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A piragua cart and artwork at El Museo del Barrio.
Photograph: By Rossilynne Skena Culgan / Time Out

NYC’s El Museo del Barrio is debuting its most ambitious exhibit in two decades

See 500 artworks, including more than 100 new acquisitions.

Rossilynne Skena Culgan
Written by
Rossilynne Skena Culgan

For more than 50 years, El Museo del Barrio has been curating a complex and culturally diverse collection. Now, for the first time in more than two decades, the museum will present its most ambitious presentation of that permanent collection with 500 artworks, including more than 100 new acquisitions. 

The exhibition called "Something Beautiful: Reframing La Colección" opened today and will remain on view through March 10, 2024 with different pieces rotating in and out. El Museo del Barrio, located in the city's East Harlem neighborhood known as "El Barrio," is the nation's leading Latinx and Latin American cultural institution. 

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"This show is meant to reveal El Museo's collection that we have been growing for the past 50 years and I think have been at the forefront of what we're calling Latinx art history now or decolonial art history now," Susanna V. Temkin, the show's curator, said at a preview this week. 

Four children outside of El Museo del Barrio, P.S. 206, 508 East 120th Street, New York City.
Photograph: By Hiram Maristany | El Museo del Barrio, P.S. 206, 508 East 120th Street, New York City

The exhibition explores several themes.

One section spotlights El Barrio itself, highlighting the people and places of the neighborhood through decades of photographs, artwork and even items from vendors like a piragua cart. It documents waves of Puerto Rican migration, punctuated with images from other Puerto Rican communities in New York City, such as Loisaida and the Bronx. While it's a celebration of El Barrio, the gallery also portrays the city as a contested site with issues in housing, cultural exploitation and sanitation. Archival materials depict the resistance of groups such as Charas and Young Lords. 

A paper bag and plate.
Photograph: By Rossilynne Skena Culgan / Time Out

Another zone called "Clothed/Unclothed / Con Ropa/Sin Ropa" draws its title from a series by queer Chicana photographer Laura Aguilar. This part of the show presents works that explore what it means to be male, female, neither or both. It blurs gender binaries, features some trans artists and reminds us that we are all performing gender all the time. 

Several works of abstract art.
Photograph: By Rossilynne Skena Culgan / Time Out

Additional areas give prominence to portraiture, the street as a site for civic life, and "abstraccionistas" or the pioneering women of abstract art.

Seven artist spotlights emphasize indigenous and non-indigenous artists, women and the diversity of the Latinx experience. One spotlight, for example, shares work by Maria Gaspar called "Force of Things / Fuerza de Cosas." The artist explores the demolition of a detention facility in Chicago, the largest single-site jail in the U.S. Her work responds to the violent conditions of the carceral system. Another artist spotlight on Alejandro Diaz features the artist's handwritten signs that transform popular phrases into funny, sardonic works. 

Works on cardboard by Alejandro Diaz.
Photograph: By Rossilynne Skena Culgan / Time Out

To create "Something Beautiful: Reframing La Colección," the museum worked with more than 40 artists, scholars, community leaders and museum professionals over several years to explore the possibilities of the collection. In addition, the museum worked with a Taíno counsel to invite the participation of cemí and other spiritually relevant object-beings currently in El Museo’s care. In all, these processes allowed El Museo to shape a revised framework for the collection, foregrounding concepts such as African and Indigenous heritages, urban experiences and craft intersections.

"El Museo’s collection defies conventional museological narratives and represents a significant manifestation of our diasporic and community origins," the museum's executive director Patrick Charpenel said in a statement. 

When the museum was founded in 1969, Charpenel explained, it was created by artists and activists. "The history of El Museo is very political," he said.

"Something Beautiful: Reframing La Colección" is on view through March 10, 2024 at El Museo del Barrio, 1230 Fifth Avenue at 104th Street in Manhattan's East Harlem neighborhood. Adult admission is $9. The Museum is open Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 11am-5pm. Several special events, including the Museum Mile Festival, Super Sábado and Uptown Bounce are coming up this summer.

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