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State of the Arts in Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico's visual arts have long been shaped by the influences of its African, Spanish, and indigenous roots. Though the history of Puerto Rican art can be categorized into several predominant thematic preoccupations, a close examination of seminal Puerto Rican works reveals the persistence of these diverse cultural influences.

The indigenous Taíno people were living on the island at the time of Columbus's arrival in the late 15th century; their art consisted primarily of petroglyphs and daily-use or ceremonial objects made of ceramic or wood. Little survived Spanish colonization, but we know about its existence thanks to written accounts of Spanish priests like Fray Ramón Pané, who described Taíno cemíes—ceremonial figures—in extensive detail. The few remaining Taíno objects are largely preserved in private collections, although small collections of representative pieces and some examples of petroglyphs can be seen at the Parque Ceremonial Indígena de Tibes (Tibes Indigenous Ceremonial Center) in Ponce and the Parque Ceremonial Indígena de Caguana (Caguana Indigenous Ceremonial Center) in Utuado.

The arrival of the Spanish also resulted in the introduction of new art forms. According to art historian Osiris Delgado, much of the art from the early colonial period was religious in nature and function, the most representative example being the santos—saint figurines carved of wood, an art form that endures on the island to this day. It wasn't until the mid- to late-18th century that the "fine" arts began in earnest, the works of José Campeche (1751–1809) being the most representative.

Campeche became known for his exceptional oil portraits of religious figures and the social elite; his renown was particularly noteworthy considering he was a self-taught artist with little formal education. Campeche's seminal works, such as Dama a caballo (Lady on Horseback), can be seen at the Museo de Arte in Ponce (MAP) and at the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico (MAPR) in San Juan.

Campeche was followed by Francisco Oller (1833–1917), a painter who remains a central figure in the narrative of Puerto Rican art. Also working primarily in oils, Oller turned his brush toward a realistic treatment of Puerto Rican life as he observed it. His paintings can be grouped into one of two broad categories: landscapes (paisajes) and folkloric images of daily life. La ceiba de Ponce (The Ponce Ceiba Tree) and Hacienda Aurora (Aurora Hacienda) are cornerstones in the permanent collection at the MAP and help viewers understand why Oller has been called "a realist of impressionism." El Velorio (The Wake), his most powerful and enduring work, is on display in the Museo de Historia, Antropología y Arte, on the main campus of the University of Puerto Rico.

Oller not only established the subjects and styles that would dominate Puerto Rican art throughout most of the 20th century, but he also played a significant role in creating a community of artists and an artistic culture on the island. He opened Puerto Rico's first gallery in Old San Juan around 1870, exhibiting work of local artists. His influence is visible in the works of many 20th-century artists who are shown alongside Campeche and Oller in the permanent collections at the MAP and the MAPR. An appreciation for rural landscapes and lifestyles, as well as its signature figure, the jíbaro—a poor, humble, hard-working mountain man—became the stamp of Puerto Rican identity.

By the 1940s, the government started supporting the arts, and art institutions began to flourish, with the Museo de la Universidad de Puerto Rico opening in 1946.

During the 1950s artists turned their interests toward social justice and the urban proletariat, focusing on slums and poverty. The evolution of these motifs is evident in the work of Ramón Frade and Rafael Tufiño, whose works are on display in San Juan's Galería Nacional.

The Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña (Institute of Puerto Rican Culture) was established in 1955 to promote Puerto Rican artists; today the agency oversees many of the island's museums and art programs. In 1959 the MAP was founded by former governor, philanthropist, and passionate art collector Luis A. Ferré. MAP houses a private collection of more than 4,000 works from the 14th through 19th centuries, including paintings by El Greco, Goya, Rubens, Cranach, Murillo, and Delacroix. The collection is particularly strong in Italian baroque and Pre-Raphaelite works, with good representation by Latin American and Puerto Rican artists from the 18th century to the present, including Myrna Baéz, Julio Rosado del Valle, and Antonio Martorell.

In the 1960s, as the art world moved away from socially committed art, Puerto Rican artists still struggled with nationalism and identity issues. Locally, this struggle resulted in a battle between abstraction—with artists such as Julio Rosado Del Valle, Olga Albizu, and Luis Hernández Cruz—and avant-garde expressionism that favored figurative and socially minded art considered "genuinely" Puerto Rican.

In the 1980s abstract expressionists and other stylistic experimenters were granted a place at the table of Puerto Rican identity. These years opened art to the irreverent humor of Carmelo Sobrino, to the environmental activism of Carlos Marcial, and to aspects of the fantastic, as in the works of Marta Pérez, Jorge Zeno, and Rafi Trelles. Zeno's whimsical sculptures, often fusing human and animal elements, are on permanent display in front of the Hotel El Convento in Old San Juan.

By 1988 a group of artists, professors, critics, collectors, and other art lovers came together to establish the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Puerto Rico (Museum of Contemporary Art of Puerto Rico). The collection is composed mostly of works donated by the artists. Private collectors continued to expand their sphere of influence in the art world throughout the late 1980s and into the 1990s. Most notable among them are Diana and Moisés Berezdivin, whose collection became so extensive the museum acquired a space for part of the work and opened it to the public in 2005. Their Espacio 1414 is dedicated to cultivating the visual arts in Puerto Rico and is one of the most interesting places on the island to see art.

The future is exciting as Puerto Rican art attracts art aficionados from abroad and travels beyond the island. The launch of the first annual CIRCA Art Fair in 2006 signaled Puerto Rico's readiness to take its place on the international art stage. Increasingly, Puerto Rican artists are showing their work abroad, engaging audiences in a more nuanced dialogue about what, exactly, Puerto Rican art is and what it's becoming.

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