Closed since early 2020, Puerto Rico’s Museo de Arte de Ponce faces a long way to reopen
In January 2020, when Puerto Rico had not yet fully recovered from Hurricane Maria, the island was rocked by a wave of tremors culminating in a very strong, Magnitude 6.4 earthquake. The consequences were particularly dire in Ponce, the island’s second largest city after San Juan, with thousands of people displaced and most households severely affected. Ponce is home to the Museo de Arte de Ponce (MAP), one of the main museums in the Caribbean with a superb collection of Old Masters as well as 20th century Victorian and Puerto Rican art. Although the collection was largely unscathed by the earthquake, the building was damaged, forcing the museum to close. Then came the Covid-19 pandemic.
The museum, which remains closed at the time of writing, recently announced a change of director. Alejandra Peña, leaves Puerto Rico to direct the Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota. Her successor Cheryl Hartup is no stranger: she was MAP’s chief curator between 2005 and 2012, before Peña’s arrival. Hartup’s recent experience as Curator of Latin American and Caribbean Art and Academic Programs at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, University of Oregon will surely be an asset to her former employer, as well as her knowledge of the Puerto Rican artistic community.
Hartup will find an institution that is in better shape, financially and organizationally, than it was when she left it nine years ago. However, overseeing the physical renovation of the building is no small task.
MAP was founded in 1959 by Luis A. Ferré (1904-2003), an iron and cement industrialist, politician and probably the island’s greatest philanthropist. The museum occupies land on the outskirts of Ponce. In 1965, when the main building was built, sugarcane gave way to the suburbs as Puerto Rico envisioned a prosperous future which, in hindsight, proved to be a short-lived illusion.
The early 2000s were still full of promise for a museum ripe for transformation. But by the time Ferré died, a few months before his 100th birthday, the institution had lost its momentum. A public campaign was launched to fund a much-needed renovation and expansion project, and in 2004 administrators hired a new executive to oversee the process. The person appointed was Agustín Arteaga, a Mexican curator with impressive credentials as the founding director of the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires. Arteaga’s interest in the contemporary art scene promised to breathe new life into a museum perceived as stagnant and outdated.
The MAP closed for renovation in early 2008. The bar was certainly high: the annex was next to a 1965 jewel of a modernist building by Edward Durell Stone, the architect responsible (with Philip Goodwin) of the first museum in local modern art. But the design issues as well as the lack of space soon became evident. After much back and forth, the final cost of $ 30 million nearly tripled the original budget, draining the endowment and weighing on a small, privately funded institution with almost no fundraising experience with debt of nearly $ 10 million. $ 14 million. (Unfortunately, a scheduled seismological study was never carried out.) This happened precisely when the global economic recession was becoming impossible to ignore.
While the museum was closed, paintings from before 1900 were sent for traveling exhibitions in Europe and the United States. King Arthur’s Sleep in Avalon (1898) was removed from the stretcher and rolled up to visit place after place. In 2010, the museum donated a superb Lioness and heron by James Ward, who slipped out of sight into private hands. As the painting fitted firmly into the collection, bridging the gap between its Regency and Victorian collections, most of the proceeds from its sale were used to cover the shipping costs of Roy Lichtenstein’s painting. . Brush strokes in flight, the sculpture donated by the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation that adorns the main facade of the building, a gesture as emblematic as it is incongruous, since the museum holds almost no American art of the 20th century.
Difficulties, rebirth and even more difficulties
Overly ambitious programming and inflated operating budget have made MAP financially unsustainable in times of global economic crisis. Yet in 2010, MAP reopened in a big way, seeking to overturn its image of an old museum with old stuff for the elderly. Grants from the Kress and Mellon Foundations funded catalogs of collections focusing on pre-1900 British and Spanish art, respectively.
Peña took over as director in 2013 and has been successful in several areas where MAP had previously failed. Formerly a senior official at Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes overseeing 18 museums, she ran an institution that was dangerously close to the brink of collapse. She has invested in creating a culture of empowerment, teamwork and responsibility. Under his leadership, MAP has organized collection-focused exhibitions and forged partnerships with local and international institutions, including the University of Puerto Rico, the Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña, the Plantin-Moretus House and the Frick Collection, to to name a few. Between 2013 and 2015, the MAP adopted an efficient collection management policy and redesigned its permanent display to improve the visitor experience and bring more works of art out of warehouses.
Around 2015, MAP made a late but successful jump to Instagram and launched a YouTube series featuring different aspects of the museum’s history, collections and temporary exhibits. The fact that these videos were produced with public funds and local resources is indicative of the new philosophy inaugurated by Peña, which allowed to balance the budget and to repay a heavy debt without sacrificing the care of the collection, the exhibitions , community outreach and even a few wise acquisitions. What MAP has achieved under Peña is, in a way, so much common sense that it could be taken for granted. CA shouldn’t be.
Until the building is renovated and the MAP can reopen – which may take at least three years – an important question remains: to what extent can a museum function without giving the public access to its collection at through its physical premises? During lockdown in 2020, the museum offered free online classes; later, as soon as infection rates permitted, staff were sent to local schools to conduct education programs. However, the collection remains on deposit.
The location of the MAP, engraved in its name, is both one of the defining characteristics of the institution as well as its Achilles heel. Already in 2008, concerns were raised about the grim future ahead as local youth moved from Ponce to San Juan (and Florida) in increasing numbers. After Hurricane Maria in 2017, the 2020 earthquake and Covid-19, the scenario worsened; According to the US census, the population of Ponce declined by almost 20% between 2010 and 2020.
The living conditions around the MAP have steadily deteriorated in a way beyond the control of any institution. In 1978, Ponce could attract a restorer previously employed by the Art Institute of Chicago, Anton J. Konrad. Another conservator, Lidia Aravena, who early in her career moved from Chile to Ponce to work with Konrad, has maintained an admirable standard of collection care for over 30 years; several of her interns are now working in museums across the Americas, but none are in sight to replace her as curator at MAP. Ten years ago, Ponce could be described as delightfully decrepit; now it is dangerous and depopulated. Can MAP attract experienced museum professionals under current circumstances?
When it finally reopens, the MAP will be able to continue serving the local community, but it will likely not be able to be the world-class cultural center that Ferré envisioned. Museum donors, board members, and even some of its staff live within a 90-minute drive of San Juan, as do much of its public. On the other hand, leaving Ponce and the Edward Durell Stone building would also mean shedding a significant part of the institution’s legacy.
Difficult decisions awaited the director and the administrators. We can only hope that they will not lose sight of the local community as they prioritize what makes the museum unique: its original, sparsely documented and fascinating collection on many levels. Exhibitions should not only showcase works of art, but also generate new knowledge. With a new director at the helm and a board chaired by Luis A. Ferré’s charismatic and dedicated granddaughter, María Luisa Ferré, one should not underestimate MAP’s ability to reinvent itself in what seems be his darkest hour. After all, that’s exactly what he did less than a decade ago.
- Dr Pablo Pérez d’Ors was curator at the Museo de Ponce from 2011 to 2018 and is now director of the Museu Fundación Juan March