Art Market

As Puerto Rico Blackout Continues, Local Gallery Finds New Ways to Support Artists

Natalie Hegert
Oct 31, 2017 5:48PM

Photo by Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images.

More than a month has passed since Hurricane Maria ripped through the Caribbean, and Puerto Rico is still dark. “It is already the longest blackout in the history of the United States,” Francisco “Tito” Rovira Rullán, owner and founder of the San Juan-based gallery Roberto Paradise, tells me via Facebook Messenger. He and his colleagues have been using a generator at night to charge devices, and when the generators hooked up to the communications towers are working they have some access to the internet. But communication is intermittent and slow, “like a 1995 dial-up connection,” he tells me.

“It took me a while to sort through a pile of conflicting emotions and frustrations after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico,” Rullán says. “The blackout, the power outage, was both tangible and emotional.” Despite these challenges, he’s has been busy reaching out to his international art network.

On October 19th, Rullán made an announcement on Facebook: “Considering the grim prospects of our local economy and understanding that our commitment to artists can’t and won’t come to a halt, we’ve decided to take Roberto Paradise on a world tour.” Roberto Paradise’s gallery space, located in the San Juan neighborhood of Santurce, on the other hand, will serve as a “safe haven to store the works of artists severely affected by the storm.”

The experience of the hurricane and the immediate aftermath was harrowing and isolating. For the week after the hurricane, Rullán explains, there was “zero communication.” The only way to check in on friends, family, artists, and colleagues on the island was to seek them out personally. “The magnitude of the disaster was immense,” he says. During those initial visits, he began rescuing artworks for safekeeping at Roberto Paradise. “Three to four weeks later, I started to realize these works would have been lost otherwise,” he continues. “This still brings tears to my eyes.”

Rullán reports that he saved over 50 artworks in the week after the hurricane, and more have arrived in the gallery space for safekeeping since. As of now, more than 15 artists are storing their works at Roberto Paradise. Rullán plans to reopen the space to the public in December, at which time he’ll continue to offer use of the gallery’s storage facility for free to artists who need it.

Indeed, in just a few weeks, on December 1st, Roberto Paradise’s brick and mortar space in San Juan will open with a new exhibition by José Lerma. The artist, who was born in Spain and is based in Brooklyn and Chicago, grew up in Puerto Rico. He last showed with the gallery in 2014, but his relationship with Rullán is long-standing. In fact, Lerma was the first artist to show at Roberto Paradise, when it opened in 2011.

It’s fitting that Lerma’s new work would inaugurate the gallery’s rebirth post-Maria. Despite the uncertainties of the situation in Puerto Rico, Rullán insists the show will go on: “[Lerma says] he’ll make it happen, even if we have to open the show with candlelight!”

Lerma, whose family on the island has been greatly affected by the disaster, will be on site to create work for the show, which will directly address the post-hurricane context, targeting FEMA and President Trump. “The hope is that since the Trump brand name is the family’s most valuable asset, a formal and ubiquitous brand association with the disaster will help accelerate the recovery,” Lerma explains. “This is a horrible time for our families.”

Rullán confirms that 25 percent of the profits from the exhibition will be donated to the Artist Emergency Fund (AEF), which was established in 1997 by the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Puerto Rico (MAC) in San Juan. He also praised the efforts of MAC executive director Marianne Ramirez and Museum of Modern Art trustee Warren James for their work with the fund, as well as MoMA PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach, who visited artists’ studios and institutions affected by the storm in Puerto Rico over the weekend. It’s worth noting that local recovery efforts, such as those spearheaded by non-profit Beta-Loca, have been instrumental in Puerto Rico following the hurricane, particularly in the wake of the blundered response from the federal government.

Moving forward, Robert Paradise’s operations in San Juan in 2018 will be necessarily limited in scope, as the gallery shifts focus to the international efforts of its upcoming tour. The first leg of this tour will take this fall during Amsterdam Arts Weekend with a performance by Freddie Mercado at Galerie Juliètte Jongma, in collaboration with curator Roos Gortzak, on November 24th. The mixed-media artist lost the roof of his home in the hurricane, as well as part of his studio, Rullán says.

Rullán also looks forward to the gallery’s participation in the Material Art Fair in Mexico City in February. “This relationship is important to us as they also recently suffered an earthquake,” he offers. Other shows and events will be announced in forthcoming weeks, including collaborations in London, Chicago, New York, and, in summer 2018, a project in Castropol, Spain.

One can only hope that the situation in Puerto Rico will soon return to some semblance of normalcy, but it may take many years before the local economy recovers. When asked what he feels the future holds for Puerto Rico and the art market, Rullán is undaunted: “Puerto Rico has a surprisingly big collector base and some of the most talented artists I’ve ever met. It will take time and lots of love, but I firmly believe in a brighter future for Puerto Rico.”

Natalie Hegert