Beyond the Barrio, With Growing Pains


SHORTLY before El Museo del Barrio closed its doors last year to undergo a $35 million makeover, Rafael Montañez Ortiz, the 75-year-old artist who founded this East Harlem institution in 1969, swept onto the stage of its theater.Skip to next paragraph Blog ArtsBeatThe latest on the arts, coverage of live events, critical reviews, multimedia extravaganzas and much more. Join the discussion.More Arts NewsEnlarge This Image Evan Sung for The New York TimesThe miniature piano presented to Mr. Zugazagoitia by Rafael Montañez Ortiz, the museum’s founder. Dressed in white, Mr. Ortiz perched on a stool and swung a sledge hammer to smash about a dozen pianos, one after the other. A practitioner of destructivist art in the 1960s, Mr. Ortiz had become well known for hacking up full-size pianos with an ax (including once on Johnny Carson’s show). This time he performed his concert with miniature instruments.For the finale Mr. Ortiz paused with the hammer raised, appeared to agonize and then spared the final piano from destruction. Rising slowly to his full 6-foot-7, Mr. Ortiz, who founded El Museo as a neighborhood museum of Puerto Rican culture, descended into the audience to present the piano to Julián Zugazagoitia, who is Mexican-born, Paris-educated and the first non-Puerto Rican to lead the museum.“Thank you for bringing the museo to life in the world,” the inscription read.To Mr. Zugazagoitia, 45, this was tantamount to an embrace from the past, no small thing for the director of a museum that has long faced accusations of betraying its roots as it grew. “It felt like the passing of the baton,” said Mr. Zugazagoitia (pronounced zoo-gah-zah-GOY-tee-a), who has substantially increased the museum’s budget, endowment, donations, audience and ambitions during his nearly seven-year tenure.Now as El Museo del Barrio prepares to reopen on Saturday with a new glass facade, a redesigned courtyard and modernized galleries, including one devoted to its permanent collection, Mr. Ortiz said he sees in its bumpy transformation over the last four decades an echo of his own.Mr. Ortiz was raised on the Lower East Side in what he called a “typical disenfranchised Puerto Rican family,” his mother a garment worker, his father a factory elevator operator. He grew “up and out of the underclass,” he said, to become, first, an avant-garde artist who protested the exclusivity of mainstream arts institutions and, later, a Rutgers University professor with works in the Museum of Modern Art and the Pompidou Center in Paris. El Museo, in turn, was created as a small alternative museum by and for Puerto Ricans, based first in a classroom, next in a brownstone and then in storefronts. Gradually, after settling into its present city-owned home on Fifth Avenue at 104th Street in 1977, it became a Museum Mile institution. And as the city’s Hispanic population boomed and diversified, it “tweaked its mission,” as Mr. Zugazagoitia put it, to focus not only on Puerto Rican culture but also on Latin American and Latino art.Such transitions are not painless. “Moving out into the larger world never is,” Mr. Ortiz said. “But in my view it doesn’t make sense to remain forever underclass. Culture has the right to move out of the barrio too. For Puerto Rican culture to be integrated into Latino culture and then into the larger world culture — that was always my vision.”Still, excitement in East Harlem about its beloved museum’s reopening after 17 months — which will be heralded by the Empire State Building’s turning “mango yellow” — is tempered by anxiety that El Museo is increasingly turning into “a mini-Latin MoMA,” said Arlene Dávila, a professor of anthropology at New York University who has written about the “Latinization” of the museum.“There’s always concern that El Museo is becoming too mainstream, too upscale, too disconnected from the community,” she said. “Look at what happened with the Three Kings Day parade.” This year when the museum was in the thick of its government-financed renovation, it caused an uproar in the neighborhood by deciding it could not afford $3,500 to subsidize the camels and sheep that have been a staple of its 30-year-old Three Kings Day Parade. A private donor was found, but not before the museum antagonized some East Harlem residents by moving to tamper with a tradition.Before January, however, it had been many years since the last loud protests against the museum. In the early 2000s, the discovery of El Museo catalogs from the 1970s discarded in a Dumpster had provoked the formation of a community-board-run campaign called “We Are Watching You.” Participants wanted, among other things, more local representation on the museum board, more Puerto Ricans on the staff and greater attention to Puerto Rican culture, local Latino artists and the history of the barrio.This led to a tense town-hall-style meeting in late 2002 right after Mr. Zugazagoitia, then executive assistant to the director of the Guggenheim Museum, was chosen to run El Museo without, many at the meeting felt, any input from them.“At that point in time, El Museo was failing in communicating properly with the community,” said Mr. Zugazagoitia, who spent months after his arrival meeting with local “stakeholders.”Since then, although gaffes occurred and tensions persisted, Mr. Zugazagoitia has in the main proved to be deft at managing relations with the neighborhood. Looking forward, the schedule of the newly renovated museum indicates his effort to balance local constituent interests and art world ambitions, community programming and scholarly exhibitions.

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