Just blocks apart on North Fifth Street, the two halves of Taller Puertorriqueño - home to Latino arts, culture, education, engagement, and organization in the Philadelphia area - have long been united in commitment. But now the halves are becoming a whole, in the new El Corazón Cultural Center at 2600 N. Fifth St., dedicated Wednesday and having its open house from 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday.
For decades, the Lorenzo Homar Gallery on the second floor at 2721 N. Fifth (a building it shares with the Julia de Burgos Gift Shop) has been the only Philly space dedicated exclusively to Latino artists. At 2557 N. Fifth is the Education Building, with classes for elementary, middle school, and teen students. The walk between them has long been known to locals as el bloque de oro - "the golden block."
"Thirty-six years in one space makes a house a home, and, of course, any move is bittersweet," says Carmen Febo-San Miguel, executive director and CEO of Taller Puertorriqueño Inc. "But I have to tell you, my office is on the third floor, so I won't miss going up and down those long steps as often as I do on a daily basis. For that reason alone, it is very appealing to have a new space."
El Corazón, a 24,000-plus-square-foot center that opened Wednesday after 12 years of planning, fund-raising, and building, finally brings Taller Puertorriqueño's work with Philly's Puerto Rican, Cuban, Spanish, Dominican, Mexican, and Afro Caribbean communities under one stunning roof. The open house on Saturday will welcome students, parents, and the public to see the fruits of this long labor.
"It was often difficult to cram everyone - the kids, their folks - in to look at what we were doing, and then when we did, too few people could actually see what we were hanging on display," says Rafael Damast, Taller's curator and exhibitions program manager. He laughs and says he'll miss that enforced closeness a little - "but not when I consider the breadth and width of the new rooms. It's kind of magnificent."
Grassroots Taller Puertorriqueño opened in 1974 in what Febo-San Miguel calls a storefront in North Philly's Clearfield neighborhood. By 1984, Taller had moved to 2721 N. Fifth St., with exhibition and theatrical space. In 1990, what would become the Education Building was bought. "But by the second half of the '90s," Febo-San Miguel says, "we felt stretched, that perhaps the intimacy of spaces was not conducive to building upon our best ideas." The two buildings worked beautifully, she says, but to see and appreciate art from a distance, "even to accommodate people with wheelchairs," the old Taller had reached its limits. "To produce attractive, educational, dynamic events comfortably, we had to do more. We really wanted this community to see and know what we were up to."
The usual mix of private and public money and a push from then-Gov. Ed Rendell helped realize El Corazón at what was once an abandoned lot at the corner of Fifth and Huntingdon. "On the day of the opening," Febo-San Miguel says, "I'm going to burn 20 candles for all the miracles that occurred in the name of El Corazón."
For around $10.5 million, the design firm Wallace Roberts & Todd created a bright, wide, window-lined, single-floor, state-of-the-art cultural center where all of Taller Puertorriqueño's enterprises will have room to bloom. There is art gallery space for new and permanent collections, theater space, classrooms, and offices. More than twice as many students can now be accommodated.
"We can better reach the community and express things more fully to broader audiences outside our immediate community," says Damast, for whom El Corazón is but a gateway to more, more, more. "Having the gallery space and the education center is more efficient. There's bigger art and more sculptural work we can finally do and provide more space and more outlooks for the exchange of active ideas."
Summoning an apt culinary metaphor, Febo-San Miguel says El Corazón is like "a fabulous concoction with many heady flavors coming together."