo López.

Over the past few months, some have charged that El Museo, which turns 50 this year, is out of touch with its founding Puerto Rican community and its neighbors in East Harlem. It has also drawn criticism for its decision to hire two Latin American curators for its top posts. In an email circulated to the museum’s mailing list on Tuesday, Patrick Charpenel, El Museo’s executive director, announced an “expansion of [its] curatorial team,” to add a “curator specializing in Latinx art.”

In the statement sent to ARTnews, El Museo pointed to this curatorial expansion as a way to “strengthen and advance our advocacy role, nurture professionals in Latinx art, and provide emerging artists and others with opportunities to grow,” and mentioned other new initiatives “that will launch in the near future.”

The open letter argues that, while it may have once been important for El Museo to present Latin American artists when no other New York institutions were doing so, the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art now have substantial programs and curatorial positions focused on that field. “It is timely and necessary for El Museo del Barrio to re-dedicate itself to its unique mission of exhibiting and collecting art by Puerto Ricans and Latin Americans living in the United States—in other words, that it focuses on Latinx art and artists,” the letter says.

The activists write that the museum’s leadership must “contend with ‘El Barrio’s’ identity,” and they address distinctions between Latin American and Latinx art, the changing demographics of East Harlem, and the museum’s relationship to Latinx and immigrant communities throughout New York City and the United States. Such questions about the exact audience and mission of El Museo have historically been points of debate over the past few decades.

“If El Museo is to be resuscitated, we must lay these claims to rest and set about addressing who we mean when we say El Barrio,” it reads, adding that “generations of Latinx artists pouring out of BFA, MFA, & Ph.D. programs have come to see El Museo as irrelevant.”

“We appreciate the feedback from our community and the recognition of the importance of the breadth and range of the Latinx experience,” El Museo’s statement reads.

Among the letter’s demands are that the museum’s chief curator be a Latinx art historian and curator and that its entire curatorial staff be “equipped” to mount shows of Latinx art. (The Brazilian curator Rodrigo Moura was hired for the chief curator position earlier this month.) It also calls for a residency program for emerging Latinx artists, “a decolonizing commission to independently review the collection and to make recommendations on necessary structural changes,” and the formation of a staff and board that mirrors “the diverse Latinx communities, and that it is racially diverse.”

The organizers of the open letter, which can be read in full here, have asked that other concerned parties add their signatures by filling out an online form. The group will hold an action-planning meeting on April 3 at El Barrio Artspace, a nearby residential complex and art space, at 6:30 p.m.

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