In Puerto Rico, Artists and Art Spaces Are Coming Together to Rebuild Following a Series of Disasters

“Please pardon the noise, I have some guys working on the roof to seal it properly!” said Omar Velazquez, an artist and instrument builder who lives in Ponce, Puerto Rico, as he recounted his experience with Hurricane Fiona. On September 18, 2022, the storm made landfall on the archipelago, causing a country-wide power outage, stripping pavement from roads, and leaving a third of the population without drinking water for weeks. 

Though Velazquez moved back to Puerto Rico, the place he was born, just before the pandemic had started, he maintains his studio in Chicago, where he was at the time Fiona hit. Velazquez explained that his artworks survived the hurricane because his local studio is located in Caguas, a town to the northeast that was less affected. Still, his house in Ponce had effectively been turned into a lagoon by the storm. 

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“But more than the material things…,” he added, interrupting himself, “more than anything, these events put you in a specific mindset, a constant tension. While in Chicago I didn’t know about my family for a month. And many of my neighboring colleagues, who are much older, did lose pieces they had been working on for many years.”

What Velazquez said came as no surprise, given that the repercussions of this hurricane are still being felt by artists like him, galleries, and museums months after Fiona. It’s the latest in a series of disasters that have hit Puerto Rico in recent years: hurricanes, a pandemic, and earthquakes (particularly in the same southwest region of the main island that Fiona also significantly impacted). This mindset he described is one felt by many in Puerto Rico, where corrupt politicians and national services are expectedly inefficient in times like these. 

Citizens living on the islands of Puerto Rico have learned not to rely on the government, nor on the foundations and nonprofits that it sponsors. Instead, they turn to grassroots endeavors and each other. Within this collective consciousness, people have expanded their imagination and the scope of what it means to trust and look out for their neighbors, even in the off-season when blackouts occur without a cloud in the sky. 

This sense of camaraderie manifests itself in many ways, and it’s no different within the art world of Puerto Rico. In the wake of Fiona, artist-run galleries and cultural spaces mobilized within their capabilities have come together to support one another.

In the affected regions of the main island, spaces with different infrastructures and financial contexts offered themselves so that community members could gather there as well as receive attention and resources. Located in Mayagüez, Taller Libertá (Freedom Workshop) shifted its programming from experimental theater and workshops to assist with collaborators and provide services to locals, including offering their facilities for electrical needs, replenishing water, and facilitating for collaborators Casa Cuna Publishers and Educación Emergente to distribute donated food.

“The space didn’t suffer any structural damage due to the hurricane or the earthquakes the year prior [in 2019], but our artists in residence saw their homes impacted,” said Eury Gonzalez Orzini, one of the two directors of el Taller. “We did what we could to take care of them as an extension of our support because their livelihood became the priority over their artworks.” 

Together with Zuleira Soto, they co-direct Taller Libertá, providing a studio and workshop for transdisciplinary artistic creation, developing theatrical research, residencies, and laboratories with self-management models. They also work as theater artists, co-managing Vueltabajo theater company.

This wasn’t the first time they’ve adapted their space to the circumstances. Back in 2017 with Hurricane María, Taller Libertá served as the birthplace and center of operations for Brigada Solidaria del Oeste (Solidary Brigade of the West), a community initiative that organized and distributed all kinds of donations for the region as well as providing special assistance.

Zuleira Soto stated, “We were happy to see that people felt safe, that they could read books from our library program and leave their devices charging while they attended to other things. And we didn’t want this to feel transactional. The hope was for the community to occupy the space and use it however way it could be of help to them.”

A man walks across a wooden board that goes over a muddy ground. He stands outside an open gate.
When Hurricane Fiona hit Puerto Rico in 2022, it caused widespread damage and many to be left without power.

On a larger scale, the Museo de Arte de Ponce (MAP) offered their campus and a variety of services to residents of Ponce and nearby towns. The museum supplied free Wi-Fi and charging stations, assisted with the distribution of ice and hot meals, and provided free admission to their exhibitions, which have remained open because the facilities operate on electric generators. 

Sofía Cánepa, head of education programs and community empowerment at MAP, stated that this was an opportunity to further serve and connect with the people of Ponce and towns nearby. “While people used our facilities as needed, we would invite them to participate in our workshops and view the art available,” she said. “A good number didn’t know we were a museum!” 

Just like Taller Libertá, MAP had prior experience working within similar circumstances. During the earthquakes, the museum began its program El Museo Sale a la Calle (The Museum Takes to the Streets) to provide workshops to children in shelters and improvised outdoor schools in baseball fields within the affected communities in Ponce, Guánica, Guayanilla, and Yauco. 

“We realized since Maria’s passage the importance of what we can do as a museum in these circumstances,” Cánepa said. “We looked to provide encouragement and looked out for people’s emotional well-being and mental health because we are committed to being empathetic and supportive as an institution to our communities.”

While these provided direct support to people in the affected region, galleries and other cultural spaces in the greater metropolitan area adapted their programming at the time to contribute with donations and other resources. 

Located in Santurce, San Juan, El Hangar (The Hangar), a trans-feminist community project for queer, migrant, and feminized communities, collaborated with the local nonprofit La Fondita de Jesus, preparing food to be delivered to hard-hit communities in San Sebastián and Maricao, while also working with Brigada Solidaria del Oeste to distribute supplies in Salinas. El Lobi (the Lobby), an artist-run cultural space and gallery also in Santurce, joined forces with Taller Malaquita, a collaborative workshop for female creatives based in Bayamón, to coordinate the collection of donations and distribute these with local groups in Salinas.

Vanessa Hernández García, the artist and curator who co-directs El Lobi with Melissa Sarthou, said that at the time Fiona hit, “we had artists in residency finalizing their projects. But with the storm’s passing, we extended the residency for another week to be able to culminate with the programmed performance and at the same time respond to the circumstances. Our efforts to help arose from an initiative in collaboration with them [the artists], even though they had to return to Barcelona.” 

A gallery with several freestanding structures that have abstract paintings hanging down their middles.
The Whitney Museum’s current exhibition “no existe un mundo poshuracán: Puerto Rican Art in the Wake of Hurricane Maria” surveys how artists have responded to a series of disasters.

As with the spaces in the southwest of the islands, these spaces provided services and assistance, activating the networks that have been solidifying over the years. “We learned from Maria how to step into this mode of work, and it’s beautiful because at that time many people from our artistic community joined us to help,” Hernández García said. “This is a reflection of the solidarity that the art community experiences daily.”

When we look at the current art ecosystem in PR, artist-run spaces are as present, if not more than traditional, commercial galleries. They are crucial for the ever-growing community of emerging artists, contributing to a process where talented artists go from presenting their works on dilapidated walls, surrounded by the sounds of generators and the unbearable humidity, to be featured in exhibitions internationally (namely in current shows at the Whitney and the MCA Chicago). 

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But collectors and audiences will often not know what it took to get there: the countless hours volunteered to hang paintings on the little wall space between malfunctioning windows in what used to be someone’s house, the struggle to find materials and pool money between the artists and gallerists to make a performance happen, or the many conversations that occur between community members and cultural workers to produce socially engaging bodies of work, all while hustling to pay exorbitant bills for basic utilities that are often out of service. One could say that the rise of artist-run galleries in Puerto Rico directly coincided with the political and natural events that have shaped the country over the last seven years, as an organic response to these. This is why, when the going gets tough, the art community in PR shows up for each other.


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