Museums USA

Troubles at El Museo del Barrio

Since its $35m expansion, New York’s museum of Latino culture has fired a director and lost senior staff

El Museo del Barrio celebrates Latino, Latin American and Caribbean cultures in New York

El Museo del Barrio’s chief curator Chus Martinez announced on Twitter today that she is leaving the museum to take on a new job. A museum spokesman confirmed the news and said: "Chus has informed us that she will leave El Museo effective 31 January due to a professional opportunity that she couldn't pass up. We wish her all the best and thank her for her work here over the past year." Martinez's departure, however, is the most recent in a slew of exits at the troubled museum.

In October, El Museo's deputy director, Gonzalo Casals, resigned, leaving New York’s museum devoted to Puerto Rican and Latin American art in a state of uncertainty. Eight months earlier, the El Museo’s former director Margarita Aguilar was fired.

Casals, who left to become the director of public programmes for the Friends of the High Line, is the third senior member of staff to resign from the museum this year. This summer, the development director Marialaura Leslie left to go to the Miami City Ballet.

“It is unfortunate that such an important institution seems to constantly be in flux,” says Deborah Quinones, a local community board member and activist. El Museo, which was founded by a group of artists, educators and activists in 1969 to promote and preserve Puerto Rican art and culture, has struggled financially since it completed a $35m renovation of its East Harlem home in 2009. Last year, the value of its endowment had declined by more than 50%, to $850,000. It was forced to lay off eight of its 41 staff and reduce the number of days it was open from six to four.

Discrimination claim

The museum’s troubles were widely publicised in February, when Aguilar filed a claim of gender discrimination and a hostile work environment with the New York state division of human rights. The agency dismissed the claim in September because it ruled there was “insufficient” evidence of discrimination. Aguilar filed an appeal on the decision last month (it will be submitted to the court on or after 13 December, according to her petition). A spokesman from the museum says: “The claims made against El Museo continue to be without merit.”

Amid the legal turmoil, the museum’s finances are showing signs of recovery. For the first time since the 2008 recession, El Museo ended the fiscal year with a budget surplus of $144,000. Its annual gala brought in around $1.1m and the board raised an additional $1m through individual giving and a matching grant from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. A grant from the Ford Foundation is also financing the development of a new strategic plan, written by the consultant Michael Kaiser. With a combination of cutbacks and fundraising, “we’ve stabilised the [financial] situation”, says Tony Bechara, the president of El Museo’s board of trustees.

The appointment of a new director is the museum’s priority, Bechara says. Without a director it is often difficult for museums to secure substantial support from foundations and other funders. Carlos Galvez, who was the director of capital projects and operations, is now the institution’s deputy director. Rocio Aranda-Alvarado, currently a curator at El Museo, is taking over management of the curatorial department on an interim basis.

Whose museum?

The institution has been criticised in recent years by some in the Puerto Rican community for straying too far from its roots. In 1994, it expanded its mission to encompass all Latin Americans in the US. In 2002, it appointed its first non-Puerto Rican director, Julián Zugazagoitia, now the director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City. When the Spanish-born Martinez was named chief curator earlier this year, locals expressed concern.

“Why is this institution having so much difficulty hiring Latino, US-born Puerto Rican and Latin-American administrators and curators when there are so many other vibrant spaces nurturing them?” says Arlene Davila, a professor of anthropology at New York University.

Questions about the museum’s leadership and audience are all the more relevant as the city’s demographics shift. According to the most recent census, more than one in four New Yorkers is Latino. Meanwhile, major museums such as New York’s Guggenheim and the Museum of Modern Art have increased their Latin American art acquisitions with the help of active patrons groups.

Deborah Cullen, the director of the Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University and a former curator at El Museo, says: “The museum is most successful when it offers new and scholarly examinations of artistic and political movements that we are not seeing elsewhere.”

The question over whom El Museo should serve is far from settled. “You can’t just check off your relationship with the community by holding one programme or hiring one staff member—it has to be integrated,” Quinones says. But Bechara has a broader vision. “We are not just a museum for Latinos or Latin Americans—we are a New York institution,” he says.

Update, 13 December: The museum announced that it has appointed Jorge Daniel Veneciano, currently the director of the Sheldon Museum of Art at the University of Nebraska, as its new director. The Argentina-born, Los Angeles-raised art historian previously served as the director of the Paul Robeson Galleries at Rutgers University and as the curator of exhibitions at the Studio Museum in Harlem. He will assume his new post on 1 March. The museum also announced a new $1.6m grant from the Ford Foundation, to be distributed over the next three years.

A version of this article appeared in our November print edition

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