EL MUSEO’S HISTORY
The early history of El Museo del Barrio is complex, intertwined with popular struggles in New York City over access to, and control of, educational and cultural resources. Part and parcel of the national Civil Rights movement, public demonstrations, strikes, boycotts, and sit-ins were held in New York City between 1966 and 1969. African American and Puerto Rican parents, teachers and community activists in Central and East Harlem demanded that their children— who, by 1967, composed the majority of the public school population—receive an education that acknowledged and addressed their diverse cultural heritages. In 1969, these community-based groups attained their goal of decentralizing the Board of Education. They began to participate in structuring school curriculum, and directed financial resources towards ethnic-specific didactic programs that enriched their children’s education. East Harlem’s Puerto Rican communities’ energy and dedication to social justice prepared the way for the founding of El Museo del Barrio.
Following is an institutional timeline and exhibition chronology. Published here for the first time, this research was undertaken with the purpose of establishing a more complete exhibition history, and it is incorporated within the broader trajectory of institutional milestones.
This timeline and exhibition chronology is in process and will be subject to additions and corrections as more information comes to light. All artists’ names have been input directly from brochures, catalogues, or other existing archival documentation. We apologize for any oversights, misspellings, or inconsistencies. A careful reader will note names that shift between the Spanish and the Anglicized versions. Names have been kept, for the most part, as in the original documents. However, these variations, in themselves, reveal much about identity and cultural awareness during these decades.
We are grateful for any documentation that can be brought to our attention by the public at large. This timeline focuses on the defining institutional landmarks, as well as the major visual arts exhibitions. There are numerous events that remain to be documented and included, such as public pirogramming: lectures, symposia, festivals, theatre, music, film and video, readings, dance, and artist’s performances, as well as educational outreach and collaborations. While there is much more research to be done, we believe that putting forth this timeline contributes to the scholarship on Puerto Rican, Latino, Caribbean, and Latin American art and culture.
El Museo’s holdings of modern and contemporary art is particularly strong in Post War works (1950–the present), including paintings (over 400), photography (over 700), and other contemporary, mixed-media and three-dimensional and time-based forms, such as video, primarily created by New York-based Latino artists (in total, over 1,500 works). Presently, El Museo is seeking to actively build its Permanent Collection by developing the holdings of Post-War art, with a sustained focus on artists/groups/schools who emerged in, produced in, or interacted within, New York. El Museo’s Bienal, The (S) Files, and the artists featured within, continue to be extremely supportive of the Museum and allow us to represent the pulse of contemporary Latino expression.
Vargas-Suarez Universal, Virus Americanus XIII, 2003, Oil enamel on wood, Collection El Museo del Barrio, NY Acquired through “PROARTISTA: Sustaining the Work of Living Contemporary Artists,” a fund from the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Trust and a donation from the artist, 2003.16, Detail.
In particular, the museum seeks to create focused areas of works overlooked or under represented in museums of Latin American art, or encyclopedic institutions that have Latin American collections. We strategically plan to develop holdings in these neglected areas through the scholarly research, outreach, and presentation of exhibitions and related publications and programming which bring us into active contact with stakeholder in these areas. Successful examples of this strategy include our focused holdings of contemporary work by Dominican artists, as well as photography, video, and other materials that document actions by artists of the Americas. Working towards these goals, El Museo has received many wonderful donations, and has made selective acquisitions, that add to the strengths of our Permanent Collection holdings.
Tony Capellán, Mar Caribe (Caribbean Sea), 1996, Installation: 500 found plastic sandals with barbed wire, Collection El Museo del Barrio, NY, Acquired through “PROARTISTA” Sustaining the Work of Living Contemporary Artists,” a fund from the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Trust, in collaboration with the artist and Samson Projects, Boston, 2006.14, Detail.
Within the collections of paintings, photographs, and small-scale sculpture are reflected many modes of expression–including works that explore social and political themes–that serve to amplify El Museo’s important holdings in graphics. In these, the artists generally employ realistic, impressionistic, or expressionistic styles. Many of the photographs, in particular, document everyday conditions in El Barrio (East Harlem) or Puerto Rico. Included as well are paintings that incorporate realistic (or nostalgic) depictions of landscapes or cityscapes, particular regions or historically-important places, significant objects, and/or architectural elements.
Carlos Osorio, Símbolos que nos joden (Symbols That Enslave Us), 1973, Oil over acrylic and sand on canvas, Collection El Museo del Barrio, NY
Gift of Jimmy Jimenez, P92.80, Detail.
El Museo’s Modern and Contemporary Collection also includes objects in which abstraction is an important, if not the prevalent, form of language. These pieces have been created by artists trained in the global artistic languages that emerged in urban industrial centers of the Caribbean, Mexico, and South America in the late 1950s. These include geometric and perceptual explorations of color and shape, process¬ oriented works, and expressionistic modes of abstract language that allow for intensely personal and psychological responses.
By mid-century, artists around the world challenged the representational quality of art itself. At the core of their concerns were the very processes of “abstraction” and “representation.” A selection of conceptual paintings, photographic, and mixed-media works in the Permanent Collection, incorporating various metaphors — as well as political, social, and economic commentary, and, frequently, the use of language — attest to this important trend.
Carmen Herrera, Red on Red (Rojo sobre rojo), 1959, Oil and acrylic on canvas, Collection El Museo del Barrio, NY, Gift of Tony Bechara, P96.9.2a-b, Detail.
A growing selection of paintings, sculpture, mixed ¬media forms, and installation pieces reflect a hybridization of styles that exemplify global postmodern trends in which Puerto Rican artists working in New York, in particular, played a leading role in developing. These include incorporations of everyday objects and printed matter that lead to a collage of styles, serving to reference prior cultural production. Often gently humorous, these works are usually, at heart, critical challenges to stereotypes and cultural assumptions.
Leandro Katz, Lunar Typewriter (Máquina de escribir lunar), 1980, Chromogenic print, Collection El Museo del Barrio, NY, Gift of the artist, Ph97.1, Detail.