Puerto Rican Arts Initiative to become joint project between Northwestern and the University of Texas at Austin


Courtesy of Pó Rodil

“Comí,” a photograph taken by Natalia de la Rosa in 2019, features Pó Rodil, an artist currently participating in the Puerto Rican Arts Initiative.

Waverly Long, Web Editor

The Puerto Rican Arts Initiative, started by former Northwestern Prof. Ramón H. Rivera-Servera, will become a joint initiative between NU and the University of Texas at Austin this year. 

The initiative focuses on supporting Puerto Rican artists by helping them build community in Chicago and Puerto Rico. Additionally, the program helps participating artists develop and sustain their practices in Puerto Rico and share their art with a wider audience. 

The Puerto Rican Arts Initiative is currently in its second phase — the first phase, which involved 20 artists, concluded in May 2021. Rivera-Servera was appointed dean of UT-Austin’s College of Fine Arts on July 1, which prompted the shift to a collaborative initiative.

Rivera-Servera, who chaired the Department of Performance Studies and the Department of Theatre in the School of Communication, started the initiative in 2016 as a small residency program to bring Puerto Rican artists together to think critically about the debt crisis the island was undergoing.

After the hurricanes hit Puerto Rico, Rivera-Servera said he went into overdrive, doubling down on his efforts to expand the program and provide more aid to artists on the island.

“My effort was in reaction to the fact that the initial framework of support for the arts was really concerned with things like art collections, museums and artists’ studios that had been flooded,” Rivera-Servera said. “There was something immediately material about safeguarding art institutions.”

With the support of NU and a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Rivera-Servera was able to expand the program from four artists to 20 in 2017.

Beyond uplifting the artists involved, Rivera-Servera said supporting the arts as a whole was critical during the crisis to benefit the broader community.

“The contemporary art museum — with candlelight — became a kind of gathering place at a time when there was no electricity,” Rivera-Servera said. “It became a place for congregating and being with each other and supporting each other.”

University of Puerto Rico at Cayey Prof. Lydia “Puchi” Platón, a curator and artist participating in the initiative, said the program not only provides economic and intellectual support, but also emotional support.

She added that the initiative is important because it helps the artists focus on sustaining their practices rather than working on projects that only center around the present.

“Because of the conditions in Puerto Rico, usually we produce for the moment,” Platon said. “There’s less time for reflection.”

The Puerto Rican Arts Initiative, she said, has helped performance artists document their work and allow them the time and resources to create an archive and observe how their work has changed over time.

Pó Rodil, a transdisciplinary performance and visual artist who has been involved with the initiative since 2018, said in addition to community and funding, the program has given them access to a physical work area. 

“Having the space to actually work with my creative projects is something that’s a huge privilege, especially in the context of Puerto Rico, (where) being an artist is not completely accessible,” Rodil said. “(Resources from the initiative) have allowed me to focus more on the things that I really want to do and work with, and not have it as a secondary thing.”

Both Platon and Rodil also emphasized the diversity of the initiative — the project involves artists from a wide spectrum of disciplines and generations, they said.

Moving forward, Platon said she hopes the initiative will expand to include the entire Carribean as well as more of the Midwest.

Rivera-Servera and Prof. E. Patrick Johnson, who was named the new School of Communication dean following Rivera-Servera’s departure, both said they are excited about the initiative becoming a joint initiative between NU and UT.

In a June release, Johnson said he believes the existing collaboration between NU and UT will make for a smooth transition.

“With Ramón becoming dean (of UT), there’s a natural synergy there that will make that collaborative spirit even more formal with the College of Fine Arts and our school,” Johnson said in the release.

Rivera-Servera said he hopes the initiative will be able to secure funding to continue expanding and serve as an example for how institutions across the country can collaborate to create positive change.

“Part of the strategy here is for us to demonstrate the important and valuable work that these artists are advancing as a way of being able to continue renewing support for this critical community of makers,” Rivera-Servera said. “And at the same time, (demonstrate) different ways for institutions to be more collaborative than competitive around how they work with the arts.”

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