As permanent collections go, El Museo del Barrio’s is on the modest side. The museum’s Web site puts the tally of objects it owns at just 6,500, a far cry from the Met’s nearly two million.
But El Museo del Barrio has something few other New York museums can touch: some 10 percent of its collection is concentrated on works by self-taught artists and artisans from New York, Puerto Rico, the Caribbean and Latin America. At the moment they are being featured more prominently than they have been in nearly two decades, in “Testimonios: 100 Years of Popular Expression,” a kaleidoscopic display of more than 300 works drawn almost entirely from El Barrio’s collection.
This frequently moving, almost always riveting exhibition suggests that these holdings amount to a kind of cultural gold that can make the melting-pot nature of the city shine in a new way. They highlight the museum’s deep roots in the visual cultures of some of the most vibrant immigrant groups in New York, and in what might be called their “feeder” cultures. They also point to a kind of creative fluidity that is especially endemic among the rich ethnic mix of Hispanic cultures in the Americas, where the lines dividing high and low, art and handicraft can be inspiringly blurry.
And so this show sets art and life and craft, form and religion and politics, New York and the world aswirl, achieving an intoxicating, if sometimes bittersweet, vitality.