Artists Building a Future in Puerto Rico
by Cornelia Carey, Executive Director
In April 2013, I spent three exciting days in Puerto Rico being introduced to its vibrant visual arts community… little did I know that five years later I would be returning on a CERF+ mission to help the island’s very large and diverse population of artists and artisans in their recovery from the devastation of Hurricane Maria.
Traveling around the island with CERF+ volunteer, Jules Polk and our on-the-ground coordinator Brenna Quigley (a former program director at the Institute for Puerto Rican Culture who hosted me in 2013), we met with museum and gallery directors, university faculty, government officials, foundation staff, and, most important, local artists and artisans. We traveled from the cobblestone streets of Old San Juan to the mountains in Orocovis and down to the city of Ponce on the southern coast with many places in between.
Clearly, daily life is not easy, and recovery is a constant “start and stop” experience. Island-wide blackouts still happen frequently (there were two during our visit). Artists are challenged to find and purchase materials to rebuild their destroyed homes and studios. Many artists live in homes without roofs over their heads. Even if an artist’s studio remained intact, the cost of equipment coming from the U.S. mainland can be almost twice the cost as it is stateside. Many materials used by artisans such as cow hides for drums, specialty wood for instrument making, and other materials are now in short supply. To further compound the problem, many markets and galleries that provide a principal source of income are closed – some permanently.
Over the course of a week, we met with many of our emergency grant recipients each in different phases of recovery – some completely back to work and others whose destroyed homes and studios remain in a state of uncertainty. Many told us that ours has been the only help they’ve received so far. Since the storm struck eight months ago, CERF+ has already provided 42 artist working in craft disciplines $188,100 in grants and interest free loans, making this our second largest response effort after Hurricane Katrina. We heard repeatedly from these artists that they felt lucky to have “only” lost power for three months as there are still parts of the island that remain without. And everyone is all too aware that hurricane season starts on June 1.
Yet, again and again, I was struck by the artists’ resourcefulness and their spirit of mutual support and collective enterprise. As San Juan-based artist and activist, Angel Alexis Bousquet told us, “Artists in PR have a ‘make it happen’ attitude,” which serves them well. From the mural-laden, salsa pumping streets of the Santurce arts district in San Juan to the colorful artist fair in the central plaza of Ponce, artists and artisans are doing what they do best, transforming their communities with their creativity. A day-long power outage didn’t deter artist and gallery director, Adelisa Gonzalez with the Fundación Casa Cortés in San Juan from touring us through her latest show of Haitian art by flashlight or discovering that ceramic artist Luis Ivorra now makes his larger work in two parts because his big kiln was destroyed in the storm and he only has access to a small kiln. Resources that we take for granted stateside, can’t be counted on – so ingenuity and creativity are essentials.
I came away with an enormous love and respect for the people and the culture of the island. Their “make it happen” attitude inspires me to continue to raise awareness about the challenges artists face and the funds and resources they need, both short and long-term. Along with the beautiful Caribbean Sea, arts and culture are the heart and soul of Puerto Rico and essential to realizing a vision for greater resilience. Because as the Foundation for Puerto Rico says in their tag line: “There is no future in rebuilding the past.”
You can help the artists and artisans of Puerto Rico by donating to our crowdfunding campaign #CampaignforPRartists.