El Museo del Barrio Names New Executive Director

Jorge Daniel Veneciano, who as the director of the Sheldon Museum of Art at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, increased its operating budget by 50 percent and established an African-American Masters collection, will become the executive director of El Museo del Barrio on March 1, museum officials said on Friday.

Jorge Daniel Veneciano

Jorge Daniel Veneciano

Mr. Veneciano, 55, inherits a museum with a budget of about $5.3 million that is considered a major center for Latino art and culture. But it has endured a tumultuous year that began with eight layoffs from its 41-person staff, two-month staff furloughs and a cutback in its days of operation, to four from six.

Mr. Veneciano succeeds Margarita Aguilar, who left in February. Having been the director since August 2011, she later filed a claim of gender discrimination and a hostile workplace with the New York State Division of Human Rights. Its officials dismissed the claim, but her legal battle continues with a new petition filed with the New York State Supreme Court. The museum said she was dismissed for poor performance.

In addition, the chief curator; the deputy executive director, who took over daily operations after Ms. Aguilar’s departure; and the development director have all left El Museo for other jobs. Tony Bechara, the chairman of the board of El Museo, said that Mr. Veneciano had “a broad, inclusive vision that will make El Museo a center of pride in our community and a source of cultural influence and inspiration in New York and around the world.”

When asked about the museum’s problems, Mr. Veneciano said in a telephone interview on Thursday that “it’s a pivotal moment in the organization’s history” and that the difficulties presented an opportunity to rebuild.

“I see the organization in a kind of renaissance,” he said. He added that he looked forward to filling the vacant positions and working with the East Harlem community that is home to El Museo, at 1230 Fifth Avenue, at 104th Street. He met with the museum staff on Friday.

On the positive side, the museum now has a budget surplus of $144,000, according to officials there. Its annual gala raised about $1.1 million, and the board raised $1 million through individual giving and a matching grant from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. The Ford Foundation has also granted the museum $1.6 million over three years for a strategic plan.

Before taking his job at the Sheldon Museum in 2008, Mr. Veneciano was the director of the Paul Robeson Galleries at Rutgers University in Newark, N.J., from 2005 to 2008. From 1994 to 1999 he was the curator of exhibitions at the Studio Museum in Harlem, according to his résumé.

“He’s very smart,” Pat Cruz, the executive director of Harlem Stage, said on Thursday. “I found him an excellent colleague during his tenure at the Studio Museum. Certainly, he is knowledgeable about art history and art-making across a broad spectrum.”

Therees Hibbard, the associate director of choral activities at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, said that Mr. Veneciano formed “wonderful collaborations with different departments” during his tenure.

Mr. Veneciano acknowledged the challenges of an institution that is still sometimes roiled by questions of identity. El Museo was founded in 1969 by Puerto Rican artists and activists, but expanded its mission in 1994 to reflect the broader Latino culture. The museum’s permanent collection contains pre-Columbian Taíno artifacts, as well as 20th- and 21st-century drawings, paintings, sculptures, prints and photography.

“Puerto Rican art and culture will always be the heart and soul of El Museo,” said Mr. Veneciano, who was born in Argentina but grew up in Los Angeles. “The imperative 40 years ago was to find a place for people who went unrecognized in society,” he said. “Today, the imperative is more about connectivity.”

Michael M. Kaiser, the president of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington and the founder of its DeVos Institute of Arts Management, which helps nonprofits, said that Mr. Veneciano “has vision and a real commitment to the various communities El Museo services.”

“He can assemble a team,” he said. Mr. Kaiser has been working with El Museo for the last seven months to develop a strategic plan. “It’s been a hard year, but there have been some real accomplishments,” Mr. Kaiser said of El Museo.

By   Published: December 13, 2013
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