El Museo del Barrio Reinvents Itself

Patrick Charpenel leads El Museo del Barrio’s renovation and new path. (Photo by Jesús García via El Diario)

Almost 50 years after its foundation, El Museo del Barrio, located on New York City’s Museum Mile, is undergoing renovations: It is reinventing itself to revive the cultural revolution started by Puerto Ricans and Dominicans in favor of the Hispanic community as a whole.

With a new director at the helm, Mexican-born Patrick Charpenel, the space will make the most of the museum’s facilities, including its majestic 600-seat theater, and will create new divisions to allow the institution to tell and preserve the history and influence of Hispanics in the United States.

“We will open a new research and publications department with the purpose of highlighting the great contributions that Latinos have made to this country,” said Charpenel in an interview held at the museum, located across Central Park. “I say ‘publication’ because we will be publishing bilingual books to be distributed internationally, but most importantly, we want to research the vast heritage, the contribution of Latinos in the U.S.”

The cultural promoter spoke about what drove him to leave his position as head of the Museo Jumex – one of Mexico’s most important contemporary art institutions – to embark on a new challenge he called the greatest of his life, as the New York organization had different origins and different objectives and is now preparing to further develop its mission.

How do you feel with having moved from a private museum to one of this type?

“It is a big difference. The Museo Jumex is a world-class contemporary art museum where Mexican art is very present. It is a private museum that depends on a company, while this is a community museum, not an international one but one with a well-defined vocation – Latino and Latin American – with a huge Puerto Rican and Caribbean heritage. What makes El Museo del Barrio so important and relevant is that it has an essentially social role.”

Art influences society, but here, it seems to work the other way around.

“The histories and missions of the two museums are different. Bottom line, I believe that museums have a social role the same way art does. Art is an essential vehicle to change the world. It makes people sensitive and, in the process, the public gains more awareness of its reality, it connects with its context, and that makes you more involved, more active, more committed to your community.

“What I liked here was that – and this is the biggest challenge of my life – is that the Latino community in the U.S. is underrepresented. The U.S. already has more than 60 million Latinos, which is a quarter of the country’s population. The country’s DNA will be increasingly Latino, with or without a wall, and I think it’s irresponsible – and we are all guilty of this – that there are so few platforms for cultural and political representation serving as significant showcases for this sector.”

The Museo, as it is also known, is a point of reference for many artists. New York is the capital of the world, including of the arts. This is a community space but it has international projection. Are you planning to continue that trend?

“Absolutely. First, we will take into account the context, the immediate context of the neighborhood, of the Puerto Rican and the Hispanic community in general in this geographic point. Second, we are not an institution in retreat: This institution is opening up, which means, we are talking to everyone. We are representing the history and creations of a specific community, but we are opening the debate practically to everyone. Those values that to me are quintessentially New York – equity, diversity and inclusion – must be reflected.”

And we are at a really significant juncture…

“It’s the most significant juncture Latinos have been in for a long time. There is no social group that has been more openly attacked by the new administration than Latinos.”

What are we going to see?

“The history of this country must be rewritten… We need to rethink and rewrite what is the U.S. and recognize that, since its foundation, there was an active and important Latino presence in the building of this nation, and now with this group’s growth it’s more important than ever. We need to realize that the U.S. is Latino. Latinos are not given a voice on many issues; in fact, we are the last ones to be invited to the debates…

Even in those about our future…

“I don’t understand why, when this country is becoming Latino. This is why I say this is a responsibility for all of us.

“We Latin Americans need an embassy to represent us in New York. We have not been ambitious enough, we have not realized the important role we play.”

It is called the Latino community but we are many cultures. How are you going to integrate all this diversity?

“The idea of Latin America was a little bit forced by the French. It attempted to encompass too many things, but in reality it’s very diverse. You have the Spanish and the Portuguese, but there is much more diversity. There is one thing we do share: We are the only community in the world that was brutally westernized but was not integrated. During the colonization process they put us in a mold, they tried to turn us into passive consumers.”

What they now call second-class citizens…

“You said it better, and it sounds much worse. This is basically part of the problem, and I believe those institutions can problematize those things.

“One of the things the Museo seeks to avoid is that sometimes, with good intentions, we create caricatures of ourselves… and what this show of enthusiasm produces is an exotic caricature that is shallow, it doesn’t represent our complexity.”

(…)

Charpenel said that the exact date of the venue’s reopening is not known yet, but confirmed that it will be this summer.

2 Comments

  1. I think we can all agree with Patrick Charpenel, we need a Latino museum that highlights the contributions of the US Latino community to the culture of the world.

    But why at the expense of the Puerto Rican artists and community that created this museum?

    This community included artists from other nationalities but it was surely 95% Puerto Rican! The thinking of the artists and community that created El Museo del Barrio was centered on the Puerto Rican experience. They created an institution to preserve our experience and feel pride in it. This is well stated in the museum’s mission and why we are determined to defend it.

    Museums in Mexico, Dominican Republic, Peru, Puerto Rico, etc. preserve the contributions of their people to create their culture in their respective countries. The Latino community in the US has developed its own culture distinct from cultures in the rest of Latin America. This was recognized by the artists and community that initiated the idea of a community museum.

    As such El Museo del Barrio has to facilitate the Puerto Rican community’s efforts to highlight its culture, history, and contributions to the greater society in which we live. Every other Latin American community has support from their country of origin. Puerto Rico, due to its colonial status, has limited support from the island. Since Hurricane Maria and the Fiscal Crisis, there will be even less support.

    We need a museum that will preserve protect and promote our contributions to the world:

    • The Nuyorican Literary Movement
    • The contributions of the authors
    • The contributions of artists in film and theater
    • The Puerto Rican visual artists and their use of cultural icons in their arts
    • The contributions of the Afro-Puerto Rican contributions to the arts
    • The contributions of the Indigenous Taino to the arts
    • The contributions to the music industry and its impact around the world
    • The contributions of the chefs in the culinary arts

    El Museo del Barrio has to institute programs that address these points and to institute support programs for the Puerto Rican artists and community. It has to add more art by Puerto Rican artists to its permanent collection. It has to open its doors to the emerging Puerto Rican artists and also preserve the ongoing contributions of our artists and community to society.

    Respectfully,

    Puerto Rican Institute for the Development of the Arts, Inc. Board of Directors
    Luis Cordero
    Olga Ayala
    Felipe Rangel
    Bill Aguado
    Pedro A. Garcia
    Humberto Cintron
    Efrain Suarez

  2. Minerva Urrutia says:

    Although Puerto Ricans continue to support the El Museo del Barrio’s membership, I often feel that the new leadership of the Museo, does not support the artistic development of the Puerto Rican community. The beautiful art shown at Museums and galleries in Puerto Rico and in the United States, is rarely exhibited there with the same interest and flare afforded to other Latino cultures. It is as though our art is unworthy of display and support. I often wonder if any Puerto Ricans actually sit on the Museum’s Board and are active participants in the politics thereof. Clearly, there has been a silent, ubiquitous movement to eradicate any semblance of Puerto Rican contributions and presence within institutions across the United States. We are not viewed as part of Latino america nor as immigrants, but rather as americans, due to our colonial status and immediate citizenship for Puerto Ricans via the Jones- Shafroth Act in 1917. Clearly, it is a mistake for us to believe that only the United States wages
    a war against us.

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