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Hispanic Society Stays; Its Art Travels

View of the society's central court from the mezzanine.Fernando Martin Diez-Cabeza, a Spaniard who currently resides in Germany, is a painter and a designer for the fashion label Escada. On a recent Saturday morning, he moved swiftly through the galleries of The Hispanic Society of America calling out the names of the artists without glancing at the nameplates, offering anecdotes along the way. In front of Velázquez’s “El Duque de Olivares” he remarked, “Important people were afraid to be painted by him, he revealed too much.” He compared the galleries to “a homey palace.” But it was the Sorolla murals that truly arrested him. In 1911, Archibald Milton Huntington, the founder of the Hispanic Society, commissioned the Spanish neoimpressionist Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida to paint a panorama of murals depicting various provinces of Spain. Pointing to one mural Diez-Cabeza noted, “That is the light of 5:00 p.m.” Turning to another he said, “Look at how his shadows are never black, but instead they conjure light.” Circling once again he pointed emphatically, “He is the best at portraying the sheen of things when they are wet.”

Beyond their beauty, it may be that the Sorolla murals hold the answer to some of the uptown museum’s more pressing problems, including the leaking roof that threatens to damage the art.

The last decade has been tumultuous for the Hispanic Society. Strains on community relations, low attendance figures and financial pressures prompted the society’s board to contemplate a move downtown as a way to preserve and maintain its world-class collection. The museum needed to compete for the same audience and donors as those of some of the world’s foremost art institutions. In the end the society’s board decided that they could not find a more suitable location than the one they already had, on W. 155th Street and Broadway at Audubon Terrace.

“The plan is to stay right where we are,” said George Moore, chairman of the society’s board. The cost of a move would have been in the hundreds of millions of dollars and as Moore noted, “We don’t have a history of fundraising like that.” Hispanic Society executives point to the renovation of the Northern Galleries as representative of a renewed commitment to the community, but still the decision did not come easily.

A chain of events presented an opportunity. The Bancaja Foundation of Valencia in Spain was interested in mounting an exhibition of the murals as an inaugural show for its new Bancaja Cultural Center. As part of the agreement, the foundation would restore the murals and pay the museum a loan fee. The fees would then be put toward a full renovation of the North Galleries. The Philadelphia firm of Maria Romanach Architects has been retained to redesign the lighting, remove a counter that was installed in the 1930s, and address important environmental issues, such as climate control, that affect the paintings.

The Sorolla tour promises to be a blockbuster. From Valencia the murals are to travel to Seville, Barcelona, Bilbao, and finally The Prado in Madrid. The Spanish press has already kicked into gear by filming a documentary of the restoration process, which is to be broadcast nationally in Spain. This convoluted process of restoration is not the ideal way to maintain a great collection. But given the society’s limited resources, it is creative and should give the institution much needed visibility. While the Bancaja project is by far the largest such endeavor, it is not the first of its kind for the museum. The society also has a conservation partnership with the Getty Museum of Los Angeles. Several paintings, including El Greco’s “Holy Family,” were conserved and displayed there, and then returned. The restoration of “Holy Family” garnered important information. The Getty’s state-of-the-art conservation facility used x-rays and infrared to learn more about the techniques and materials used by El Greco.

It was the national and international (opposed to local) focus of the museum and its flirtation with a downtown move, coupled with residual grievances between people in the neighborhood and a former director of the museum, which in the spring of 2006 discouraged Community Board 12 from recommending that the city grant money to fix the damaged roof of a museum that might leave the neighborhood.

Martin Collins, of Community Board 12, noted that the society’s “substantial endowment,” and its search for a new location was revealed in an article in The New York Times and not to the board directly. This led many on the board to find the city grant to be superfluous. The endowment, in the neighborhood of $65 million, is a substantial sum, but the museum has an annual operating budget of $3 million.

The Frick Collection, an Upper East Side museum of similar size and history to that of the Hispanic Society, has net assets of over $200 million and annual operating expenses totaling as much as $8 million. When one compares the two museums, the Hispanic Society’s dilemma becomes a bit more clear, and this is to say nothing of their annual attendance figure of 20,000 visitors as compared The Frick’s 270,000.

But, because the society flirted with the idea of leaving, some uptown residents felt betrayed. The resentment overlooks the challenges that people in the insular museum world take for granted and perhaps the museum did not articulate clearly enough to the public. For example, to restore one painting that is worth millions, of which the museum has many, costs can run into hundreds of thousands of dollars. The expenses of maintaining the buildings that contain these artworks also require millions in investment. Yet admission to the museum remains free.

For several years the unique museum complex of Audubon Terrace, where the Hispanic Society is located, was hemorrhaging museums. The American Geographical Society moved downtown. The American Numismatic Society took their collection of rare coins downtown. The artifacts in the Museum of the American Indian were split between three museums, two out of state and the third, predictably, downtown. This was not how it was supposed to be. Huntington played a key role in assembling the unique collection of museums in the early part of the 20th century. At the time, New York City was asserting itself not just as an economic power, but also as a center for thought and culture. The complex reflected those heady dreams and the Hispanic Society was the jewel in the crown. Today all that remain are the society and the venerable Academy of Arts and Letters.

Many assume that the museum is similar to that of the Museo Del Barrio on Fifth Avenue, with its focus on modern and contemporary art of the Caribbean and Latin America. The museum does include and continues to build on its collection of Latin American art, but most of its permanent collection is from the Iberian Peninsula and the art from Latin America is primarily from the period of Spanish colonization.

The society’s name leads some people to believe that it is a private club.

“I hadn’t realized it was an art museum because of the misleading name,” said Loren Silber, who first heard of the museum when she was the director of education at the Morris-Jumel Mansion.

But when she first visited the museum, her impression was: “Wow! I was drawn most to the large paintings set high up on the walls. I’d never seen art displayed that way and maybe it shouldn’t be, but as a lover of architecture and historic spaces I enjoyed it immensely and had hoped that they wouldn’t move downtown.”

Silber’s observation was reminiscent of a harsh criticism from a 1934 review in The New York Times: “Canvases are hung so high that one can hardly see them.” This disapproval was from a time when the idea of viewing artwork at eyelevel on stark white walls was a relatively recent phenomenon. The European salon method of hanging pictures very high or one on top of the other was dated and becoming obsolete. To the contemporary viewer though, the experience of appreciating art from such a reverential angle is unique.

The collection’s variety stuns. Pottery from as far back as 1500 B.C., Phoenician jewelry, ancient Roman glass, sculpture, textiles, ceramics, maps and decorative arts are enveloped within an over-the-top Victorian-era terracotta encrusted interior that is as much of a museum piece as all that it holds. The paintings from Spain’s Golden Age include Velázquez, El Greco and Goya. Goya’s portrait of the Duchess of Alba is so familiar and iconic that many visitors simply believe it to be a copy.

On a more local level, the museum has recommitted itself to Northern Manhattan through innovative educational programming being developed by the department’s director Todd Florio. The museum has partnered with three local schools: PS 4 Duke Ellington, PS 28 The Wright Brothers, and PS 161 Don Pedro Albizu. Florio describes a three-part program, “with a focus on Hispanic heritage and its relation to Latino culture here in New York.” Part one is a visit by the museum staff to the schools. There they give a presentation about the museum to the fifth grade. Part two brings the students to the museum’s library, which Florio describes as, “The secret place within the secret place.” Amidst the society’s collection of 250,000 books and 175,000 photographs, the students will take part in a map-making workshop. For inspiration they are shown a 16th-century pictorial genealogy of Mexico’s Zapotec rulers and a map of the world, signed by Vespucci, dated 1526. The third part of the program is back at the school. The fourth graders are introduced to the program and the fifth graders awarded certificates.

The impression the museum leaves on a young mind lasts well into adulthood. Ingrid Aybar, 36, lives in Kingsbridge section of the Bronx and is a court attorney for New York County. Reminiscing recently, Aybar recalled, “What was striking was the building, the architecture and the space where the art was being exhibited. That, to a 10-yearold growing up in Hamilton Heights, felt like a different world.”

Perhaps the museum’s most exciting plans are for this fall, when a three-year partnership with the Dia Art Foundation begins. The Dia’s focus on modern and contemporary art has earned it respect in the art world, luring a devoted following of museum goers who delight in traveling off the beaten path.

“This provides us with a great opportunity to attract new audiences to Audubon Terrace and Washington Heights,” said the museum’s director Mitchell Codding.

The focus of the upcoming exhibitions will be on Hispanic topics. The museum’s education department hopes to integrate exhibitions into the school partnerships and offer bilingual tours.

In the first show, the Belgian artist Francis Alÿs, who lives and works in Mexico City, will take over the museum’s North Galleries with an installation of over 300 drawings based on the iconic images of the Roman saint, La Fabiola.

New Yorkers have until September to see the beautifully restored Sorolla murals before they travel for two years. What remains to be seen is the local turnout. Will the neighborhood forgive and support their museum?

One would expect that by the time the Sorolla exhibition reaches The Prado in Madrid, the Hispanic Society is likely to have garnered considerable media attention, and as a result, the surrounding neighborhood as well.

Community leaders received the news of the society’s decision to stay with enthusiasm. Calling it a “win-win” for the museum and the neighborhood, Community Board 12 member Martin Collins enthused, “They are the gateway to the Washington Heights-Inwood community.”

And the chairman of the museum’s board, George Moore, promised of the museum, that while the art may travel, “It will always be the mother ship.”

Originally published in Manhattan Times 

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