El Museo del Barrio

Edification value
Entertainment value
Should you go?
Time spent 50 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned A haunting and beautiful photograph by Cecilia Paredes, a Peruvian artist.  In her work, she has her body painted to match fancy floral wallpapers or fabrics, and then photographs herself in front of them.  My photo is at the end of the post.

El Museo del Barrio is currently the northernmost of the “Museum Mile” museums, occupying a stately building on Fifth Avenue, just across 104th Street from the Museum of the City of New York.  According to its website, it  started in the early 1970s as a cultural center focused on Puerto Rico.  It has since expanded its focus to cover all Latin American and Caribbean art and artists.  After bouncing around East Harlem a bit it found its current home in the Heckscher Building in 1977.

The building dates to 1921 when it was built as an orphanage, and includes a spectacularly beautiful theater, now run by El Museo and called Teatro Heckscher.

I was a little disappointed in El Museo.  I was expecting a survey of that Latino experience in New York City, as told through art as well as other sorts of artifacts.  The museum has a permanent collection of 8,000 objects, so I’m sure they could tell that story.  In practice, though, El Museo is a small art museum, showing work by Latino-Caribbean artists.  It’s in a large building, and I always assumed it was a rather large museum, so I was surprised to realize the exhibition space is confined to six rooms on the ground floor.

The main show when I visited was of video art by Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, as well as selections she chose from the museum’s permanent collection.  I run hot and cold with video art. On the one hand, two of the best, most memorable works of art I’ve seen in the past two years were video pieces. On the other hand, I am bored to tears with the vast majority of it. Muñoz’s work, largely non-narrative, did little for me.  I lacked the eye or knowledge to understand how her selections from the permanent collection clicked with what she’s trying to do.

The other show featured recent acquisitions, definitely a common and valid theme for a museum, although given the small space available, I didn’t find it very edifying as far as key current trends in Latin or Caribbean art.  I liked some of the pieces, but I also thought much of the work on view wasn’t especially “Latin.”

It’s like my rhetorical question about the Leslie-Lohman‘s acquisition strategy:  will they collect anything just because it happened to be made by someone LGBTQ?  Or do the themes and topics and content of the art have to also reflect that world somehow?

Catalina Chervin (b. 1953, Argentina) “Songs 1-6” from the Canto portfolio, 2010.

Based on the recent acquisitions show, I’d tentatively say that El Museo opts for the broad approach:  they’ll acquire anything by an artist with the right name or country of origin.

That’s a perfectly valid collection strategy.  However, given their minuscule space it directly impacts the likelihood that a visitor to El Museo del Barrio actually learns something about el barrio. I’d therefore argue the museum needs to be clearer about its brand or purpose.

The museum also features Side Park Cafe, a large and decent looking bar/restaurant.  Without at all wanting to seem stereotypical, I bet they make great margaritas.  Apparently it’s fairly new:  there aren’t enough reviews on Yelp to get an objective margarita quality metric.

Should you go to El Museo?  I don’t really recommend it.  If you have to choose between going there and extending your visit to the Museum of the City of New York, the latter is probably the better use of your limited museuming time.  Naturally, as with many places I’ve visited, it comes down to your interest in the current exhibition. If you have a chance to go to the theater there, definitely seize the opportunity. 

Cecilia Paredes (b. 1950, Peru) photograph

For Reference:

Address 1230 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan
Website elmuseo.org
Cost Suggested Donation:  $9
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