Museum Studies

From Museums for the Elite to Branding and Marketing Museums for Everyone

Part One of Two: Branding and Marketing the Museum

“Cultural institutions are essential for the survival of the human fabric and its patterns. They hold the remaining traces and artifacts of the interactions and processes of life; they capture the knowledge that follows these events.” – David Carr (Carr 1999)

Museums are social arenas where education, understanding, representation, and enrichment of cultures and the sciences happen. However, they did not start out that way. With origins in elitist collecting, often in the form of exoticism and cultural appropriation, the birth of the modern museum came from the French Revolution. Museums became symbols of the new French Republic and revolutionaries and politicians wanted to destroy all traces of the old regime while concurrently preserving French culture that was essentially dependent on the aristocrats and royals (Schubert. 2000.) This dichotomy still exists. Museums were supposed to be for the people; however, the aristocrats have never really left. What emerged was a challenge that has existed for decades: incorporating the old with the new via innovative methods of exhibiting collections (in France it was repurposed royal and religious structures). For a long time, museums largely drew scholars, artists, and the elite. We would see this in the United States as well.

Franz Boas, also known as the “father of American anthropology,” who conceived the first museum exhibition in the Northwest Hall of The American Museum of Natural to value indigenous cultures on their own terms and not in relation to Western cultures (American Museum of Natual History n.d.), wrote in 1907: “The value of the museum as a resort for popular entertainment must not be underrated, particularly in a large city, where every opportunity that is given to the people to employ their leisure time in healthy and stimulating surroundings should be developed, where every attraction that counteracts the influence of the saloon and of the race-track is of great social importance. If a museum is to serve this end, it must, first of all be entertaining, and try to instill by the kind of entertainment offered some useful stimulant.” (Alexander, Alexander and Decker 2017)

Since the 1970’s, museums have undergone fundamental changes stemming from evolving political viewpoints compelling museum professionals to shift their attention from collections towards visitors (Ross 2004). New Museology emerged in the 1980s and considered the role of museums in wider social and political processes, aiming to become more inclusive and accessible and placing visitors at the center of the experience (McCall and Gray 2014). Monica O. Montgomery, Cofounder and Strategic Director of the Museum Hue, notes in Museums in Motion: An Introduction to the History and Functions of Museums: “The practice of diversity is no longer solely the realm of curators and captains of industry; it’s incumbent upon all of us to foster change at every level. If a museum is a mirror and its audience are a monolith, then there’s an internal problem: diversity and inclusion isn’t being centered in the ethos of the institution.”

The Economics of Art Museums (Blattberg and Broderick 1992) noted in 1992 that in the late 1980s, because of the changing tax laws, the donation of artifacts declined (“The number of donated works in 1988 was approximately 37 percent of the 1986 level.”) as well as the new efficiency in the art market (art as a monetary asset). Based on this, museums would need to rely more heavily on sources of revenues such as membership fees, corporate gifts, attendance, and government subsidies to enhance their collections. This report also notes that “…museums have a social responsibility to broaden their target audience to include less well-educated viewers in order to justify government subsidies. Thus, museums are forced to reconcile opposing desires in determining their mission or objectives.”

Over the last 30 years museums have understood the importance of adopting different communication and marketing techniques. Museum marketing is unique because museums have a mission to, first and foremost, educate the public while concurrently building an audience and revenue. The Economics of Art Museums devoted a chapter to museum marketing and noted that back in 1992, there were problems. Specifically, the curatorial staff, who are the product designers by proxy, did little research to understand what the audience wanted. Instead, they designed exhibits which they feel the visitor should see. The marketing department was then tasked with trying to convince the public that they should see these exhibits. The book recommends that “Achieving a museum’s full potential in the marketplace depends on the integrated effort of all departments to produce and deliver the museum’s product.” (Blattberg and Broderick 1992)

The Association of Art Museum Directors annual salary survey of 1989 detailed that fewer than one-fifth of the member museums had a Director of Marketing (17%). The percentage nearly tripled by 1999 to 50% (Smithsonian Institution Office of Policy & Analysis 2001). Interestingly, if you compare the 2017 (Association of Art Museum Directors 2017) and 2021 Association of Art Museum Directors annual salary surveys (Association of Art Museum Directors 2021), there has been an increase in salary expenses: the Western region has seen quite the spike and the Midwest has also increased spending while Mountain Plains states have decreased spending. The Mid-Atlantic states continue to lead in salaries.

Branding and Marketing the Museum

“To many outside of the museum, hiring the architectural team to design the building was the most important decision I would make. I disagreed. Bringing on the designer who work closely with a large team of educators, curators, collection specialists, and project managers to produce the exhibitions upon which the reputation of the museum rested was the most significant and thorniest decision.” – Lonnie G. Bunch III (Bunch 2019)

The importance of graphic design in museums is more than just a simple placard: it is congruent with the overall branding and marketing. A brand is the idea or image people have in mind, both in a practical and emotional way, when thinking about specific products, services, or a museum. It is not just the physical features that create a brand but also the feelings that visitors develop towards the museum. Branding includes the creation of a logo, a tagline, social media, and marketing strategies while congruently considering accessibility and technology. The American Marketing Association defines branding as follows: “A brand is a name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s goods or service as distinct from those of other sellers.” (American Marketing Association 2017)

In 2014 The Guardian (Jones 2014) reported that, “The people who run museums have, over the past 20 years, learned to love the word “brand” – it’s now seen as an essential tool for leadership.” The article also notes that institutions like the Met have always had a strong identity and reputation with clear expectations regarding what audiences will find. However, until recently, this tended to happen organically. Museums have been putting more thought into what they stand for and managing their identity deliberately.

Last year, Museum Next (Coates 2021) noted that a successful brand communicates the essence of the museum. When branding works, it can generate publicity and bring more visitors. A good branding strategy encompasses the typical facets such as the logo, but it also includes social media branding. Social media provides a great opportunity for institutions to talk directly to the public. When this is successful, museums have used a unifying tone of voice and message throughout their communications which ties in with their overarching brand identity. While branding and marketing go together, they are two separate concepts, with marketing campaigns heavily impacted by the brand. Branding is timeless, as we have seen with museums like The Met, while marketing is current as we see with museum blockbuster shows such as The Met’s Costume Institute annual show.

The Smithsonian Institution Office of Policy and Analysis defines museum marketing as identifying leisure-time recreation needs and wants of potential audiences, mostly unmet needs, as well as Identifying ways in which potential audiences can be informed about and attracted to museum experiences (Smithsonian Institution Office of Policy & Analysis 2001). The American Marketing Association defines marketing as follows: “Marketing is the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.” (American Marketing Association 2017)

Museum marketing doesn’t have to be costly, but it should certainly be creative. One excellent example was in 2014, when The Asian Art Museum in San Francisco made an announcement that it had “lost” its Chinese terracotta warrior and asked for help from its visitors and followers. Using Facebook, YouTube, and Google Maps, participants were asked to help the warrior make his way back to the museum. The museum also posted flyers that read: “LOST: Male, 2,122 years old, doesn’t speak English.” According to the San Francisco Business Times, the terracotta warriors campaign generated 15,000 new followers on Twitter and triple traffic to its website. The exhibition drew a record-breaking 238,000 visitors. “We know that the audience we want to reach is really connected to social media and technology,” said Ami Tseng, director of marketing for the Asian Art Museum. “We just had to figure out a way to reach them.” (Frojo 2014) I loved that this marketing campaign predated the popular game Pokémon Go by two years. The game uses mobile devices with GPS to locate, capture, train, and battle virtual creatures, called Pokémon, which appear as if they are in the player’s real-world location.

NEXT MONTH: Surveys of logos, typefaces, and color!

Edwin Roman’s recent book of photography, Brooklyn: Black and White, is now available. All proceeds will be donated to American Kidney Fund.

Works Cited

Alexander, Edward P. , Mary Alexander, and Juilee Decker. 2017. Museums in Motion: An Introduction to The History and Functions of Museums. London: Rowman & Littlefield.

American Institute of Graphic Arts . 2010. What is Design? Accessed 2022.

American Institute of Graphic Arts. 1994; amended in 2010. AIGA Standards of Professional Practice. Accessed February 2022.

American Marketing Association. 2017. American Marketing Association. Accessed 2022.

American Museum of Natual History. n.d. Northwest Coast Hall. Accessed 2022.

Association of Art Museum Directors. 2017. 2017 Salary Survey. Survey, New York: Association of Art Museum Directors.

Association of Art Museum Directors. 2021. 2021 Salary Survey. Survey, New York City: Association of Art Museum Directors.

Baker, Kenneth. 2012. New logo touts vision of S.F.’s Asian Art Museum. March 2012. Accessed 2022.

Beveridge, William I.B. 1957. The Art of Scientific Investigation . New York City: W.W. Norton & Company Inc.

Blattberg, Robert C., and Cynthia J. Broderick. 1992. “Marketing of Art Museums.” In The Economics of Art Museums, by Martin S. Feldstein, 327 – 346. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bunch, Lonnie G. 2019. A Fool’s Errand: Creating the National Museum of African American History and Culture in the Age of Bush, Obama, and Trump. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books.

Carr, David. 1999. “The Need for the Museum.” Museum News 31-57.

Coates, Charlotte. 2021. Museum Branding That Stands Out From The Crowd. May 1. Accessed 2022.

Davidson, Justin. 2016. FEB. 17, 2016 The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s New Logo Is a Typographic Bus Crash. February 17. Accessed February 2022.

Duong, Ariel. 2019. Weaving a new thread for LA museum Craft Contemporary. February 2019. Accessed February 2022.

Frojo, Renée. 2014. Yoga, missing terracotta warrior draw crowds to Asian Art Museum. January 16. Accessed 2022.

Ignyte Branding. n.d. The Psychology of Color. Accessed February 2022.

Jones, Robert. 2014. Curators may be sceptical but branding is vital for museums. May 1. Accessed 2022.

Kobayashi, Sachie. 2012. “Description of East Asian Seal Impressions as Metadata.” Journal of East Asian Libraries.

Mann, Jorrit. 2021. Dieter Rams: Ten Principles for Good Design. Munich: Prestel Art.

McCall, Vikki, and Clive Gray. 2014. “Museums and the ‘New Museology’: Theory, Practice and Organizational Change.” Museum Management and Curatorship 29 (1): 19-35.

Microsoft. 2021. Times New Roman font family. November 12. Accessed March 2022.

Museum of Modern Art. 2019. New York City Subway Map. Accessed February 2022.

National Museum of African American History & Culture. n.d. Brand Guide. Accessed March 2022.

Newman, Damien. n.d. The Design Squiggle. Accessed 2022.

North Carolina State University Color Science Lab. n.d. Color Perception. Accessed February 2022.

Ross, Max. 2004. “Interpreting the New Museology.” Museum and Society (2): 84-103.

Schubert., Karsten. 2000. The Curator’s Egg : the Evolution of the Museum Concept from the French Revolution to the Present Day. L. London.: One-Off Press.

Shaw, Paul. 2015. The Eternal Letter: Two Millennia of the Classical Roman Capital (Codex Studies in Letterforms). Edited by Paul Shaw and Scott-Martin Kosofsky. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

Singh, Satyendra. 2006. “Impact of color on marketing.” Mangement Decision (Emerald Group Publishing Limited) 44 (6): 783-789.

2020. A to Z: How Writing Changed the World. Directed by David Sington.

Smithsonian Institution Office of Policy & Analysis. 2001. Audience Building: Marketing Art Museums. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

Smithsonian Libraries . 2017. The Science of Color. May. Accessed March 2022.

Solar, Matt. 2018. What Brand Colors Can Reveal About Your Business. May. Accessed February 2022.

Stamp, Jimmy. 2014. To Redesign a Design Museum Start with the Typeface. August 14. Accessed March 2022.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. n.d. Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals. Accessed February 2022.

Webster, Garrick. 2019. Font vs typeface: the ultimate guide. July 4. Accessed March 2022.

Museums by The Marginalized for the Marginalized

From the Muses to the Aristocrats

The memory of humankind can be found in museums. Humanity has a long history of preserving artifacts. Ancient Greeks filled temples dedicated to the muses with scholarship and sculpture. The ancient Greeks coined the term “mouseion” when they first built a temple to the goddesses who kept watch over the arts and sciences known as muses[1]. This tradition would be followed by conquering kings who exhibited spoils of war [2]. Later we had cabinets of curiosity that would become rooms filled with artistic treasures that were the domains of the wealthy elite, open only to the collector and the occasional visitor [3]. The Enlightenment, which concurrently fostered empirical thinking and imperialism, gave rise to the first museums in Europe. Museums in the United States were founded by wealthy patrons who emulated European models and collecting habits.[4]

From the Bottom Up

Five months before the Metropolitan Museum opened its exhibition, Harlem on my Mind, in January of 1969, Thomas P. F. Hoving, Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art New York City, noted:

“To me Harlem on My Mind is a discussion. It is a confrontation. It is education. It is a dialogue. And today we better have these things. Today there is a growing gap between people, and particularly between black people and white people. And this despite the efforts to do otherwise. There is little communication. Harlem on My Mind will change that.” [5]

There was no meaningful dialogue. Instead, Harlem residents were excluded from the planning process and artwork by Harlem artist was curiously excluded. The museum instead decided to use oversized photomurals to display images of African American people. The exhibition set off protests that fostered activism from the African American art community that looked to address the patently patronizing discrimination.

Two years before Harlem on my Mind opened, in a stark contrast to The Met, The Smithsonian founded the Anacostia Community Museum in 1967 which focused on local African American history and culture unique to the Anacostia neighborhood. The Smithsonian Institution was founded in 1846 and is the largest museum complex and research center in the world[6]. The Anacostia Community Museum is one of the 19 museums, in addition to a zoological park, nine research centers, and 20 libraries that encompass the Smithsonian. The Anacostia Community Museum is the only Smithsonian museum that has a very local focus. The founding director of the Anacostia Community Museum, John Kinard, was a local minister, civil rights educator, and community activist whose engagement shaped the trajectory of the Museum [7]. The community’s values were embedded in the core ideals of the Anacostia Community Museum. With a focus on local African American experiences and community issues, the Museum evolved its exhibition programs to reflect broad national themes in African American culture in the 1980s. The Anacostia Community Museum is the only Smithsonian museum that has a very local focus. It was the first federally funded community museum in the United States but is under the umbrella of the Smithsonian Institution. The late 1960’s and early 1970’s would see a change stemming from the activism of the day and give rise to museums for the people by people.

The same year the Harlem on My Mind exhibition opened, two museums took root that stemmed from this era of vibrant activism. El Museo del Barrio was founded in Spanish Harlem and was first located in a public school storage room. It focused on the Puerto Rican art from the diaspora that settled in the neighborhood (“El Barrio” is Spanish for the neighborhood). One of the first shows, “The Art of Needlework” was dedicated to the crocheting techniques of Puerto Rican women[8]. Meanwhile, downtown, The Leslie-Lohman Museum, the only art museum in the world to exhibit artwork that conveys the LGBTQ experience, started to take root when Charles Leslie and Fritz Lohman, who had been collecting art for several years, mounted their first exhibit of gay art in their SoHo loft on Prince Street in New York City [9].

El Museo del Barrio’s founder, Raphael Montañez Ortiz, was part of a coalition of artists pursuing representation in New York museums. Unlike most museums in New York City at the time, El Museo was founded without assistance from wealthy patrons. It filed as nonprofit organization in 1971 [10]. Similarly, after that first loft show in 1969, Leslie and Lohman opened a commercial art gallery devoted to gay art, but it closed in the early 1980s with the arrival of the AIDS epidemic [11]. The pair then rescued the work of artists dying from AIDS from their families who wanted to destroy it. In 1987, the Leslie and Lohman applied for nonprofit status to establish a foundation to preserve their collection of gay artworks and continue exhibitions. The IRS actually objected to the word “gay” in the foundation’s title and hindered the nonprofit application until 1990 [12].

El Museo moved to its current location in 1977, on the ground floor of the city-owned Heckscher Building, on 5th Avenue and East 104th Street. Meanwhile, the Leslie-Lohman Gay Art Foundation’s first location was in a basement at 127B Prince Street in New York City. In 2006, the Foundation moved into a ground floor gallery at 26 Wooster Street in SoHo. In New York City, two museums took root around the same time that were truly by the people for the people: El Museo del Barrio and The Leslie-Lohman Museum. But are they still for the people? Have they stayed true to their original mission?

The Mirror Manifesto

The annual Museum Mile Festival, which went virtual in 2020, offers free admission to a 30-block stretch of Fifth Avenue for the following institutions: The Africa Center, El Museo del Barrio, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, the Jewish Museum, Neue Galerie and the Museum of the City of New York. In addition to all the art inside, there are outdoor festivities including live music. In August 2019, The New Yorker wrote an article titled “The Battle Over the Soul of El Museo del Barrio [13]” noting that during the annual Museum Mile festival (of which El Museo was one of the founding members) a group of protesters distributed flyers that read “El Museo Fue del Barrio” (The Museum was from the neighborhood). The protesters read from a printed statement, called the Mirror Manifesto [14], that accused El Museo of abandoning its core values as a museum for the community of East Harlem. The Mirror Manifesto notes:

“It requires us to first contend with “El Barrio’s” identity. While Puerto Ricans were instrumental in the foundation of the museum, it is not strictly a Puerto Rican museum. It is a museo “del Barrio.” Further, demographic changes in East Harlem and the overall growth of the Latinx diaspora in the last 50 years render the nationalist led push to make El Barrio mean “Puerto Rican” null. If El Museo is to be resuscitated, we must lay these claims to rest and set about addressing who we mean when we say El Barrio.

If El Barrio means neighborhood, or enclave, and we are defining the institution as encompassing a diasporic latinidad, then what we are contending with is what is now being called “Latinx.”

This is distinct from Latin America and should not be confused. For too long, this ambiguity has rendered Latinx artists invisible. Latinx artists continue to be marginalized, underrepresented, and erased. El Museo has shamelessly latched on to this ambiguity and forfeited its original mission. It has done very little as an institution to foster and cultivate Latinx Art.

The museum has failed to launch a studio residency program, it has failed to create an environment where intellectual work for us, by us, can be incubated. It has failed to cultivate diverse board members that represent the Latinx community. It has failed to expand board members beyond funding/development needs, or made sure to its boards’ institutional actions, partnerships, and programs correspond with its mission.

Given the continued failure of El Museo del Barrio to fully embrace its responsibility to the many diasporas that make up the Latinx communities in NYC and across North America, generations of Latinx artists pouring out of BFA, MFA, & PhD programs have come to see the El Museo as irrelevant.

Recent calls to steer the institution back towards its intended mission therefore have remained unanswered. In order to reinvigorate working and emerging Latinx artists to invest their energy in an institution that has gone out of its way to communicate that it cares nothing for their cultural production, the institution must take radical steps to more clearly define what it is. EL MUSEO DEL BARRIO MUST BE EL MUSEO DE LOS BARRIOS. It must fulfill its original mission or relinquish control to the community of Latinx scholars and artists to steer it back on course. It must DECOLONIZE.

Latinx artists, cultural workers, scholars and concerned residents reject the elitism, white washing, LGTBQIA exclusion and anti-blackness perpetrated in the museum against its own museum goers and community of artists.”

How did El Museo get here?

During its first two decades in existence, El Museo’s mission was clearly defined as an institution that researched and displayed the cultural heritage of the Puerto Rican diaspora that lived in Spanish Harlem. By the late 1980s, Spanish Harlem was longer a Puerto Rican enclave; immigrants from Mexico, Central America, and the Dominican Republic had moved into the neighborhood. El Museo, with some struggle, reflected this [15]. However, in 2002, El Museo appointed its first non Latinx director, Julián Zugazagoitia, a Mexican who was previously at the Guggenheim. That same year, an exhibit devoted to Mexico’s most famous artists, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera was mounted [16]. For many in El Barrio, elite Latin-American art was overshadowing the El Museo’s grassroots mission. These concerns were fully realized this year when The New York Times reported that El Museo announced that its annual gala would honor Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis, a wealthy German art collector known for her connections to the European far-right and Steve Bannon who once complained that Pope Francis is too liberal. After considerable backlash, she was uninvited [17]. Two weeks after that faux pas, El Museo was inundated with complaints over a planned exhibit devoted to Chilean filmmaker and artist, Alejandro Jodorowsky. In the early 1970s, Jodorowsky said that a rape scene he performed for one of his films was real and not staged (something he later recanted). The exhibit was cancelled[18].

Why hasn’t the Leslie-Lohman Museum encountered similar issues? Both institutions started with the same idea: a museum by the people for people (OR for the marginalized by the marginalized). While both institutions engage the public in comparable ways, the Leslie-Lohman Museum still has not experienced the full growing pains: El Museo was granted nonprofit status nearly twenty years before Leslie-Lohman and it was only in 2011 that the State Board of Regents finally granted a Certificate of Museum Status[19]. However, the Leslie-Lohman museum does publish a quarterly journal, The Archive, while El Museo does not. El Museo’s early research should have been published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Perhaps the one significant thing that distinguishes El Museo from Leslie-Lohman has to do with its very specific geographical connection. The Mexican, Central American, and Dominican immigrants who moved into the neighborhood thirty years ago, as well as most of the Puerto Ricans, are now being forced out via gentrification[20]. The New Yorker article noted that the board includes only one member who lives in the neighborhood. The article also noted that El Museo’s founder, Raphael Montañez Ortiz, now resides in Highland Park, New Jersey. Interestingly, the Brooklyn Museum has recently explored the impacts of gentrification[21]. In November of 2016, anti-gentrification artists and activists protested the Brooklyn Museum when it hosted the 6th Annual Brooklyn Real Estate Summit, which was incongruent with the overwhelming gentrification hitting the communities the museum claims to serve. In April of 2018, an open letter[22] called for the Brooklyn Museum to use the public anger surrounding a curatorial hiring decision (Kristen Windmuller-Luna, a White woman, as an African art consulting curator) as an opportunity to address deeply rooted injustices pertaining to the museum that included the colonial history of the museum’s non-western holdings, the lack of diversity among its curatorial staff and executive leadership, the fact that the museum’s buildings sit on stolen land, and the museum’s role as an agent of gentrification in Brooklyn, a long-standing grievance of community groups.

We are thus calling for the Brooklyn Museum to participate in the creation of a Decolonization Commission of the kind that has recently been demanded of institutions — like the city’s own American Museum of Natural History — that are being publicly asked to account for their own role in the histories of colonialism and white supremacy. This would send a strong message to the people of Brooklyn, and to other art institutions around the country, about the museum’s will to redress ongoing legacies of oppression, especially when it comes to the status of African art and culture. It could be a first step in rebuilding trust with the communities to whom the museum should be accountable.

This decolonization process would have a time-frame, starting with the acknowledgment that the buildings sit on stolen indigenous land, that they contain thousands of objects expropriated from people of color around the world, and that the institution is governed by a group of majority-white members of the 1% actively involved in the dynamics of racialized dispossession and displacement in Brooklyn. Further steps would entail decisions about the framing of the display of its collection; who is appointed to make these decisions, and in consultation with which communities of conscience in the borough and beyond. Decolonization is never a finished process, but, once undertaken, its logic can and should unfold in ways that are transparent and just.”

El Museo needs to do the same starting inside its own doors. Interestingly, in response to the letter, Anne Pasternak, the director of the Brooklyn Museum, said that the museum “unequivocally” stood by its selection of Kristen Windmuller-Luna for the position.

Regardless of who lives in the neighborhood, El Museo’s leadership should not lose site of the museum’s mission. I would be the first to object if the Leslie-Lohman Museum decided to one day display the work of LGBTQ allies—regardless of their good intentions, they will never understand and properly convey the experience of being LGBTQ, the museum’s mission. The Mirror Manifesto protestors are right, the museum leadership has been gentrified and operating under a disguised blanketed term, “Latin American,” that solely considers the virtue of surname without considering the Latinx communities, and their art, fostered by diaspora (regardless of whether it is from Puerto Rico, Mexico, the Dominican Republic or Central America). And while I certainly think that everyone should experience the work of artists like Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, their work comes from a different PLACE (and time) that has little to do with Spanish Harlem, or the Latinx communities now living and creating in New York City and the United States.

The COVID Denouement

Like every other New York City Museum, El Museo shut down in mid-March of 2020. The annual gala, which normally brings in about $1 million dollars, was canceled, event rentals for the newly restored theater space were also cancelled and its store and cafe were closed. A Paycheck Protection Program loan of about $500,000 helped, as well as a $600,000 grant from the Mellon Foundation but they were still losing money. In September, El Museo’s Executive Director was approached by a representative from the Ford Foundation, which had just announced a $156 million initiative called America’s Cultural Treasures, whose contributors include 16 foundations and private donors. El Museo received 68% of its annual budget in one swoop from the Ford Foundation[23].

Meanwhile, at the Leslie-Lohman Museum, the director, Gonzalo Casals, announced, just before the lockdown in March of 2020, that he was leaving to become the Cultural Affairs Commissioner of New York City[24]. A new director, Alyssa Nitchun, was hired in December of 2020. Nitchun is the first queer woman to lead the museum. The New York Times reported that her first mission will be to expand the institution’s reputation abroad and help secure its financial future: “My dream is that we can scale up, welcoming a whole new group of artists and audiences.” [25]

Interestingly, the Leslie-Lohman Museum held an exhibition that would have been perfect for El Museo: “Laura Aguilar: Show and Tell,” is a retrospective that was part of “Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA,” a Getty Foundation-sponsored 2017 exhibition of more than 70 concurrent exhibitions in and around Los Angeles that together demonstrated the influence of Latin America and Latino art on the city [26]. In the 1980s, Aguilar came out as gay and in 1986, she began a portrait series titled, “Latina Lesbians.” Meanwhile, at El Museo, it looks like the words and actions of the Mirror Manifesto did not fall on deaf ears.

“Estamos Bien” is El Museo’s first national survey of what it calls Latinx art, using the oft-debated gender-neutral alternative to Latino or Latina, to describe artists of Latin American descents working primarily in the United States. The museum’s original plan was to have the show coincide with, and reflect, two defining 2020 political events: the United States census and the presidential election. The pandemic derailed that. The title, “Estamos Bien” (“We’re fine”) was inspired by a work in the exhibition, a 2017 painting by the Chicago-based artist Cándida Álvarez, completed in the wake of the devastation by Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico.

The title, “Estamos Bien”, truly embodies El Museo’s history: equal parts of acrimony and hope. However, it is a step in the right direction that promises more and better representation.

Todo Sobre El Museo | Accompanying Video for this Blog Entry That Focuses on El Museo Del Barrio

[1] Muses. (n.d.). Retrieved February 6, 2021, from

[2] Margaret M. Miles, War and Passion: Who Keeps the Art?, 49Case W. Res. J. Int’l L.5 (2017) Available at:

[3] Starn, Randolph. “A Historian’s Brief Guide to New Museum Studies.” The American Historical Review, vol. 110, no. 1, 2005, pp. 68–98. JSTOR, Accessed 1 May 2021.

[4] Alexander, Edward P. Museums in Motion. Chapter 1, “What is a Museum?”

[5] “Black Artists and Activism: Harlem on My Mind (1969)” Author(s): Bridget R. Cooks American Studies, Vol. 48, No. 1 (Spring 2007), pp. 5-39

[6] About the Smithsonian. (n.d.). Retrieved March 01, 2021, from

[7] History. (n.d.). Retrieved March 01, 2021, from

[8] El Museo Timeline, scanned published by El Museo del Barrio in 2004.


[10] El Museo Timeline, scanned published by El Museo del Barrio in 2004.



[13] Osorio, Camila “The Battle Over the Soul of El Museo del Barrio” The New Yorker August 13, 2019


[15] Palacios, Nicholle Lamartina “Latino Art in NYC: A Short History of El Museo del Barrio” Huffington Post

[16] El Museo Timeline, scanned published by El Museo del Barrio in 2004.

[17] Moynihan, Colin “El Museo del Barrio Drops Plan to Honor German Socialite” The New York Times January 10, 2019.

[18] Moynihan, Colin “El Museo del Barrio Cancels Jodorowsky Show” The New York Times January 28, 2019.



[20] Chiusano, Mark “Is rezoning in East Harlem a Trojan horse for gentrification?” AM New York August 28, 2017

[21] Davis, Ben “Activism Pays Off, as Brooklyn Museum Embraces Anti-Gentrification Forum”

[22] Decolonizemuseums, ~. (2018, May 08). Decolonize Brooklyn Museum. Retrieved March 03, 2021, from