Puerto Rico Museum’s Rarely Seen Artworks Featured in Chicago Exhibit

Few, if any, Puerto Rican artists are household names in the continental United States, and art museums in the Caribbean territory are probably even lesser known.

A show won’t bring instant recognition, but it can be a milestone. That’s the belief behind a major exhibition of Puerto Rican art set to open September 20 at the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture.

Titled “Nostalgia for My Island: Puerto Rican Painting from the Museo de Arte de Ponce, 1786-1962”, it is the first Puerto Rican museum exhibition to travel outside the island and many of its 21 works have never been seen. in the United States.

“I can’t wait to see it in person and I can’t wait to hear the reaction from the public,” said Cheryl Hartup, director of the museum in the three-century-old Puerto Rican city of more than 135,000 people. .

She calls the Museo the “leading arts institution” in the Caribbean region. Opened in 1959, it is the oldest public art museum in Puerto Rico and the first on the island to be accredited by the American Alliance of Museums.

It has a collection of around 5,000 works, ranging from ancient art from the Americas to pieces created in the 21st century. “We are known internationally for our collection of European paintings,” Hartup said, “and we have a very strong Puerto Rican collection and a very strong Latin American art collection.”

Some of the museum’s major collections, including a few featuring difficult sociopolitical themes, were acquired by the museum’s founder, Luis A. Ferré (1904-2003), a philanthropist, industrialist, and former governor of Puerto Rico.

This exhibit became possible following an earthquake and series of aftershocks that struck Ponce in early January 2020 and damaged the museum’s main building, a 1965 structure by Edward Durell Stone. Other notable projects by the American architect include the Keller Center, built two years earlier at the University of Chicago.

While the building is closed and undergoing repairs, leaders have been looking for other ways to showcase the museum’s collections and raise much-needed funds, and that’s where this groundbreaking exhibit comes in.

José Campeche y Jordán, “Portrait of María Catalina de Urrutia (Retrato de María Catalina de Urrutia)”, 1788, oil on panel.

Courtesy of Museo de Arte de Ponce/The Luis A. Ferré Foundation, Inc.

“I started last November as director,” said Hartup, who was previously the museum’s chief curator, “with a mandate from trustees of the Luis A. Ferré Foundation to walk through the collection, and Chicago was in the lead. of list.”

It made sense to reach out to the National Museum of Chicago, since one of its former curators now works at the Ponce Museum and some of the directors of the Ferré Foundation have ties to Chicago. Additionally, some 150,000 Puerto Rican migrants and descendants live in the metropolitan area.

When Ponce officials reached out to Billy Ocasio, the National Museum’s chief executive, in late 2021, he was immediately receptive to the idea of ​​a traveling exhibit. “So that started the clock and we were both excited to do something like that,” Ocasio said.

He proposed an exhibition of Puerto Rican art and collaborated with curator Iraida Rodríguez-Negrón to put together a selection of works from the Ponce collection built around the themes of people, landscapes and urban migration.

The show includes two of Puerto Rico’s most famous artists – José Campeche y Jordán (1751-1809) and Francisco Oller y Cestero (1833-1917). Campeche, the son of a freed slave, was active in the late 18th and early 19th centuries when Puerto Rico was still a Spanish colony.

This largely self-taught artist created mostly portraits and religious images, including small works on wood panels that could easily travel. Two of his works are included in this exhibition – “Portrait of María Catalina de Urrutia” (1788-92), “The Vision of Saint Philip Benizi” (1786).

“He was the first Puerto Rican painter to produce very vivid and enduring images of San Juan and its people,” Hartup said.

She called Oller the most important Puerto Rican painter of the 19th century. He spent two decades in Madrid and Paris and is the only Latin American painter to be associated with some of the leading French Impressionists.

In 2015-2016, the Brooklyn Museum held an exhibition titled “Impressionism and the Caribbean: Francisco Oller and His Transatlantic World”, which explored both its European influences and its impact on Puerto Rican art. He is represented by “Hacienda Aurora” (1898), a panoramic landscape in a vaguely impressionistic style, and “Still Life” (circa 1900).

Miguel Pou y Becerra, “View of my studio, Salud 58, Ponce”, 1930-35, oil on cardboard.  Ponce Art Museum.  The Luis A. Ferré Foundation, Inc. Gift of Jaime Pou.  Another of Puerto Rico's best-known painters, he established an art academy in Ponce in 1910 which he directed for 40 years.

Miguel Pou y Becerra, “View of my studio, Salud 58, Ponce”, 1930-35, oil on cardboard. Another of Puerto Rico’s best-known painters, he established an art academy in Ponce in 1910 which he directed for 40 years.

Other highlights of the exhibition include “Barrio Tokio” (1962) by Myrna Báez, whose work is part of the collections of such prestigious museums as the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and “Party During the Season of Christmas” by Rafael Rios Rey. (1941). Rey spent time in Mexico and was influenced by some of Mexico’s leading muralists, especially Diego Rivera.

In addition to raising the profile of the Ponce Museum and Puerto Rican art in general, the exhibit is also expected to give the National Museum of Chicago a big boost. It has a 22-year history, but did not move into its permanent building, the renovated Humboldt Park Stables and Receivers, and only adopted its current name in 2014.

Ocasio calls “Nostalgia for My Island” the largest and most important exhibit the museum has ever mounted. He estimates attendance for the nearly nine-month-old show could reach 70,000, including visitors from across the country. The number represents a considerable jump from the institution’s annual attendance of around 40,000 before the COVID-19 shutdown.

“It’s to help put us on the map, so people know we’re here,” Ocasio said of the show. “And for us to be responsible to our own people as the only Puerto Rican museum in the country.”

Waldemar Morales,

Waldemar Morales, “Landscape, View of San Germán.” A neighborhood of nearly 250 properties in Puerto Rico’s central San German core is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Museo de Arte de Ponce/The Luis A. Ferré Foundation, Inc.

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