Margarita Aguilar, the director of El Museo del Barrio since August 2011, has left the position amid turmoil at the museum, which in recent months has slashed its days of operation and instituted layoffs and furloughs, as Felicia Lee reports in this article from The New York Times.
“She is stepping down as of yesterday,” Tony Bechara, an artist who is the chairman of the museum’s board, said on Friday of Ms. Aguilar. “We are in the process of finding a replacement. That’s all I know. We have ended the relationship.”
Founded in 1969, the museum is considered a major center for Latino art and culture. Its collection contains 8,500 objects, including Mexican masks, textiles from Chile and photographs and traditional art from Puerto Rico.
Ms. Aguilar had been a curator at the museum from 1998 to 2006, before going to Christie’s as a vice president and specialist in Latin American art; she took over from Julián Zugazagoitia, who left El Museo in 2010 to become the director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo. Ms. Aguilar inherited a transformed museum, which had two years earlier unveiled a $35 million renovation of its Beaux-Arts complex on Fifth Avenue and 104th Street in East Harlem, with a glass-front facade designed by the architects Gruzen Samton, a redesigned courtyard and modernized galleries.
But she arrived just as the museum was completing a round of layoffs. And since then, revenues from fund-raising and attendance have continued to decline from their high in the 2008 fiscal year and have struggled to keep pace with the $5.3 million annual budget. Late last month, the museum laid off 8 of its 41-person staff and required staff members to take furloughs over the next two months. Earlier in January the museum, which had been open six days a week, reduced its hours to four days.
Ms. Aguilar could not be reached for comment. Gonzalo Casals, the deputy executive director, who will oversee the museum’s daily operations until a new director is found, declined to comment on whether Ms. Aguilar’s departure was related to the museum’s budget problems.
“Like every other cultural institution, our revenues are down,” Mr. Casals said on Friday. “We thought it was prudent to do the layoffs.” The decision was made to close the museum’s doors on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, days when it received the least foot traffic, he said. Last fiscal year, the museum had 250,000 visitors; a decade ago that number was under 100,000. The museum suggests donations of $9 from its visitors. Mr. Bechara said the budget would be balanced as of July 1. Arlene Davila, a professor of anthropology at New York University whose specialties include museum politics, said she was not aware of Ms. Aguilar’s departure. But, she said, a continuing concern was El Museo’s disconnect with the community around it, and the coming void in leadership.
“They have a history of trying to upscale this institution,” Ms. Davila said. “It’s always been a challenge between the community that sees this as their institution and the board. It wants to be the Met or the Guggenheim, when its roots come from the community.”
She added: “It’s about class. There’s a lack of transparency. The board is not open about their direction.”
Pedro Vélez, a Chicago-based art critic and writer, said he had asked museum officials about the qualifications of Chus Martinez, the incoming chief curator, who is arriving from the Documenta festival in Kassell, Germany; Ms. Martinez used the term “esa gente,” which is translated as “those people,” in referring to those who visit the museum, in an interview she did with a Spanish-language blog.
“That was hurtful,” Mr. Vélez said, adding that in reading the interview, he began to question how much Ms. Martinez knew, for instance, about the difference between Puerto Ricans and Chicanos.
Mr. Casals said that El Museo had already responded to concerns about Ms. Martinez. “She’s an amazing, accomplished professional,” he said. “We’re sure she’ll make the neighborhood, the city and the community proud.”
Mr. Bechara added, “We are dedicated to our community, to New York and to Latinos everywhere.”