In a sign of continuing tension between community members and El Museo del Barrio in New York, the artist and activist Marta Moreno Vega has withdrawn a work from a exhibition at the museum slated to open next month. Additionally, the San Juan–based curator Marina Reyes Franco said she will no longer participate in a panel at the museum that she was set to moderate. Both actions come in the wake of El Museo’s hiring of Rodrigo Moura as chief curator.
In a statement posted to Facebook, Moreno Vega, who served as the second director of El Museo, said she had pulled a self-portrait from the exhibition “Culture and The People: El Museo del Barrio, 1969 – 2019.” That show is divided into two halves, with the first part, a permanent collection display, scheduled to open on April 11 at the museum.
El Museo, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, was founded in 1969 by a group of Puerto Rican artists, activists, and educators in the historically Puerto Rican neighborhood of East Harlem, also known as “El Barrio.” Eventually, the museum’s mission was expanded to include displaying work by U.S. Latinx and Latin American artists. Recently, activists have accused the museum of prioritizing work by Latin American artists, at the expense of Latinx artists, and being out of touch with its neighbors in East Harlem and its founding Puerto Rican community. They have pointed to the museum’s decision to hire two Latin Americans for its top posts—Mexican curator Patrick Charpenel as executive director, who was appointed in 2017, and Moura, who is Brazilian—as evidence of this. (Neither curator had been based in New York prior to being hired for his position.)
“I have stated previously, and I repeat El Museo is excluding the communities it was created to serve,” Moreno Vega wrote. “In its origins the parents who fought for the then school project wanted their children and their [children’s] children to learn and value their history and continue the legacy of their inheritance that was invisible in the schools. . . . El Museo was about challenging inequity, providing a creative thought process and creative expressions that would lead to solutions with the brilliant eyes of our artists.”
Reyes Franco had been invited by the museum to moderate a panel with Latinx artists discussing their work. After the hiring of Moura, she declined to participate in the event and sent a statement to the museum. “The hiring of Rodrigo Moura as chief curator is only the latest misstep in a series of decisions that have taken the museum in a direction away from Puerto Rican/Latinx artistic community and concerns,” Reyes Franco wrote, nodding to other recent controversies at El Museo. “With all the merits and recognition that he has, I am definitely not the only one who questions the reason and relevance of this designation for El Barrio and the Latinx community in New York.”
Reyes Franco said she believed that the moderator for the panel—and Moura’s position—should have been offered to a member of New York’s Latinx arts community. “The institution must respect and be aware of its history and the community—past and present—to which it belongs,” she said. “From this side, I perceive a hierarchy of Latin American art over artists, histories and Latinx production that literally emanate from the immediate surroundings of the museum. That being said, I don’t advocate for the boycott of the institution, rather an approach of keeping them in check and making our voices heard until there is change.”
Moreno Vega said in her statement that she would refuse to show her work at an institution “divorced from our communities” and one “that devalues the contributions of El Barrio’s creatives,” adding that El Museo is “caught up in the art for art sake framework of Eurocentric institution[s] that devalued our vision and perspectives and presence.”
She ended her statement by writing, “Do not allow our children, our people, our history, our inheritance, our communities to be erased.”
El Museo did not immediately respond to a request for comment.