Still many question Martínez's hire because of what they feel is her lack of familiarity with community history. Her relative inexperience dealing with a permanent collection could also be questioned. She does have a stint at Barcelona's MACBA (Museo d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona) on her CV but it's a relatively young museum focused on contemporary art.
"El Museo has a really long history that's tied to its educational aspect," said Vélez. "I think she's a brilliant curator, but she's like a parachute curator who's a specialist in megashows and biennales. How many studios of Puerto Rican and Latino artists has she visited?"
In a sense the current troubles at El Museo constitute a perfect storm: Economic woes causing uncertainty among staff members and supporters, a sudden and controversial departure of the director after only a year or so, and the challenge of finding a new director (the last search took over a year) while simultaneously breaking in a new chief curator already the subject of controversy. It's possible that either the relatively inexperienced Casals, who formally served as director of education and public policy at El Museo, or Martínez herself might be installed as director out of practical necessity.
But the real source of El Museo's identity crisis seems to lie in the disconnect between the museum's community roots and the highest-ranking board of trustee members, who exist in a world of high society that looks out of reach for many of the hard-working and well-meaning staff, and surrounding barrio, to be a part of. Board member Yaz Hernández, for instance, is a socialite whose family in Puerto Rico controls the Wendy's hamburger chain on the island. Named by the New York Post last year as one of the city's top 25 Latino movers and shakers, Hernández is on the board of trustees for the Fashion Institute of Technology and has been the subject of profiles in fashion magazines, some eerily similar to Martínez's "La Jefa del Barrio" spread.
Attempts to reach Martínez and Hernández were unsuccessful.
"Martínez expands the possibilities of other people donating to the museum," said Vélez. "They could wind up doing global shows and attract a lot of new people, but will that solve the museum's economic problem?"
It all seems ironic when just a few weeks ago, in late January, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor graced El Museo's historic Heckscher Theatre while on a book tour for her memoir, My Beloved Life. Deputy Executive Director Casals had prefaced her introduction with a deliberate praise of the local Puerto Rican community's role in opening doors and setting the stage for an evolving and vibrant Latino New York. And Sotomayor herself insisted that success like hers shouldn't have to come at the expense of losing one's sense of history and love for community.
But Luis Cordero, a local activist who has organized many of the community's artesanos in the hopes of having their work offered for sale at El Museo, has mixed feelings about the future. "The Museo is the largest cultural institution in the neighborhood and we feel they should at least have art for sale in the gift shop that is produced by Puerto Rican aritsts," said Cordero. "Hopefully the new director will get the message. We should be part of whatever is happening at El Museo, not setting up tables on the sidewalk and be seen as outsiders."