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Local showcase: Puerto Rico Art Museum
Latinamerica Press / April 30, 2001

By Larry Luxner

Puerto Rico boasts a world-class astronomical observatory, a tropical rainforest, a phosphorescent bay and the Caribbean's largest shopping mall -- but until recently, it didn't have a single museum where locals or tourists could enjoy uniquely Puerto Rican art.

No longer. Last July, after five years of planning and construction, the visually stuning Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico has opened its doors in the heart of Santurce, a commercial district of San Juan that's beginning to bounce back after years of decay.

The museum is an ambitious, $55 million project funded by Puerto Rico's Government Development Bank [Banco Gubernamental de Fomento in Spanish], whose headquarters are located right across the street. In fact, the bank's former president, Marcos Rodríguez Ema, is chairman of the museum's board of trustees.

Since its inauguration in July, over 85,000 people have visited the museum, says Myrna Pérez, director of development and membership, as she led a guided tour through the building's glass doors and out to a sculpture garden overlooking the city.

"Before we built the museum, this was a municipal hospital and a parking lot for government employees. A lot of people who visit tell us they were born here," she said. In 1996, Rodríguez and Luís Fortuño, former president of the Puerto Rico Tourism Co., were instrumental in convincing then-Governor Pedro Rosselló to support the idea of creating a central home for the greatest works by Puerto Rican artists.

The result: a 130,000-square-foot, 1920s neo-classical structure designed by local architects Otto Reyes and Luís Gutiérrez that houses not only art galleries but also a 400-seat auditorium, a gift shop and even a gourmet restaurant, Pikayo. Outside, the garden is decorated with 106,000 plants and 26 species of trees -- including a yellow flamboyán tree, a royal palm and a Maricao tree, among others.

Mercedes Trelles Hernández, the museum's curator, said the Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña had a Museum of Fine Arts in Old San Juan, which closed in the 1980s. There's also a museum of Latin American Graphics Arts in San Juan, while Sagrado Corazón University in Santurce has a Museum of Contemporary Art.

"There have been small museums here and there, but until now there's been no museum with the strong commitment we have in promoting Puerto Rican art," said Trelles, who graduated from Harvard with a degree in art history. "The Ponce Museum of Art has been a great contributor to us here, but its main thrust is European art. All the works here have been done by Puerto Rican artists or by foreign artists living in Puerto Rico."

The inaugural exhibition, which runs through early 2001, features a selection of 250 works that are diverse in style yet linked in one important aspect: each painting represents a particular Puerto Rican art style, distinctive of its own time period.

The first work of art purchased by the museum's acquisition committee was José Campecho's "Virgen de la Soledad de la Victoria," painted between 1782 and 1789. Also represented is 19th-century painter Francisco Oller and Brooklyn-born Rafael Tufiño, who through his paintings, posters, drawings and engravings continues to explore his own identity and heritage as a Puerto Rican.

"We have chosen to show what we are as a people and what we aspire to be," states the museum's description of the inaugural exhibit, "through Campeche's portraits, Oller's religious and still-life paintings, depictions of jíbaros and pastoral scenes by Ramón Frade, Miguel Pou and Oscar Colón Delgado, as well as through works by our famed generations of the 1950s and 70s."

Of particular interest is Osiris Delgado's 1946 mural, "Domingo de Ramos o La Masacre de Ponce." This oil on canvas, which parallels the early murals of Mexico's Diego Rivera, commemorates the deaths of 20 nationalist protesters in Ponce on Mar. 23, 1939.

Another vision of Puerto Rico is shown by a series of three murals commissioned in 1958. "La industria" by Carlos Raquel Rivera, "La agricultura" by Augusto Marín and La construcción by Rafael Tufiño are all based on the theme of "exalting the worker" and appear almost Marxist in style -- but ironically were commissioned by John Snyder, president of U.S. Industries, and Hermann Stubbe, president of General Equipment Corp., to promote the rapid industrialization of Puerto Rico in the late 1950s.

Hanging prominently on one wall of the museum is Francisco Rudon's 1975 oil portrait of Luís Muñoz Marín, a famous Puerto Rican statesman and founder of the pro-Commonwealth Popular Democratic Party which is currently in power.

And in another wing is an exhibit entitled "En la barbería no se llora." Dedicated to Puerto Rican machismo and sponsored by Gillette, the exhibit recreates the atmosphere of a barber shop through rich symbolism, such as painted sperm on the floor, a pool table that museum visitors can actually use, a plastic St. Lazarus with flowers and candles, barber-shop chairs in red velvet, a boom box playing Puerto Rican salsa music, hundreds of framed family photos, hair spray, razors, trophies and no less than 132 hubcaps on the walls.

Altogether, the museum has five floors, with the first used for educational purposes, the second for registration and security, the third and fourth for exhibition space and the fifth for administrative offices.

"We had 1,000 members before we ever opened our doors. Today, there are over 3,000 members, one-third of whom are families paying $100 a year to belong," says Pérez, adding that "we have 300 works of art. We need many more to fill up this building."

For more information, visit the museum's website at www.mapr.org.

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