El Museo del Barrio, a struggling museum located in New York's most storied Latino community, Spanish Harlem, is in the middle of an identity crisis: how can it grow in a landscape of competitive city museums and hold onto its barrio roots? After a flurry of criticism over a new hire of a chief curator from Spain, who is perceived by many to be "out of touch" with the community, Margarita Aguilar, El Museo's director since 2011, has left the museum and filed a legal complaint charging employment discrimination based on gender and a hostile work environment and retaliation.
Among the many charges brought by Aguilar and her attorney, Donald Derfner, are that she was subject to gender discrimination by a member of the museum's executive board, who humiliated her publicly at a gala rehearsal last summer, and also suggested she "lose weight," "dress better," and "pluck her eyebrows." The complaint also alleges that when she fired the finance director last summer, she was called a "hysterical woman," and that, in the midst of a financial crisis at the museum, the chair of the board prevented her from meeting with major fundraisers. Aguilar also contends that she was undercut and left out of the loop in the hiring of new chief curator Chus Martínez.
When asked for comment, the chair of the board of El Museo, Tony Bechara answered through the museum's marketing and communications manager that "We do not comment on the separation of an employee of the museum."
Through her lawyer, Aguilar asserts that Bechara has portrayed her departure as a resignation at a time when the museum is going through fiscal difficulties, when in fact she insists she was fired for not showing up for a meeting to respond to the executive committees' charges that caused her suspension on January 9th. Aguilar's lawyer stated that she was informed of the February 13th meeting two days beforehand and that the contract and museum bylaws stated she was required five working days notice. Among the reasons cited for the suspension were dereliction of duty, failure to engage in meaningful fundraising activities, and failure to effectively lead and work with various staff members.
The museum's $35 million renovation of its glass façade, courtyard and galleries completed in 2009 made it appear immune to the recent recession, but last month El Museo laid off about 1/5 of its staff, while cutting back its days open to the public from six to four days a week. Aguilar, whose background was as a curator at El Museo and vice-president at the prestigious Christie's art auction house, did not have much fundraising experience, but she charges that she was interfered with by the executive committee intent on taking credit for major contributions.
While Aguilar was officially on board with the hiring of the new chief curator, the appointment of Martínez was the subject of some controversy towards the end of last year. Shortly after her hiring was announced, Martínez --a star curator of themed mega-shows such as Germany's Documenta – was the subject of two articles, one in Spanish Elle (titled "La Jefa del Barrio") and in a website called Jot Down Contemporary Culture Magazine began stirring up social media.