Google is creating a digital archive of Puerto Rican art saved from Hurricane Maria

Art Camera arrives in San Juan.
Art Camera arrives in San Juan.
Image: Google /Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña
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It’s a small miracle that no major work of art was destroyed when Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico two years ago. Though several museums suffered structural damage, vigilant curators were able to move collections swiftly to climate-controlled warehouses. Many museums have since reopened, but some institutions remain without adequate gallery space.

Now Google wants to help bring broader access to Puerto Rican art. Through its Arts & Culture platform, Google is bringing its ultra-high-definition Art Camera to Puerto Rico to create a digital archive of some 40,000 works of historical and cultural value. Curators say access to the robotic, gigapixel camera has unearthed previously overlooked details in their collections.

For instance, in José Campeche y Jordán’s miniature oil paining “El Gobernador Don Miguel Antonio de Ustariz,” scholars were able to see details of the lively background scene for the first time. Curators were particularly piqued to see women in balconies depicted ogling cobblestone workers in the street below. In “Visión de San Felipe Benicio,” curators were able to see the signature of artist Consuelo Peralta de Riego Pica, giving them better insight into the pioneering female artist.

Oil painting; El Gobernador Don Miguel Antonio de Ustáriz by José Campeche
El Gobernador Don Miguel Antonio de Ustáriz by José Campeche
Image: Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña
Extreme closeup of El Gobernador Don Miguel Antonio de Ustáriz by Campeche y Jordán, José - ICP
Extreme zoom
Image: Google Arts & Culture

Broadway star Lin-Manuel Miranda, the country’s most visible cultural ambassador, is working with Google on the initiative. The 39-year old actor whose parents were born in Puerto Rico, has been actively raising funds for the country’s rebuilding efforts. Earlier this year, he reprised his role as Alexander Hamilton in a 17-day run of his Tony award-winning musical Hamilton in Puerto Rico and raised $15 million for the country’s arts programs.

photo Lin-Miranda Manuel is among the speakers at the launch of Google Art & Culture launch in San Juan
Actor Lin-Miranda Manuel is among the speakers at the launch of Google Art & Culture launch in Puerto Rico’s capital city.
Image: Courtesy of Google

Though the high resolution images on Google’s platform offer incredible close-up views of each artwork, Miranda said he hopes that art lovers will be inspired to experience them in person. “We hope that the world will get a glimpse of the art treasures of Puerto Rico and—then come visit them,” he said during the Nov. 7 launch event in the country’s capital.

Oil Painting: Cántico a Santiago de las Mujeres by Osiris Delgado Mercado - ICP
Cántico a Santiago de las Mujeres by Osiris Delgado Mercado
Image: Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña

There are currently new 350 works on the site, featuring pieces from the Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña, Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Puerto Rico, Museo de Arte de Ponce, and Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico. The initial batch of images also includes several works by Western artists in Museum de Arte Ponce’s collection. Among them is British painter Frederic Leighton’s magnum opus Flaming June which was purchased for the museum in 1963 by former governor Luis A. Ferré.

Flaming June by Lord Frederic Leighton - MAP
“Flaming June” by Lord Frederic Leighton
Image: Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico

An introduction to Puerto Rican art

Art scholars say it’s about time Puerto Rican artists get the spotlight.”The Google Arts & Culture platform offers a strong and necessary starting point for the discovery and appreciation of Puerto Rican art, which is often overlooked,” says Patrick Charpenel, executive director of New York’s El Museo del Barrio, one of several museums in the US with a significant collection of Caribbean art. “The passing of Hurricane Maria left a devastating impact on the cultural sector of Puerto Rico, and the digitization of collection works from the island’s leading cultural institutions serves as a reminder of the vibrancy of the art created by artists of Puerto Rican descent.”

The Silence of Eros IV by Zilia Sánchez - MACPR
The Silence of Eros IV” by Zilia Sánchez
Image: MACPR

The works currently in Google Art & Culture offers a good introduction to Puerto Rican art, but missing several important artists says Carmen Ramos, deputy chief curator and curator of Latino Art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. ”I like that they cover artists from the Spanish colonial period and works by contemporary artists like Daniel Lind Ramos. This is a good start.” she tells Quartz.

Ramos notes though that the country’s rich graphic tradition isn’t represented in the platform. “It’s surprising that major graphic artists like Lorenzo Homar or Antonio Martorell are not featured here.” To truly understand Puerto Rico’s artistic legacy, she cautions not to overlook artists working abroad. “[A] glaring omission is artists from the Puerto Rican diaspora,” says Ramos. There are more Puerto Ricans living in the continental US than in the archipelago. Major artists like Raphael Montañez Ortiz and Rafael Ferrer have been working in the US since the 1950s, and others followed to the present day.”