Hats Off to Larry
Wow. Dra. María Emilia Somoza, founder and longtime director of San Juan’s supposedly beleaguered Museo de Arte Contemporáneo (MAC), often seems to be several cards short of a full deck, especially when it comes to matters surrounding, of all things, contemporary art. Turns out that at any given moment, Miyuca—as she’s known to those who love her and those who hate her—is probably the slyest one in the room.
For over two decades—and counting—Miyuca has overseen an institution which appears to limp, wheeze, and groan from year to year, depending on the will of the island government for its operating budget—pegged by law in 1994 at $500,000 a year—and the largesse of artists—not exactly the most well-fed among us—to build its collection. Some would say that a museum that relies on artist donations is as much as begging for second-rate holdings, to put it mildly. Miyuca and her board of directors are not among the poo-pooers, however, estimating the worth of MAC’s collection at a whopping—and fantastic by any measure—$8 million. Well, could be. We happen to publish a prosperous, influential web magazine that is easily worth $10 million. Just ask us.
A few weeks ago, Miyuca engineered a call to arms to the local art community, announcing via poster and email that MAC was in its death throes. The $500,000 was not covering expenses, the document asserted, and the museum was going to have to close its doors permanently if the legislature did not immediately double its budget. The widely circulated missive called on “artists, gallerists, professors, students, and friends of the Museum of Contemporary Art” to march on the legislature, to secure the museum’s future and protect its “brilliant institutional trajectory.”
The response to these jowl-flapping histrionics was predictable, and suitably bizarre. Some artworld figures wrung their hands on cue; others publicly held their noses. A group of young artists immediately coalesced around the banner “The Committee of Conditional Support,” which asked all kinds of impertinent questions about the museum’s finances, its acquisition policies, and the rather murky nature of the tenure of its director. A more impudent crowd called for the immediate resignation of Dra. Somoza and the board, citing incompetence, malfeasance, and that most deadly blot, out-of-touchness. But for the most part, public sentiment seemed to take the call at face value, and there were cries of alarm and a flurry of mass emails rallying around MAC’s cause.
We attended a press conference at which Miyuca spoke, with her board president, Ramón del Valle, and a couple of artists surrounding her on the dais. She was in fine form, and you would think—as “That’s right!” “Isn’t that the truth!” and other bully ejaculations filled the air—that the event was a low-grade tent revival instead of a rote pretext for getting one’s message before the cameras and onto reporters’ notepads. The director provided several inadvertent highlights during that tightly scripted, too-long morning, the most hilarious of which was her assertion that the press conference itself was evidence that the museum has widespread community support.
She told a whopper about MAC’s commitment to “vanguard” art, and when a reporter asked about a plan B, in case the legislators were disinclined to be swayed by a parade of placard- waving, black-clad artists, especially in these times of real trouble for many Puerto Ricans, she averred darkly that the legislators would “have to answer to the will of the people.”
It was a tedious and painfully parochial two or so hours, exposing the museum’s complete lack of preparation or a strategy for entering into any battle more complicated than a grade-school lunch-money holdup. We also wondered why MAC’s antagonists, and especially the local artworld’s many loud-quacking Miyuca-abominators, didn’t avail themselves of such an obvious chance to sink their chompers into the director’s rear end, which was definitely up in the air that morning—and we dragged ourselves away convinced that if MAC’s economic crisis was real, the institution was doomed.
And how wrong we were, ho, ho. How wrong the sympathetic conventional wisdom was, and how wrong the carpers and the righteously peeved. Only the most paranoid, habitual cranks—like the always spitting Pedro Vélez—got it right, and that was probably a coincidence. When the afternoon editions of Primera Hora, El Vocero, and El Güevo Día hit the stands—or rather when their digital editions went online—the news was—surprise! surprise!—that the marching bohemian horde had been met by not one, but three key legislators—Senate president Kenneth McClintock and Senators Jorge de Castro Font and Migdalia Padilla—with prepared speeches and assurances that they had already signed a measure approving the entire two-fold boost, pending the approval of the budget office. MAC’s budget increase apparently was a done deal before the march ever began.
Well done, Miyuca. We’re betting it was a simple, easily struck bargain among backroom pals over a steam-tray criollo lunch and quivering jello dessert: provide us an eye-catching photo-op with some of your zany artist types and you can keep your sinecure, wretched though it is.
Well, every time we think we’ve plumbed the depths of our cynicism, something new comes up to shock and amaze us. In our short time on the island, this is one of the best examples —and certainly the most graphic—of how easily-massaged public sentiment responds to a good old country goose.
Of course, some folks came out smelling like roses, and others really stank up the room.
The Sweet Smell of Success:
• Dra. María Emilia Somoza gets her way year after year, even while much of the art scene makes barfing noises at the mere mention of her name. She’s a survivor and a truly clever dick, whom the world is forever underestimating by big gobs.
• Pedro Vélez: he’ll be the first to tell you that he told you so.
• How did the photogenic, increasingly glib Quintín Rivera-Toro come to be the spokesman for a generation? When did the zing go out of his pronouncements? Do goats really eat tin cans?
• The dozens of artists and other cultural figures who allowed themselves to be taken in by the blatant fabrication known as MAC’s “crisis” have given new meaning to the phrase “hapless shmoes.” Our own inattention to the now-obvious is a notable failure of perception.
• The arts and culture czar at El Güevo Día, Mario Alegre Barrios, has presumably had his eye on the art scene for over sixteen years. His coverage of the MAC affair included an appeal to Miyuca to change her ways, written in the style of the mannered tête-à-tête intimacy the editor loves to flog in his most faux-literary moments. It appears that Alegre Barrios couldn’t smell a rat if it crawled into his comb-over and died. (The online version of the article is no longer accessible unless you want to lay out $11 and get hopping mad trying to navigate the byzantine ENDI archives. It’s entertaining, but hardly worth two movies. See if your hoarding grannie didn’t keep the Sunday paper from January 27.)
What New Folly Awaits?
Dra. Somoza, who hasn’t changed her tune in over twenty-three years, continues to be the caretaker of Puerto Rico’s official temple of contemporary art. It’s a deeply depressing picture, to be sure, but judging from the readiness of scores of people to dance to that irksome drone, it’s hard to gainsay MAC’s historical meaning or its potential value for some shinier future for contemporary art on the island. We have all kinds of thoughts on the subject, and there is no shortage of ideas in the air concerning what MAC’s true shape should be. (For one excellently horrified, detailed argument, see the latest Trance Líquido.)
Meantime, we’ll content ourselves with contemporary programming elsewhere: the consistent, very good work of Elaine Delgado, director of the visual arts section of the Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueño (ICP), the periodic forays into contemporary art by the venerable Museo de Arte de Ponce, and the happy accidents that one occasionally stumbles upon at Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico. Young artists, the true innovators, are always kicking out the jams, and as quickly as one tagRom, Área, or =Desto disappears, another one pops into view.
Surely the more determined malcontents among us, freshly enlivened by the swift kick Dra. Somoza and her legislative cronies delivered, will call loudly and frequently for the director’s head. It will be interesting to see how long it is—if ever—before Miyuca, the consummate player, draws her pittance in some other dank corner; perhaps doing nails in her dotage, or slinging hash for the overfed swells who once were her patrons.
More Scary Monsters
Really, believe us when we say we’re bored silly with the island’s seemingly endless capacity for throat-grabbing, jumping up and down, and eye-popping hyperventilation. Is it the over-garlicked mofongo, or what?
We’ve taken to hiding out in Ponce, where the unalloyed jolliness of Los Tres Reyes Magos—who smiled beatifically upon us here for an entire afternoon—has given way before our eyes to Ponce Carnaval, another timeless down-island tradition. Like San Juan’s stinky artworld brouhahas, Carnaval is all about community-sanctioned hijinks and spectacle, but we find it more wholesome by a factor of ten.
But wait. Let’s return to the San Juan scene for a moment. Isn’t it our Rotund business to uncover the salutary amidst the sickly, to root about in the muck and mire for some tasty morsels, so you don’t have to? We’re happy to declare that the trumped-up MAC “controversy” is hardly the only thing going on in the área metropolitana.
The ICP opened two very worthwhile shows recently: at La Ballajá, Estigma, a kind of prelude to the Instituto’s upcoming print triennial, curated by Marimar Benítez and featuring some of the most innovative trends in contemporary printmaking on and off the island; and at La Puntilla, Del mar, la tierra y la memoria de los huesos, majestic old and new photographs by Guillermo Real. Detailed information about Estigma resides here and you can get the straight skinny on the Real exhibition here. Look closely, and you’ll find all the pertinent data you need concerning hours and addresses. (Truth in packaging advisory: one of our number is a member of the comité de asesores for the ICP’s visual arts program. Though here’s also a word to the unwise: this is news, Bubba, not a review.)
The terrific series of project-room exhibitions curated by Marysol Nieves at Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico (MAPR) may be just a fond memory—her exhibitions included new works by Allora and Calzadilla, Anthony Goicolea, Milton Rosa-Ortiz, and Ada Bobonis—but by some freak inertial disturbance in the museum’s wildly heaving trajectory, a fine new exhibition just opened there, perhaps to deodorize the neighboring Domingo García extravaganza.
Rubén Torres Llorca—wily Miamian, world citizen, flinty refugee of the storied Eighties generation of Cuban artists—spent several days in San Juan cobbling together his baffling new installation, Los nombres han sido cambiados para proteger al culpable. Torres Llorca is no easy read, even though his works are covered with words and each bears a cryptic but unmistakably barbed adage. On one level, the work is easy to like because it’s so well made. On another, standing before it you can’t help but feel that someone—perhaps it’s you—is being made the butt of a nasty joke.
The museum has posted a good bit of information about the exhibition and some images on its website, here, and we suggest you visit MAPR toot sweet. In case you’ve never been, you’ll find the place at Avenida de Diego 229 in Santurce. It’s open Tuesday and Thursday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. On Wednesday the hours are 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.—we believe admission is free that day, beginning in the afternoon—and on Sunday they’re 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Call the museum at 787-977-6277 for additional information, including the entrance fee, which is nominal in any event.
Is there an echo in here? We admit to offering you some of the above MAC verbiage before, though not in so many words. Before having a cow over our lack of originality, understand that Rubén Torres Llorca himself considers originality to be just one more art dealer trick to move product. In any event, you can visit the recent past here if your belly isn’t full of MAC biliousness already.