Martin W. Frey, Superintendent of School District 4, under pressure from parents and community activists to implement cultural enrichment programs for Puerto Rican children, appoints artist/educator Rafael Montañez Ortiz to create educational materials for schools in District 4 on Puerto Rican history, culture, folklore, and art. In 1969, District 4 encompassed parts of Central Harlem and East Harlem. Montañez Ortiz was primarily hired to serve the population of East Harlem, known as El Barrio, where the majority of the Puerto Rican population lived. As an artist, activist, and teacher at the High School of Music and Art, Montañez Ortiz was aware of the urgent need to create cultural resources for Puerto Ricans of all ages. Montañez Ortiz reconceives the project as a community museum, dedicated to the Puerto Rican Diaspora in the United States, that he names “El Museo del Barrio.” Montañez Ortiz serves as founding director from June 1969 to Spring 1971. His original typed proposal and budgets for exhibitions, workshops, performing arts projects, apprentice program, and research and library resources, all to be administered by El Museo del Barrio, are in the archives of El Museo del Barrio, as well as a letter to Puerto Rican artists, where he introduces the institution: “The Museo del Barrio is its title: a neighborhood museum of Puerto Rican culture. . .” El Museo del Barrio receives its primary funding from the Board of Education from 1969 until 1974. Montañez Ortiz stated, “The cultural disenfranchisement I experience as a Puerto Rican has prompted me to seek a practical alternative to the orthodox museum, which fails to meet my needs for an authentic ethnic experience. To afford me and others the opportunity to establish living connections with our own culture, I founded El Museo del Barrio.” (Ralph Ortiz, “Culture and the People,” Art in America, May–June 1971, 27)
Montañez Ortiz travels to Puerto Rico with Martin W. Frey, to conduct research on Puerto Rican culture and make institutional contacts with museum directors and anthropologists.
Funded by the Community Education Center (a state-financed program providing supplementary services for children and adults), El Museo del Barrio begins operations in a schoolroom at PS 125, located at 425 West 123rd Street. PS 125 also housed the office of District 4. During his first year as Director, Montañez Ortiz reached out to the East Harlem community by discussing plans for El Museo del Barrio with parents, teachers, The Young Lords Political Party, and The Real Great Society (a collective of architects and urban planners based in East Harlem). Montañez Ortiz also contacted Puerto Rican artists such as Marcos Dimas and Adrián García, who were members of the Art Workers Coalition, a political action group.Dimas and García participate in the first Advisory Board of El Museo del Barrio and later form Taller Boricua, an artist’s collective that is still in operation. In addition, Montañez Ortiz visited museums in New York City to research their collections of Puerto Rican art and artifacts.