Two recent events have forever marked the lives of Puerto Ricans. One was Hurricane María, which struck the island on September 20, 2017, leaving a humanitarian crisis that will linger for years to come. The other was in July 2019, when more than a million people—almost a third of the island’s population—filled the streets with protests, forcing Governor Ricardo Rosselló to resign. People reached a boiling point when 889 pages of leaked Telegram app messages were published by the Center of Investigative Journalism of Puerto Rico, unveiling a corrupt government whose officials joked about the María deaths and made violent homophobic and sexist remarks against political opponents, journalists, and other public figures.

Images of artists employing creative forms of activism at the center of these #VeranoDel2019 (Summer of 2019) protests have impacted the world. Leading the charge on social media and on the ground was pop star Ricky Martin, who called on all sectors of society to demand respect for the LGBTTQ+ community and to join him in the nationwide protests. The influential musicians “artivists” Residente, Bad Bunny, and iLe collaborated in “Afilando Los Cuchillos” (“Sharpening Knives”), a hymn designed to fire up protesters. The underground was relentless in using creativity as a driving force, from protest signs to memes and viral campaign hashtags like #RickyRenuncia (“Ricky Resign”), to acrobats dangling from street signs in the highways, to yoga marathons.

Perhaps the most impactful performance was “Perreo Combativo,” a reggaetón dance-off organized by feminist group Colectiva Feminista en Construcción, intended to celebrate ancestral Afrocentric sexuality and how the performing female body can serve as an intersectional tool to decolonize and liberate a nation from governmental corruption.

Such diversity should come as no surprise. Although Puerto Rico is the smallest of the Greater Antilles in the Caribbean, measuring 100 by 35 miles, its rich cultural heritage has deep roots beyond its coasts. Taíno, Spanish, and African cultures intersect at the core of Puerto Rican identity. In the social sphere, tangible and intangible cultural assets where public art coexists with historic structures built by the Spaniards come alive with music, gastronomy, and other cultural and artistic manifestations. Above all, Puerto Ricans like to socialize. One could argue socializing is actually an art form on the island.

As the protests proved, art can be revolutionary and a tool for healing a nation. But art cannot bring back the dead. Puerto Ricans have become resigned to never knowing the exact number of deaths caused by María. Rosselló’s lack of transparency after the emergency put him at odds with Washington. Almost a year after María, Rosselló’s administration kept insisting on an official death toll of 64, until a study published by Harvard University in May 2018 put the figure closer to 4,645. (Another study, by George Washington University, had a high-end estimate of 3,000 deaths.)

This provoked a constant state of distrust between the local and federal governments, causing delays in much-needed, and already-assigned, recovery funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Community Development Block Grants for Disaster Recovery from the Department of Housing. In the meantime, blue tarp roofs can still be seen everywhere from the mountains and countryside to communities in the metropolitan areas. Not as visible but just as worrisome is the electric infrastructure, which remains dangerously fragile.

The Artistic and Cultural Losses

Museums, archives, and libraries also suffered extensively and are in dire need of recovery funds. Structural damage to historic buildings has affected thousands of collections, including those of the General Archives of Puerto Rico and the National Library. The main hazard in the aftermath of María was loss of electricity. Six months of constant blackouts, the most widespread in American history, saw mold growth caused by high humidity levels and lack of climate control. Several large-scale sculptures in the San Juan Botanical Garden of the University of Puerto Rico were damaged by high winds and still lie broken on the ground. And no one knows for sure how many artists lost the roofs of their studios.

Before María, financial support for culture was already in decline. The economic crisis was evident in urban centers and parks, where sculptures commissioned for public art initiatives during the first decade of the twenty-first century succumbed to the elements and water fountains shut down, rendered useless.

In 2006, engulfed in a debt crisis comparable only to Greece’s, Puerto Rico entered a recession. Austerity measures resulted in substantial cuts in funding for cultural institutions, including the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico and Museo de Arte Contemporáneo. The hardest-hit victim has been the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture (ICP), founded in 1955, which is barely surviving. It’s short on staff and resources to fulfill its mission to preserve, promote, enrich, and disseminate the cultural values and the arts of the people of Puerto Rico and to provide citizens of the island’s 78 municipalities with a broader and deeper knowledge of them. ICP is also in charge of historical buildings and small municipal museums across the island. But in 2013 it had to close the National Gallery, an exhibition space for a curated selection of the 60,000 artifacts in their collection.

On the positive side, a younger generation strives to make a change from within nonprofit organizations by means of cultural entrepreneurship. Newly formed initiatives like Nuestro Barrio, under the auspices of Universidad del Sagrado Corazón in Santurce, are drawing the blueprint others will follow on revitalization of urban areas. The approach links cultural and business activity with the community while promoting economic development of the area.

Puerto Rico’s Public Art: Trials and Tribulations

An initiative to integrate art in public spaces was planned by the first woman governor of the island, Sila María Calderón, in 1998, during her term as mayor of the capital city of San Juan. The commissioning of 25 outdoor sculptures to be installed in the city led to an even more ambitious public art project that was developed in 2001 through the Public Art Law of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico: a fund was established for the construction and preservation of public art by Puerto Rican artists, with a budget of $25 million for 100 artworks to be located island-wide.

Critics objected to the costs associated with the bill, and when Calderón completed her term in office, the law was revoked by the opposition party. This resulted in the elimination of funds allocated for the maintenance of existing artworks. Sadly, the majority of the works have deteriorated, and some have been almost totally destroyed by the elements, especially those near the Atlantic coast, where saltwater has corroded them. The damage has shifted the public’s perception of the artworks as amenities to that of public nuisances.

Neglect—and Care—of a Veteran Sculptor’s Work

One of the island’s venerable sculptors, Carlos Guzmán, has been directly affected by this failure of public policy. Corrosion ate away at his sculptural installation Cardúmen Onírico, located in one of the oceanfront plazas of Condado, a major tourist zone in San Juan. When the central piece was damaged to the point of no return, it was deemed a public hazard and was removed by the city.

For years residents and visitors had warned the city that the sculpture needed proper upkeep, that there was time to save it, but their calls were ignored. The six smaller pieces flanking the central sculpture were restored in 2017 with private funds. Then, three months after the restoration, María destroyed five of them. Only one piece from the installation remains standing, functioning as a living memorial of the massive destruction caused by the hurricane.

The plaza was given a new sculpture to replace Guzmán’s: a Botero from the collection of hedge fund magnate John Paulson, who currently rents the square. As of today, no one knows if Guzmán could reclaim the platform to install a new work, or for how long Paulson will have control of what’s supposed to be a public square. The case exemplifies how private interests can easily replace local labor and take over public spaces in a fragile economy lacking the framework to support its own artists.

Guzmán had a different experience with the restoration of La Tintorera after María. This large vertical sculpture is installed at La Pared Beach, a surfing spot in the municipality of Luquillo. A 45-minute drive towards the east from San Juan, Luquillo is also the artist’s hometown, where he lives and has his studio. Guzmán explains that his neighbors’ and the surfing community’s sense of ownership made a difference in the sculpture’s upkeep and maintenance.

“The locals constantly approached me to restore the work, including volunteers of different backgrounds and ages,” he says. “All this because over time the artwork becomes part of their environment and therefore is already part of their lives. That is where this sense of belonging is born.”

Guzmán underlines the relationship between community ownership and care: “Where the spectator makes the work his own and therefore takes care of it, he protects it because his identity can be seen as close as possible in it.”

An Arts Festival Brings Hope

In the past decade, the urban art festival called Santurce Es Ley has made a positive impact on the San Juan neighborhood of Santurce, helping the barrio adapt to the economic crisis, during which real estate prices forced many gallery spaces in the area to close permanently. The first edition of the festival in 2011 saw galleries set up pop-up exhibitions in trailers along Calle Cerra, while muralists created monumental works for public consumption in an event that lasted several days. The area is now recognized globally as a tourist destination; the late television gourmet Anthony Bourdain taped a show there.

What makes this initiative self-sustaining is that these murals don’t require an investment for preservation against the environment or the elements; they’re regularly replaced by new works that the urban artists paint over them. These murals are only susceptible to man-made changes in the architecture of the wall space, or vandalism.

The Black-and-White Flag

But not everyone in Puerto Rico’s art world sees tourism and gentrification as the saviors of our underrepresented and marginal communities; more radical voices are being heard, especially in the art community

In 2016, the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) was imposed by the United States Congress. Its official summary declared it to be “a bill that addresses Puerto Rico’s debt by establishing an oversight board, a process for restructuring debt, and expedited procedures for approving critical infrastructure projects.”

Several days after PROMESA was implemented, the women’s art collective La Puerta (The Door) created an icon by altering a Puerto Rican flag painted on a door in an abandoned building in Old San Juan. Black was substituted for the red and blue of the flag—a controversial but representative statement of what the island was going through.

The door became an instant icon, reproduced endlessly in selfies, posters, T-shirts, music videos, book covers, and decolonization movements. Three years have gone by and the door is still standing. The collective included a public statement in their intervention:

“Let this act serve as an invitation to reflect and take action in the face of the collapse of the education and health system, the privatization and destruction of our natural resources, the colonial status, the trampling of the future labor force, the payment of an illegitimate debt, the imposition of an anti-democratic government, the strangulation of cultural management, among others. This act is a sign that there is an artistic community that is not standing idly by, that is willing to fight against atrocities, against the imposition of an absolutist government and its austerity policies, the most recent: the Fiscal Oversight Board (PROMESA).”

During the anti-government protests of 2019, black-and-white flags appeared again and again in the sea of people.

The Way Forward

There is a long path to recovery for the art and artists of Puerto Rico, and many entities have been helping, including the National Endowment for the Arts, the Smithsonian Institution, CERF+, National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures (NALAC), and Flamboyán Foundation (Lin-Manuel Miranda’s art fund), among others.

But the reconstruction of Puerto Rico’s infrastructure will take years and the economic crisis is not making the process any easier. Artists are still in need of workspaces, financial aid, and new markets in which to sell their work. Even though the high cost of living is a burden for many, a majority prefer to stay rather than migrate to the United States. Some diaspora artists have even returned to Puerto Rico to be part of the social movement and make a positive impact on the preservation of the island’s natural and cultural resources for generations to come.

Written by Gretchen Ruiz Ramos. Ramos is a museum specialist, photographer, and educator working with the arts community in Puerto Rico. After hurricanes Irma and María impacted the island in 2017, she has focused on the recovery of cultural institutions, arts organizations, and artists. Pedro Vélez contributed to this article.

Public Art Review issue 59Featured in Public Art Review #59.