Perched on the grassy lawns of Chicago’s Humboldt Park, the National Museum of Puerto Rican Art (NMPRAC), is a centerpiece of the city’s Puerto Rican community, Paseo Boricua. Under the building’s arresting red-tiled roof hangs an array of work by artists from the Puerto Rican diaspora. In the warmer months, visitors spill into the courtyard for an annual arts and crafts festival and film screenings. When the weather cools, patrons may find safe haven among the technicolor-hued paintings that line the museum’s walls and evoke the warmth and vibrancy of the island commonwealth to which it is dedicated.
As the only museum in the continental United States that exclusively showcases Puerto Rican art, NMPRAC is a mecca for those who want to immerse themselves in the culture of a Latino community who — despite being the second largest Hispanic origin group in the U.S. — is frequently overlooked.
According to their website, NMPRAC is dedicated to “the promotion, integration and advancement of Puerto Rican arts and culture.”
“We want a sense of culture. We want people to know who the Puerto Rican people are — immerse them in who the Puerto Rican [people] are,” Billy Ocasio, president and CEO of the museum, said. “I think when the U.S. talks about Latinos, they basically always look at the Mexican community. But you know, there’s a lot more.”
Founded in 2000 by the local community as the National Puerto Rican Museum, NMPRAC is located in the historic Humboldt Park Stables and Receptory. The building dates back to 1895 and lay vacant for six years before Alderman Billy Ocasio alongside the Puerto Rican Agenda worked to turn it into a museum.
With the approval of Mayor Richard M. Daley, restoration began in 2000 but wouldn’t be completed until 2015, as funding setbacks delayed completion. The museum ultimately needed nine million dollars and help from the community to get where it is today.
The museum has three galleries, performance spaces, art classrooms and curatorial, as well as a gift shop and catering area. Their courtyard is also used to hold art festivals and outdoor performances.
“It's the best kept secret. You know, we are the only Puerto Rican museum outside of Puerto Rico,” Ocasio said. “We are basically about preserving our culture, our traditions and our history, and then sharing it with others.”
The museum wants the people of the Humboldt Park community, the people from the greater Chicago area and anyone else who visits the museum to leave with an understanding of what it means to be Puerto Rican and to be immersed in its culture.
In 2015, the museum created the "Ceiba Award” to honor two to three people [each year] who have made significant contributions in support of the Puerto Rican people. Past honorees include Lin-Manuel Miranda, Antonio Martorell and Rita Moreno. Every year, the award is custom-made by Puerto Rican sculptor Enrique Ortiz Matos.
The community's support is a big factor in the museum’s success, so the museum makes giving back to the local community a priority. NMPRAC offers hands-on arts and crafts workshops that include painting, drawing, sculpting, printmaking and photography. The workshops are open to students of any age and emphasize the powerful influence of art and its ability to create and reflect cultures.
The museum also makes efforts to showcase both local Puerto Rican artists in Chicago and artists that live in Puerto Rico. 2020 was a significant year as it highlighted the twentieth anniversary of The National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture, as well as the twenty-fifth anniversary of the installation of the steel Puerto Rican flags on Paseo Boricua, also known as the “Banderas.”
A joint celebration of the twentieth anniversary of NMPRAC and the twenty-fifth anniversary of Banderas. Video courtesy of NMPRAC via YouTube.
While the museum has received glowing feedback from the community with its lively exhibitions and events, Ocasio said the biggest challenge has been consistent funding. Arts and culture organizations nationwide have struggled, especially during the pandemic, but some have felt the impact more than others. According to a report by Arts Alliance Illinois, as of February 2021, smaller BIPOC arts and culture organizations had lost 20% more revenue than their predominantly white counterparts.
"[There is] inadequate funding for arts and cultural organizations ... especially in the Black and brown community. It's where you feel the most need," Ocasio said. "That's always been the number one struggle ... people have never recognized museums of color at the level that they recognize other museums. So you're constantly fighting, you're constantly doing more with less."
While it may not be the biggest or most well-known museum, the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture not only holds a place in the hearts for the Puerto Rican community in Humboldt Park, but also represents an opportunity for visitors from all backgrounds to familiarize themselves with Puerto Rican culture.
“For us, it's about sharing our experience with others that don't know much about our history,” Ocasio said.