Art in Puerto Rico: Rich Traditions, Sizable Challenges

Puerto Rico’s arts scene has always been a thriving one amidst limited institutional support, scarce arts criticism in media outlets, and the absence of graduate arts programs. The number of excellent artists actively working contrasts with a small market for their work marked by an ever-changing number of galleries and limited access to museum programming and other work opportunities to help them sustain careers as professional artists.

But it is important to state that crisis in Puerto Rico is not new to the culture sector and has not come about solely because of Hurricanes Maria and Irma, although they have certainly aggravated it. Trying circumstances and limited resources associated with the politics and economics of colonialism are a given on the island both for artists and for most cultural institutions. For artists, the multiple crises that Puerto Rico faces—political, financial, social, cultural—far from debilitating arts production, spur it and entice artists to look at other paths to self-sufficiency. These include undertaking graduate studies and participating in residency programs abroad, living and working between the island and abroad, and grouping themselves and establishing alternative exhibition spaces to carry out their projects.

The Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Puerto Rico is sensitive to these circumstances, which is why, in part, it is conceived as a hybrid institution: a space of production and creation as well as of research, exhibition, and conservation. The museum’s leadership believes that an interdisciplinary focus is essential for a museum dedicated to contemporary art and that our audiences should participate directly in the process of art to consolidate their contemporary art education, as contemporary art is characterized by its emphasis on process and on the construction and exhibition of artworks and interventions.

For these reasons the MACPR has been actively commissioning art since 2009. Through our intra- and extramural residency programs such as Taller Vivo (Live Workshop) and El MAC en el Barrio (MAC in the Barrio), we have given continuity to our commitment to act as an observatory of new aesthetics and to encourage the systematic study and analysis of convergent artistic disciplines. Through both these programs as well as through our exhibition and education programs, we consistently (in spite of limited funding) provide work opportunities for artists through commissioned projects and by engaging them as workshop facilitators, speakers, and more.

For the MAC and the general community, the contribution made by Northwestern University will help us give continuity to MAC in the Barrio, Live Workshop, and other core programs. Through active and continuous joint efforts involving the museum, artists, educators, and community residents, the MAC is working to further contribute to the recovery and socioeconomic development of communities via cultural and volunteer tourism, our ongoing art exhibitions and commissioned projects, the activation of businesses in the communities, and alliances with the business sector.

In the weeks after Hurricane Maria, the MAC became aware that it had moved beyond the role of an unusual art institution with intensive community engagement programming or a storage location for important artworks and archives. It had become a home—a community center and major resource for those seeking aid after the storm. It was a center for relief distribution and a place where people gathered to fill out FEMA forms. It offered an Artist Emergency Fund providing financial assistance. It offered programming to students who had lost their academic routines because of power outages and destruction caused by the hurricane, as well as art therapy and other services for families and seniors.

Further, the MAC opened its doors to arts organizations and performers slated to perform at venues that had been closed as a result of the storm.

Marianne Ramírez-Aponte, executive director and chief curator, Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Puerto Rico