Billy Ocasio, president of the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts & Culture
“This isn’t just about whether we open up next week or not. This is about whether we exist next year or not,” says Billy Ocasio, president and former 26th ward alderman. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

As Big Museums Get Rescue Grants, The President Of Chicago’s Puerto Rican Museum Says He’s ‘Tired Of Being Left Behind’

“This isn’t just about whether we open up next week or not. This is about whether we exist next year or not,” says Billy Ocasio, president and former 26th ward alderman. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Billy Ocasio, president of the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts & Culture
“This isn’t just about whether we open up next week or not. This is about whether we exist next year or not,” says Billy Ocasio, president and former 26th ward alderman. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

As Big Museums Get Rescue Grants, The President Of Chicago’s Puerto Rican Museum Says He’s ‘Tired Of Being Left Behind’

This story was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center. For more stories about the effect of COVID-19 on museums, please visit the Prairie State Museums Project at PrairieStateMuseumsProject.org.

In the wake of the global COVID-19 pandemic that has ravaged Illinois, many museums of color have been feeling the squeeze of the economic hardships caused by it.

The National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture, the only Puerto Rican history museum in the nation outside of the U.S. territory, continues to fight for racial and financial equity. However, the neighborhood institution didn’t expect to have to do it in the midst of both a pandemic and a national resurgence of Black Lives Matter, during its 20th anniversary no less. The confluence of events has created new challenges — and a rare opportunity to knit together Chicago’s Puerto Rican art community at a moment of national reckoning over race and social justice.

Since its opening in 2000, the museum, along with other cultural institutions of color in Chicago, has always had to work significantly harder for fewer resources while enduring empty promises of “diversity, equity and inclusion,” according to Billy Ocasio, the president/CEO of the NMPRAC and former alderman.

“Museums of color have figured out that they have to basically work harder, just as we’ve always have to do in every other aspect of life,” said Ocasio, 58. He points to systemic racism as the main culprit, particularly in how government funding is distributed to museums.

Puerto Rican museum statue
Opened in 2000, the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts & Culture is based in the historic landmark Humboldt Park stables and receptory. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Museums in Illinois have been in peril throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the Arts Alliance Illinois’ COVID-19 Cultural Sector Impact Assessment, they have collectively lost an estimated $93.8 million in revenue, $4.4 million in lost wages from salary/payroll deductions and 1.7 million visitors. Larger museums such as Adler Planetarium, the Museum of Science and Industry and the Shedd Aquarium each received more than $1 million in Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans, as reported by the Chicago Tribune. By comparison, the NMPRAC only qualified for $71,000, according to Ocasio, who is accustomed to such disparities. He explains that most foundations give grants based on the size of the recipient’s total budget.

“So if you’re, let’s say, a small organization that [doesn’t] have a million-dollar budget, they’re not going to give you more than 10 percent of what your budget is. Now, if you’re an institution that has a billion dollars, they could still give you 10 percent of that. So, it’s just not equal enough,” explained Ocasio.

Most government, foundation and corporate giving won’t provide more than 10% of an institution’s total budget. Those institutions with a higher budget can apply for higher levels of funding. Ocasio said that 10% in funding can help a small organization with a $1 million budget, but it doesn’t provide opportunities for growth the way a large organization with a $1 billion budget does.

“If you’re an organization that has this huge endowment that could survive without the pennies you get from the government, then you shouldn’t be in the program anymore,” said Ocasio. “If you have an endowment that’s over a billion dollars, you should not be involved in any type of handouts at this point.”

Leveling the playing field for museums of color

Veteran artist and the founder of the Latin American Museum of Art, Oscar Luis Martinez has dedicated most of his life to arts education and advocacy. During his time on the Illinois Arts Council, he said he often critiqued major museums like the Art Institute of Chicago and Museum of Contemporary Art for receiving government funding despite failing to include local artists or promote community engagement.

“If they’re not willing to promote local artists … then why should they receive money from the taxpayer of Illinois?” said Martinez.

He said the state should take more radical action in holding Illinois museums accountable to ensure that museums and local artists of color are given the same opportunities for funding and inclusion, something he believes New York has done much better. He said he wants major Chicago museums to step up.

“There’s a lot more that needs to be done and having the Puerto Rican museum is a fantastic step in the right direction, but we should not let the other institutions off the hook. No way,” said Martinez.

Martinez has been involved with NMPRAC since its founding, helping restore the historic building according to the strict requirements of the historical register that totaled $9 million in renovation costs.

“We started by doing one wing of the museum at a time because there was no way we could afford the $9 million dollars to do it. We started with a trailer in the parking lot of the museum,” explained Ocasio, adding that it took them 15 years to raise the $9 million while creating their own programming over those years, starting small.

Puerto Rican museum exhibit
Ocasio says he’s spent years restoring the museum’s historic building, an effort that’s totaled $9 million in renovation costs. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Ocasio also met his wife, Veronica, during that period. For them, building the museum was a “labor of love.”

“If we are given the opportunity we will show up,” Ocasio said. “We will make it worth your investment. We can become these larger institutions if we are given the same playing field.”

The museum, despite being closed throughout the pandemic, has stayed afloat thanks to the creation of its first reserve fund, seeded by an anonymous donation during its 6th annual Raices Gala in 2019. The anonymous donation of $150,000, the biggest gift in the history of the museum, was offered on the terms that NMPRAC matches the funds and move half of the dollars into a reserve fund. Ocasio said the timing was crucial.

“This is us after 20 years getting our biggest gift of $150,000. Imagine those larger institutions who, let’s just say, one of them got $125 million. It’s just unbelievable,” he said.

The reserve fund allowed the museum to adapt to today’s remote learning and digital climate, as well as invest in digital programming, including virtual tours and online versions of the exhibits. Although the learning curve has been steep, Ocasio said the efforts of volunteers and supporters have helped the museum create its new virtual program.

Puerto Rican museum painting
Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the museum has invested in digital programming, including virtual tours and online versions of their exhibits. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Contributing to local vitality

Despite the hefty donation, the museum still faces challenges from the pandemic due to overwhelming expenses. And while the conversation is mostly centered around when museums should open up as Illinois recently reached stage 4 in its own reopening plans, Ocasio is more concerned about moving smartly to ensure that the NMPRAC exists in the next year and beyond.

“This isn’t just about whether we open up next week or not. This is about whether we exist next year or not,” said Ocasio.

So far, funding has come from local foundations, PPP loans and one national organization, the Hispanic Federation, which gave $25,000 toward emergency relief. NMPRAC is also part of Museums in the Park (MIP), a nonprofit coalition of 11 museums located on park district land, through which NMPRAC receives some funding. But Ocasio said the park district should “get with the times” and overhaul its current system.

“One of the things [the park district] needs to do at this point is say … ‘Those institutions that have had it for over a 100 years, take the money from there and put it into the places where we are really suffering, where we are really trying to make a change,’” he said.

When asked about how museums under this umbrella are funded, Rebecca Schejbal, the administrative director of MIP, responded in a statement: “The members of Museums In the Park are dedicated to making Chicago’s museums more accessible to the communities we serve. Our funding distribution is intended to maximize the impact on the greatest number of Chicago citizens.”

Those large institutions that received millions in PPP loans — Adler Planetarium, Museum of Science and Industry, Shedd Aquarium, and Field Museum — are also members of MIP. The scale and locations of these museums make them hotspots for tourists, a potential revenue stream for the city of Chicago and a possible explanation for the funding disparity among MIP’s smaller museums. Ocasio said museums of color could contribute to the tourism dollar if they received more funding.

“Of course, the larger institutions are bringing all the tourists,” he said. “They have the resources to be able to make that happen. The DuSable, the Mexican Fine Arts [National Museum of Mexican Art] and us, we all have the same intelligence to make these things happen. We just need the proper funding and the proper staffing.”

Puerto Rican museum painting woman
Since the onset of the pandemic, most of the museum’s funding has come from local foundations, PPP loans and one national organization, the Hispanic Federation, which gave $25,000 toward emergency relief. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Although the Humboldt Park-based NMPRAC, among a few other museums of color in marginalized neighborhoods, has been able to avoid significant layoffs for now, Ocasio warns that Chicago is in danger of losing many of these institutions due to the unequal funding. For him, such closures would be disastrous at a time when more people want to learn about the stories of people of color and their lived experiences that forewarn history repeating itself.

Martinez said that artists of color should talk about their culture as part of the larger American diaspora.

“Culture and art are vital to our well-being as people. Just as employment is important,” he said. “Just to be included, to sit at the table is important.”

As more of the larger institutions continue to speak out against the country’s history of racism in the wake of the resurging BLM movement, Ocasio said that it’s time for them to put their money where their mouths are and share their surplus of resources.

“Those larger institutions need to recognize that ‘Hey, we’ve had it good for all these years. We really are not at that same level. We really don’t need these funds anymore,’” said Ocasio. “If the country’s moving in that way surely art institutions need to move that way.”

‘Tired of being left behind’

Beyond funding, equity for Ocasio also includes making the museum boards “more colorful,” adding many more people of color in ways more meaningful than hiring a token person of color who typically serves on multiple arts and culture boards. Besides himself, the NMPRAC board consists of Latinx and Hispanic executives, CEOs, creatives and academics in a range of fields, in comparison to heavyweights such as the Field Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago, which have boards that are predominantly white.

“They have one [person of color] and they want to [keep] that [to] one person. [Do] you want to change with the times? You need to get into the communities,” said Ocasio.

Ocasio served 16 years as the 26th ward alderman, representing parts of Humboldt Park, Hermosa, Ukrainian Village and Logan Square, before resigning in 2009 to work on social justice issues as senior advisor to Illinois Governor Pat Quinn. During his first year as alderman in 1993, Ocasio organized a community summit to create a blueprint of what the neighborhood wanted — from housing to education to culture. He said NMPRAC has been an enduring anchor, serving as a community voice for the Puerto Rican community in Chicago experiencing not just the pandemic and uprisings tied to the BLM movement but also the earthquakes and hurricanes that have hit Puerto Rico in recent years.

“Through art, people have always been able to express what’s going on in communities and cities and at the times, and so we need to continue to be that voice,” said Ocasio.

Puerto Rican museum painting dancer
Ocasio says that NMPRAC has served as a community voice not just for the Puerto Rican community in Chicago experiencing the pandemic and uprisings tied to the BLM movement, but the disastrous earthquakes and hurricanes that have ravaged Puerto Rico in recent years. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

In light of this, Ocasio and the NMPRAC are working on a “community-built exhibit” of art — both material and digital — made by citizens and artists alike while quarantining. They will also collect the murals painted on plywood used to board up shop windows during the BLM uprisings, only taking the ones with “positive” messages, and showcase them around the NMPRAC campus.

For Ocasio, the project is a way for the museum to engage the community until people are more comfortable visiting museums during the pandemic. The submission announcement will be available on the website by next week.

Ocasio said he encourages those who wish to support the NMPRAC to visit the museum when it opens (which has not been confirmed at the time of this writing) and to visit the museum’s website. More importantly, he urges everyone to be part of social justice solutions for Black and brown people and learn more about them through museums of color.

“Museums of color go an extra mile of trying to reach out to others who are not of color so that they have a better understanding of how we can get along in the future of this country,” said Ocasio. “Any time change has happened, our communities have been involved in those changes. Whatever rights there were, our communities were involved, and our artists. We’re just tired of being left behind.”

Mark Braboy is a freelance arts, entertainment and cannabis journalist/photographer based in Chicago. His work has been featured in the Chicago Sun-Times, The Triibe, The Chicago Reporter, Chicago Reader, VIBE, Pitchfork, Shondaland, and more. He can be found on Twitter and Instagram at @Shootyourmark.

Olivia Cunningham is a freelance writer and digital content specialist. She’s written for WBEZ’s Curious City, South Side Weekly, and The Chicago Defender. Follow her at @oliviaashtonwav.