New York’s Hispanic Society gears up for its second act

The museum and library in northern Manhattan has a new director with a packed agenda—and some needed improvements on its horizon.

A report by Judith H. Dobrzynski for The Art Newspaper.

While its main museum remains closed, the Hispanic Society’s East Building recently opened for special exhibitions and will soon host rotating displays of the permanent collection

Late last June, on a warm New York night, the Hispanic Society Museum and Library invited hundreds of guests to a party celebrating the opening of In the Heights: From University to the Silver Screen, which traces the development of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical about the nearby Dominican neighbourhood, and Latinx Diaspora: Stories from Upper Manhattan, a mural show on the plaza.

The merry event also marked the start of a rebirth for the Society, an often sleepy museum in northern Manhattan that closed to the public in 2017. The two exhibitions were far from the usual fare at the Hispanic Society, which was founded in 1904 as a museum for Spanish and Portuguese art, with Goya’s Dutchess of Alba (1797) as a major draw of the collection. Nor were they, perhaps, what was expected from the new director, Guillaume Kientz, a Velázquez and El Greco expert who began his job in March.

But, Kientz says: “The Hispanic Society is not just Old Masters.” Noting that the founder, Archer Huntington, also collected art of his time, Kientz says he too, plans to connect the Society to the art of the 20th and 21st centuries and to its Latino neighbourhood.

Guillaume Kientz took over as director in March

Guillaume Kientz took over as director in March

A first-time director, Kientz, who had been a curator at the Louvre in paris and the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, faces the same concerns as other museum chiefs—the pandemic, social justice concerns, unionisation drives—and more. The museum’s main galleries occupy an antiquated building that lacks air conditioning, does not comply with accessibility regulations and remains closed. Design work is starting on renovations of the building’s main court, which will also allow access to the renowned Sorolla Vision of Spain Gallery, with a goal of finishing by early 2023. But further modifications are still not funded. According to Philippe de Montebello, the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art who chairs the Society’s board, $15m to $20m has been raised; much more is needed before the whole building can reopen.

Kientz must help find that money—and devise programmes that expand the ranks of the Society’s visitors and supporters. “My strategy is to be dynamic, to be on the map,” he says.

For now, the recently renovated East Building, which was used for storage until In the Heights opened there and which will eventually host special exhibitions, will have rotating displays of the permanent collection, Kientz says. This starts on 15 October with Gilded Figures: Wood and Clay Made Flesh, featuring more than 20 polychrome sculptures, dated 1500-1800, from Spain, Ecuador and Mexico. Some, including two pieces by Andrea de Mena, the daughter of Pedro de Mena, have rarely if ever been on view. The rest were interspersed with, and overshadowed by, the paintings in the Society’s collection.

The Ecstasy of Mary Magdalene, around 1690, by Luisa Roldán

The Ecstasy of Mary Magdalene, around 1690, by Luisa Roldán

That show will be followed, in January 2022, by some of the museum’s best-known treasures—temporarily returned from a world tour—but given “a new narrative” by a young guest curator (not yet named). Later in 2022, the East Building will present rarely shown watercolours made by American artists in Spain and Portugal, including Childe Hassam. Next autumn, a recent gift of 20 drawings by José Clemente Orozco, plus a painting in the collection, will go on view.

The Hispanic Society will also have a presence in midtown Manhattan beginning on 29 September, when more than 100 manuscripts and volumes from its currently inaccessibly rare books and library collections will be displayed at the Grolier Club. Ranging in date from the 12th to the 19th centuries, the collection includes literary masterpieces, letters among the era’s rulers, and a 1548 decree from Holy Roman Emperor Charles V boosting Titian’s annual pension. Eventually, the library will move to the Society’s third building, located across the plaza, which also requires accessibility modifications.

Francisco Álvarez Barreiro, Manuscript map of the North American southwest, 1728

Francisco Álvarez Barreiro, Manuscript map of the North American southwest, 1728

Meanwhile, the paintings collection will resume its international tour next year, stopping in Toronto and London; 12 canvases will travel to the Spanish Gallery of the Auckland Project in Bishop Auckland, UK, with which a partnership has been forged.

Sometime soon, the Hispanic Society will announce the creation of a state-of-the-art conservation lab in the East Building. There are plans for more extensive educational programmes and an affinity group supporting the library. Collective bargaining with the staff, which voted to unionise in July, will begin this fall. The Society’s terraces must be restored. Kientz’s agenda is full. “He’s doing an amazing amount,” de Montebello says.

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