New Head to Redirect Embattled El Museo del Barrio

The new executive director of El Museo del Barrio, Jorge Daniel Veneciano (Photo by Gerardo Romo via El Diario).

The new executive director of El Museo del Barrio, Jorge Daniel Veneciano (Photo by Gerardo Romo via El Diario)

After facing some of the most turbulent times in its 45-year history, El Museo del Barrio has a new director, Argentine Jorge Daniel Veneciano, 56, who is determined to put one of New York’s most iconic Latino cultural institutions back on track.

Veneciano, who was previously the director of the Sheldon Museum of Art at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, started his new job on March 1. He succeeds Margarita Aguilar (2011-2013), who was laid off last year for lack of leadership and negligence regarding fundraising, according to El Museo’s board.

Aguilar later filed a claim of gender discrimination and a hostile workplace that was dismissed by the New York State Division of Human Rights. Last December she filed a petition in New York State Supreme Court for a new investigation.

In this Q&A with Juan Matossian of El Diario/La Prensa, Veneciano discusses his vision for the East Harlem museum and its current tight financial situation, which forced it to fire eight of its 41 employees and to cut back on its hours of operation from six to four per day.

How would you describe El Museo’s financial state as you have found it?

We are still paying for the mistakes of the last administration, but what matters now is that donors are returning to El Museo. In all my years directing museums and galleries, I have never left an institution with a deficit. I still have three months before the end of the fiscal year, and I think I will make it. As soon as we stabilize the current situation, which is my priority, we will hire more staff.  I expect that by the fall we will be able to open five days a week, and soon after — if the numbers add up — six days, as before.

Do you feel confident that you will be able to sort out the issues within El Museo?

I can say that I am the first director in El Museo’s history who comes in with previous administrative experience in similar institutions. Prior directors have had curatorial experience, but they have learned to manage on the job. That is not easy. Some have succeeded and others have not. I have many years of museum management under my belt, I have extensively studied the challenges of doing this job and, while there is always the chance that something may go wrong, I believe that the risk is considerably lower with me at the helm.

Close-up of American Merchant Mariners Memorial at BAttery Park by Marisol Escobar. Valencia plans a retrospective of Marisol's sculpture. (Photo by LEOL30, Creative Commons license)

Close-up of American Merchant Mariners’ Memorial at Battery Park by Marisol Escobar. Veneciano plans a retrospective of the sculptor’s work. (Photo by LEOL30, Creative Commons license)

What do you think should be the mission of this iconic Hispanic cultural institution?

Its current mission — which I will continue to pursue — is the preservation and presentation of Latin American art. Being the first Hispanic museum in the history of the United States bestows on us the responsibility to be a leader among institutions of this type in the country.

What is your vision for El Museo’s future?

I want to present Latin American culture in a broader context. We have brilliant artists in every medium, and I would like to add exhibitions around architecture, fashion, graphic design, film, performing arts, etc. It has never been done here, as we have limited our programming to the visual arts. We have great resources to do this, such as a beautiful — but underused — auditorium. The museum also turns 45 this year, so I want to develop a 5-year plan to transform the institution for our 50th anniversary.

What ideas do you have regarding the content of future exhibitions?

I think El Museo has never given much space to women, and I want to change that. There are so many excellent Latin American female artists who deserve a retrospective… I will see to it that we dedicate at least one series to each of them. We are starting off with Marisol (a renowned Venezuelan sculptor).

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