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.
One passage from the Jot Down interview in particular drew much ire on Facebook and Twitter: When interviewer E.J. Rodríguez asked Martínez what role she would play in the museum's future she replied that it was to "redefine goals, which was basically to attend to the cultural values of the Hispanic community." Martínez went on to say that she hoped to "put the ways of thinking of 'esa gente' in touch with the ways of thinking of other communities that have nothing to do with Hispanics, to get the museum out of that niche."
Whether it was subconscious snobbery or overt arrogance, Martínez's "esa gente" quote seemed to galvanize an online community of outrage. "Nobody's questioned her capacity to curate, she's a star curator," said Pedro Vélez, a Chicago-based Puerto Rican art critic whose Twitter feed was an early spark in the brushfire of online indignance. "[The interview] shows she doesn't understand the philosophy of the museum, which has a long history."
Gonzalo Casals, the deputy executive director of the museum who is now taking on director's duties in wake of Aguilar's departure said of criticisms of Martínez: "It's great that people are so passionate about El Museo! I believe that when people get to know Chus they'll see how committed she is to El Museo's mission."
While El Museo's 43-year history has not lacked for controversy, its transformation over the last 15 years from a community art museum founded by local Puerto Rican activists to a more "global" museum located on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue "Museum Mile" has drawn criticism and protest. NYU Professor Arlene Dávila, whose book Latino Spin devotes a chapter to "the politics of Latino/a art museums" says that the museum's "upscaling is directly related to a general whitewashing of Latino/a culture so it becomes more pallatable to corporate/financial interests. The museum has become a battleground at the center of community debates around gentrification."
In 2011, Neyda Martínez, a former employee of and consultant to El Museo, interviewed scores of local residents for a report commissioned by the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone about the need for a new arts organization for the neighborhood and found that many residents "were dismayed by El Museo's seeming desire to detach from the community."
"El Museo is […] always looking for new, better ways to engage members of our various constituencies," said Casals. "This spring El Museo will offer over 20 public programs for families, students, parents and adults, all of these feature free admission, and will offer a total of 12 artist residencies in the South Bronx, Manhattan, Western Queens and Brooklyn free of charge."
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."