“Transforming Spaces” is a series about women driving change in sometimes unexpected places.
Marcela Guerrero had just started as a curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2017 when Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, where she was born and raised.
“I was thinking, ‘How can I help?’” she recalled in a recent interview. “I have an important platform. There is something I can say.’”
The result is “no existe un mundo poshuracán: Puerto Rican Art in the Wake of Hurricane Maria,” which opened Nov. 23 at the museum, in New York, and bills itself as “the first scholarly exhibition focused on Puerto Rican art to be organized by a large U.S. museum in nearly half a century.”
Five years after becoming the Whitney’s first curator specializing in Latino art, Ms. Guerrero has made a meaningful impact on the field as the nation’s Hispanic population continues to grow and museums try to reflect and attract more diverse audiences.
“As the first Puerto Rican curator at the Whitney, she is at the right place at a time when Latinx art is emerging as a force to be reckoned with,” said Mari Carmen Ramírez, who in 2001 became the first curator of Latin American art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, when it established a department of Latino art. “We all expect her to contribute to this transformation in a significant way.”
That transformation has been noteworthy, though much of the attention around diversity has been focused on Black artists and curators in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. In a milestone, for example, the Brazilian museum director Adriano Pedrosa in December was named curator of the 2024 Venice Biennale, becoming the first Latin American to organize the world’s longest-running contemporary art exhibition.
In 2021 E. Carmen Ramos, formerly head of Latino art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, was named the chief curatorial and conservation officer at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
The Smithsonian is in the early stages of planning a National Museum of the American Latino for the National Mall, a location that members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus had urged President Biden to support.
And in 2021, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Ford Foundation established the Latinx Artist Fellowships, awarding 15 artists $50,000 each.
The changes that Ms. Guerrero has helped advance at the Whitney are evident throughout the museum — bilingual wall text and catalogs; new marketing techniques to reach diverse audiences; acquisitions and exhibitions that integrate Latino artists.
Last year, she was promoted from an assistant curator to an associate curator, an endowed position.
“She is a real visionary,” Scott Rothkopf, the museum’s senior deputy director and chief curator, said. “She’s had a truly transformative impact on the museum in terms of the program, how we think about Latinx, around translations, around audience, around our partnerships and around who we consider our community to be.”
Ms. Guerrero — who is 42 and holds a Ph.D. in art history from the University of Wisconsin, Madison — came to the Whitney from the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, where as a curatorial fellow she was involved in the 2017 exhibition “Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960-1985.”
Before the Hammer, Ms. Guerrero worked in the Latin American and Latino art department at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, where she served as research coordinator for the International Center for the Arts of the Americas.
At the Whitney, Ms. Guerrero in 2020 helped organize “Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925-1945.” She also curated the 2018 exhibition “Pacha, Llaqta, Wasichay: Indigenous Space, Modern Architecture, New Art,” which featured the work of seven emerging Latino artists.
While some may see her as a trailblazer, Ms. Guerrero sees herself as part of a broader diversity effort underway at the Whitney and at museums around the country.
“It’s about reframing how we tell the history of American art,” she said. “We assume a collective responsibility about widening our scope and addressing parts of our collection we’ve neglected.”
Ms. Guerrero said she felt the support of curators at other institutions, such as Susanna V. Temkin at El Museo del Barrio, Carmen Hermo at the Brooklyn Museum, and Vivian Crockett at the New Museum.
“I keep thinking of other people across the United States, doing the same work, from small museums to big museums,” she said. “We all know each other and can count on each other.”
Other curators, in turn, say they have been inspired by Ms. Guerrero. Cecilia Fajardo-Hill, an art historian and curator who organized the “Radical Women” show at the Hammer, said Ms. Guerrero’s role “has been one of serious research and commitment to the fields of Latin American and Latinx art.”
“Her contribution to ‘Radical Women’ was key, as we worked together to research Latina and Chicana artists, and she single-handedly researched Puerto Rico,” Dr. Fajardo-Hill added. “Her work at the Whitney thus far has been important for promoting an expansive conceptualization of what Latinx art means today.”
At the same time, Ms. Guerrero acknowledges the burden shared by many curators of color: shifting business as usual in an entrenched operation. “It means asking all the departments in an institution to do things they haven’t done before, understanding what marketing to a Latinx audience means, not just doing Latinx shows,” she said. “People in the Bronx also want to know about Edward Hopper or Andy Warhol.”
Ms. Guerrero said real change required a “holistic approach,” including diversifying the board of directors, adequately compensating the mostly Black and brown security staff members, and mentoring those coming up behind her. “How are we thinking about distribution of power,” she said, “and distribution of wealth?”
“It’s not lost on me that, because I am now in the hierarchy, I should empower myself to talk about these things, and I think I do,” she added. “It comes from a place of care and love for the institution.”
Ms. Guerrero has particularly warm memories of spending hours in the admission-free Smithsonian as a young woman when she was visiting her sister, who was working in Washington. “It was a place where I could be safe as a woman by myself, where I could reflect and think,” she said. “That’s my church.”
She wants to share the joy she has long taken in experiencing art with a wider population, to help people who might feel intimidated by museums to feel welcome and to see themselves represented on the walls.
“The goal for me is to demystify this world because it can be so exclusive and so mysterious,” she said.
To be sure, the road hasn’t always been easy. Ms. Guerrero notes that her recent rise to an associate curator is her first promotion within an institution. “I had to move from city to city to be able to grow,” she said. “I don’t want to forget those years of being a curatorial fellow who wasn’t given the time of day — the doors you have to knock on to make space and advocate for yourself.”
But the hard days are worth it, Ms. Guerrero said, and she sees encouraging signs of progress, namely that almost 25 percent of the works that the Whitney acquired in 2021 were by Latino artists.
She was also encouraged by the inclusion of a piece by Freddy Rodríguez, a Dominican immigrant, in a current exhibition at the Whitney, “In the Balance: Between Painting and Sculpture, 1965-1985,” which runs through March 5, 2023. Mr. Rodríguez died on Oct. 10 at 77 of A.L.S., or Lou Gehrig’s disease, just nine days shy of the show’s opening.
“He said he had been in other Latinx shows, but never in a mainstream show,” Ms. Guerrero said, adding, “I’ll take a win — as small as it is. That’s my fuel.”
She is also proud of the exhibition “no existe un mundo poshuracán” — which takes its title from the Puerto Rican poet Raquel Salas Rivera and runs through April 23 — featuring the work of 20 artists. The show is accompanied by series of online videos that will help contextualize the artwork.
“There’s also a tremendous amount of anger and sorrow, along with much beauty,” the critic Holland Cotter wrote in The New York Times, “in a carefully textured and moving show that is also among the first major surveys of contemporary Puerto Rican art in a leading United States museum in nearly 50 years.”
Despite her successes so far, Ms. Guerrero doesn’t seem to feel anywhere close to being able to exhale.
“It’s a lot of pressure,” she said. “One thing I did not expect when I came to the Whitney is to have this magnifying glass over me.
“Some parts have been very difficult, but I also see the growth,” she added, “and there is hope in that.”