El Museo del Barrio curator Rocio Aranda-Alvarado strives to put on exhibits that are historic as well as contemporary—Clem Richardson reports for New York’s Daily News
Here’s how Rocío Aranda-Alvarado describes her mission as curator at East Harlem’s El Museo del Barrio.
“It requires a lot of intellectual curiosity, and you have to care about how you’re conveying your message to the public,” she said. “You want them to come away with a complete story about something they might not have known about or cared about before.
“You have to make them interested, make them want to learn more and acknowledge the importance of whatever it is they just saw.”
El Museo del Barrio’s massive and varied collection is almost tailor made to that end, she said.
“The museum’s mission comes from the collection, which has pre-Colombian objects in it, Colonial objects in it, modern and contemporary objects as well as objects that fall into popular traditions, handmade objects made by artists who were not trained in a traditional way.
“So we have to pay attention to all those things,” she said. “We have to do shows that are historic as well as shows that are contemporary.
“In a way, the historic shows are more important because they contribute to developing a history of art that is more inclusive,” Aranda-Alvarado said. “It’s not just about what was going on in Europe. It’s about what was happening here also.”
Aranda-Alvarado discovered a love for art when she was a 16-year-old volunteer at the National Gallery in Washington, DC. She worked the Sunday shift with her mother, Elsie Alvarado, riding in together from their Silver Spring, Md. home.
The family had immigrated to the United States from Chile in 1974 and lived on the West Coast and in the Midwest before settling in Maryland.
Volunteering at the National Gallery most often meant giving directions to the nearest bathroom, but what hooked Aranda-Alvarado was the behind the scenes tours of the museum departments.
“I remember once we were about to visit the department of prints and drawings, and we saw a print by the German Renaissance Artist Albrecht Durer,” she said. “To be there, three feet from the unframed print, was an amazing experience.”
(Following tradition, Aranda-Alvarado took her mother’s surname but added her attorney father’s, Patricio Aranda. Her husband, James Congregane, is facilities manager at the Bard Graduate Center.)
Aranda-Alvarado would go on to earn a bachelor’s Degree from the University of Maryland, a master’s from Tulane University, and a Ph.D. from City University of New York, each in a specialized area of art history.
She teaches an introductory art class at CUNY and joined El Museo in 2006 after nine years at the Jersey City Museum.
And she’s glad to be there.
“I love my job, I love my colleagues,” Aranda-Alvarado said. “My favorite part of my job is visiting with an artist in their studio and listening to them talk about what they think, where the ideas come from, why they do the work they do. Because making art is one of the hardest things you can do. Artists follow their paths because its something they love and something they can’t stop themselves from doing. They take our culture and kinda make sense of it.
“East Harlem has a rich art scene, from graffiti, street art and murals throughout the neighborhood to the monthly shows mounted by Taller Boricua at the Julia De Burgos Latino Cultural Center and the well-known artists who still live in the neighborhood, like Diogenes Ballester.
“Artists continue to live here, and new artists come all the time, so there is a vibrant art community,” Aranda-Alvarado said.
As curator Aranda-Alvarado organizes El Museo’s exhibits, which are usually either from the permanent collection, which stay up for about a year, or temporary exhibitions mounted in five of the museum’s galleries, which stay up about six months.
In June, El Museo will join with The Studio Museum in Harlem and The Queens Museum of Art to mount a show that was six years in the making.
That exhibit, “Caribbean, Crossroads of the World,” will feature more than 435 art pieces gathered from Europe, Central and South America, the Caribbean and all across New York and the United States, to explore six broad themes — including tobacco and sugar crops, water, race, and languages — which shaped the history and making of art in the Caribbean.
The exhibit “involved two years of traveling research where curators from the Studio Museum, Queens Museum and El Museo went to different parts of the Caribbean to meet with artists, art museums, art historians, and museum colleagues,” Aranda-Alvarado said.
The show is so huge it will involve three opening nights – El Museo del Barrio, June 12; The Studio Museum on June 14, and Queens Museum of Art on June 17.
“It’s something that has not been done before,” Aranda-Alvarado said. “It’s not like there was a gap in the scholarship, because there are many Caribbean scholars. It’s just that there was kind of a need to bring some people together and bring objects together to tell the story.
“We felt it was a great project to focus on because our mission is Latin American, Caribbean and Puerto Rican art,” she said. “This exhibit dovetails with our mission and it expands our purview into the non-Spanish-speaking Caribbean.”
For more on the museums hosting the Caribbean exhibit, see the websites, www.elmuseo.org; www.studiomuseum.org; and www.queensmuseum.org.