March 12 – September 6, 2014

“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 my own culture, I founded El Museo del Barrio.”
-Raphael Montañez Ortiz

This quote by the founder of El Museo del Barrio illustrates his commitment to creating a space in which Puerto Rican New Yorkers could feel a connection to one island while living on another. Among his many goals was the creation of a place in which various stories related to history and culture could be experienced. Beyond writing curriculum for New York City Public School students, Montañez Ortiz, made a special trip to Puerto Rico to meet with museum specialists, scholars and artists to lay the groundwork for the founding of El Museo del Barrio in 1969.

As a result of his vision, El Museo embarks on its forty-fifth year as an institution serving the people of East Harlem, the New York City region and visitors from around the world. The museum’s history has shown its capacity for expansion and generosity, its flexibility as an art institution, its commitment to sharing creative production, people, ideas, objects, and collections with a broad audience.

This exhibition explores the significance of the creation of El Museo by focusing on works of art made by Raphael Montañez Ortiz, as the artist turns 80 this year. Among the works on display by our founder will be his powerful Archaeological Find #21: The Aftermath (1961), a destroyed sofa as a sculpture from 1961 that is a signature of the artist’s work. Also prominent in this gallery will be his Maya Zemí I and Maya Zemí II, pyramid-shaped cardboard sculptures that illustrate his profound interest in connecting the historic indigenous cultures of the Caribbean and Mesoamerica.

To create a contemporary parallel to Montanez Ortiz’s open and generous vision, El Museo has invited a group of local artists from East Harlem to in turn invite the people of East Harlem to bring objects from their homes for display in the museum’s galleries. This reversal of expected museum exhibition practice underscores the museum’s commitment to creating connections with its audiences but also its interest in interrogating the role of the museum, the potential of the object and the human impulse to collect.

Historic figures who have been included in past exhibitions such as the conceptual and performance artist Papo Colo and photographer and filmmaker Perla de Leon will be highlighted. A handful of work by artists who have never been highlighted at El Museo before will round out the exhibition, including a group of drawings by Zilia Sanchez, found object sculptures by Romy Scheroder, and a space where visitors and tour groups will take a seat created by the Brooklyn based collective, BroLab. One gallery will feature their hand-made benches from recycled plastic, where audiences will be invited to sit and contemplate the invention of their own museum and to fantasize about which works of art and architecture they would include.

Supported by

Carmen Ana and Joseph Unanue Foundation

Additional support provided by New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, New York State Council on the Arts, and the National Endowment of the Arts.

Hear from the curator of our new exhibition, Museum Starter Kit: Open with Care! Rocío Aranda-Alvarado shares how the exhibition came together, what surprised her about the show, and reflects on the legacy of Raphael Montañez Ortiz.

As El Museo’s director, Jorge Daniel Veneciano stated in the New York Times: “Puerto Rican art and culture will always be the heart and soul of El Museo. The imperative at its founding moment, 45 years ago, was to find a place for people who went unrecognized in society,” he said. “Today, the imperative is more about connectivity.” El Museo’s exhibition addresses this need for connections through an exploration of the museum’s founder, its exhibition history, and the possibility its galleries represent.

Museum Starter Kit is about the legacy of Montañez Ortiz and how artists, who came later, even though they may not have been aware of him, work in similar ways. The exhibition uses our founders work as a launching point for exploring other ways of working, other ways of seeing the possibility of an object, both aesthetically and politically. Museum Starter Kit also explores the role of the institution by inviting others to consider what kinds of objects should be on public display. It is about the creation of a space, as Montañez Ortiz saw it, for Puerto Ricans, but a space that can expand, through its generosity, to embrace others while remaining committed to its roots.

Beverly Acha, BroLab, Papo Colo, Perla de Leon, Tamara Kostianovsky, LNY, Mata Ruda, Geraldo Mercado, Raphael Montañez Ortiz, Zilia Sánchez, Neighbor/Artists Curatorial Committee of East Harlem, Romy Scheroder, Luís Stephenberg.  For bios on our participating artists, click here.

The New York-based collective BroLab, established in 2009 by five artists who built a practice bridging art and design principles exploring minimalist objects where people can interact with both the artists and the work, are featured in the exhibition through the project Stack and Rack, a multipurpose public sculpture that functions as a socially interactive space. Visitors and tour groups are invited to sit on BroLab’s flatpack benches made from recycled plastic as they contemplate the invention of their own museum—imagining which works of art, architecture, and design they would include—and to register their thoughts in the gallery and through social media. Their suggestions will then be illustrated and added to this growing installation, creating an evolving conceptual museum that changes from week to week.

El Museo has partnered with a group of local artists and neighbors from El Barrio (East Harlem) to invite community members to bring objects from their homes for display in the museum’s galleries.  These displays will grow and change over time, creating ephemeral museums of the moment.  This portion of the exhibition celebrates the human impulse to collect and will be organized in collaboration with an

Artists/Neighbors Curatorial Committee.  Members include: Jaime Davidovich, Alexis Duque, Christopher Lopez, Lina Puerta, Judith Escalona/ medianoche gallery, Debbie Quiñones, and Manny Vega.