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An Interview With Rafael Damast of Taller Puertorriqueno

Updated: Oct 27, 2021

Taller Puertorriqueno is a Philadelphia non-profit build around community outreach through the arts. They have art programs that teach kids about art, help find their practice in art if they wish to pursue it, and teach ways to engage in the community through art. Taller Puertorriqueno translates to Puerto Rican Workshop, but their scope, while focused initially in the Puerto Rican community, reaches far beyond that now. As well as teaching art, they also have a beautiful gallery which they use to show off artists that engage the Latinx community whether they be emerging, overlooked, or just powerful in their message.

We found out about Taller and their wonderful programs when we met Rafael Damast, exhibitions program manager and head curator and Taller, while giving our talk at the University of Delaware. I’ve always been an advocate of using the arts as outreach and activism, it’s really a fascinating idea, so when I heard Rafael’s talk I knew I had to hear more. So, we were fortunate enough to get to sit down with Rafael and talk about his journey as an artist and curator, how he landed at Taller, and what Taller means to him and to the community. We also got to tour the gallery, teaching areas, and offices of their lavish new facility, a project finished in 2016, and my oh my was it fancy.

Taller is really doing great things both in the arts and in the community and Rafael has done a wonderful job bringing in a variety of artists and curators to engage the audience. I strongly encourage an Philadelphia area artists and patrons to look into the Taller space and what they’re doing, it’s definitely worth a visit. Rafael was an excellent interview, we had a great talk about all the different facets of the organization and we hope you enjoy!

1. We’d like to start off hearing some background about yourself and how you landed at Taller.

Well, I was born in Venezuela, I came to New York city when I was 5 years old and that’s where I grew up. I came from an artist family but in college I did painting and psychology, and my family is pretty connected with all the artists (in New York). So, art has always been a part of my life, my father, step-father, mother, uncles, aunts were all artists and conversations about art have always been a part of my personal context.

How this happened was, I had some experience working with museums, I had an internship at MoMA when I was a part of MOCHA (Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art) as a curatorial assistant in the 90’s. But I sort of got out of it, and I was thinking about going into art therapy, go get a masters in that, but then I ended up working in film. Then there were some things that happened in New York, and I just felt like I needed to get out of New York City and just restart my life. That’s when I restarted my life in Philadelphia and I started working with some artists I had connections with (in Philadelphia). I did a job for Betsy Casanas at one of her shows, and for that exhibition I did a lot of the video work, I helped with some of the writing and some acknowledgement work. Then I was told by Betsy about this position and I applied for it. But Taller was in a difficult situation then, and this was kind of new for me. There was a learning curve, I had to learn about Puerto Rican culture and thinking about Latinx because even though I have a Venezuelan background, thinking about a culture and thinking about the art and thinking about being American, it was all something new. So even though it’s been an introduction to me, since I started here in the beginning of 2011 it’s been a very interesting learning curve.

It was a very unorthodox way to start at Taller and I think now with this new space (which was a $12 million project, and it’s absolutely beautiful) Taller is starting a new footing. I came at an interesting time and I don’t think whoever has this job next will get it like me, but it’s very exciting and it’s been a wonderful dream helping shape the gallery program.

A look into Taller's Gift Shop

2. To Start off, give us your run through of what Taller is all about.

Taller Puertorriqueno is an arts institution that was founded in 1974. The name translates to Puerto Rican Workshop, that’s what Taller means, workshop. It was started by artists and activists based out of North Philadelphia, Rical and Domingo Negron were two of the principles. Domingo Negron was the first director of Taller. It started with the idea of art being a way of access to the community, or to improves one’s life, and eventually it morphed into an understanding that art was a wonderful way to explore one’s identity, one’s culture, and also to engage with others. From the practice of printmaking and operating a bookstore, which then became a gift shop, they were learning a trade and then operating a business but then it also morphed into the gallery, where we’ve been bringing a lot of artists, principally first but mainly Puerto Ricans. Then we also have art education, and now it’s an entire understanding and exploring of Latinx identity as well as Puerto Rican culture and also it’s kind of disentangling the different cultures within the Latin community and having conversations about the American experience.

Taller Puertorriqueno runs a gallery, which I’m in charge of it’s called the Lorenzo Homar Gallery, it also has an after school art program that concentrates on art to explore culture and identity for the Latino community, as well as any other communities. There’s one half that’s for 5 year olds to 14 year olds, and then there’s another half for 15 to 18 year olds which is called Y.A.P., Youth Artists Program, which is for kids who are more advanced and more interested in maybe going into the arts in some capacity or just want to further their skills. We also have an archive, we’ve been maintaining an archive since our founding in 1974, that archive has a lot of local information about what’s happening in our community and how Taller has been engaging with our community. It’s been a great resource to a lot of scholars and also people who are interested in learning about Philadelphia’s Latinx community. Then we also have a gift shop, which also presents a lot of wears created by local artists as well as bringing items from different parts of Central America and the Caribbean to this neighborhood. If you go to our website (linked in the first image) you can see that we’ve been renting space. Taller’s been developing more, especially in this new building which was founded in 2016, into like a hub to the community. A place with symposiums and different things collaborating with different organizations. It’s been a great gateway for people to meet and now it’s the largest Latinx organization in the Delaware Valley, we’re very excited.

Rafael Villamil, Paradise Has No Memory

3. Rafael Villamil’s show, Paradise Has No Memory, had a bit of an interesting backstory on how it came to be. Could you tell us how this show happened?

I have to start by saying that the artist likes to sign his work Chafo, so Rafael Chafo is his nickname. It’s not in the handout but after I was looking at his work, I started to notice that, that was one way he wanted to differentiate himself from his architecture, which he signs Villamil. But Rafael Villamil has been in the community since 1963, he’s an older artist, he was born in 1934 in Santurce, Puerto Rico which is a district of San Juan. He came here to work with Louis Kahn but he’s always been a painter and an artist. He’s been a self taught artist, working since he was a child, he worked with Rafael Ferrer, he had a major show with Ferrer, who was a pretty well known artist, in like 1961.

Even though he had a major show, a retrospective, in San Juan in 2005-06, since 1966 he’s never really had an exhibitions here. There were a lot of people who knew his work coming to Taller, he was coming into Taller as well, and saying we should take a look at him and so I started to take a look at him. But I also realized, as we were in the old building, we had a smaller gallery and his work is huge, it’s really huge and it just wouldn’t fit. He knew that too, but when this new building came along I thought that would be the perfect time to bring him. So I was very excited to bring his art and you get to know him a little bit and it just goes to show, he’s been an artist who’s been very persistent, he’s never really sold any of his work but he definitely had some means. He was incredibly tenacious and I think he deserves a critical review, and that’s what we were trying to do with this show and our (recent) talk. Thinking about his work with the age, because there’s some work in there from 1957, so maybe you’re thinking about a second generation abstractionist.

He had a show in Philadelphia in 1966, which was interesting, and that last show was with Andy Warhol. He doesn’t like Andy Warhol, he doesn’t like the pop artists, but still that’s an Andy Warhol and he got an Andy Warhol grant which funds 2 years of shows. Even though he doesn’t like him I think Andy Warhol is still With him in spirit.

I felt like as an architect he’s fascinating, he built his own incredible house which there’s images on our Flickr Page (linked in the second image), we did a huge tour and I thought with this person I should take a look at his work, and his work is powerful, he has a vision, he has a track record, he’s not been pursuing this as a Sunday painter, he’s working on a lot of levels, there’s a lot of writing involved and I’d suggest you take a look at it. It’s interesting, this is only one aspect of his work, he’s done different types of work and there’s a book in the gallery from the retrospective that shows the variety and different types of work he’s done. So we were excited about bringing him in, and I think that’s one of the great things about Taller is that we can do that and not just present him in a white box, I think white would have been to intense for (his work) and I think the gray kind of brought it down and that was in conversation with the artist. We tried to put in as much as we can and we’re also going to work that show to travel to Chicago, which is also exciting.

Rafael Villamil, Paradise Has No Memory

4. More specific to you, could you tell us about your curatorial process? And maybe some future goals, especially now that you have this new space which gives you more to work with.

My curatorial process is definitely trying to engage with the audience. Thinking about the Latinx experience in combination with the American experience. Being a part of that conversation, whatever you think American is. Whatever Latinx might be and thinking about how it all becomes formatted. But more importantly it’s just thinking about the contemporary artist and bringing them into the conversation.

I’m really excited that Taller’s gallery, being a non-profit, is an experimental space. All the exhibitions we have, especially in the new building, have been pushing the artist to be as creative as they can be and to do things outside of their comfort zone if they want to. So forth in trying to support the artworks, we also try to bring in different curators. So as a manager, I’m really trying to bring in different curators and different artists. As a curator, I would like to be able to support the artist and, like Villamil, bring attention to artists who might have been overlooked, bring them into greater conversation, then hopefully getting them more critical analysis. For younger artists, and I think this is the message of Taller, to bring them into a situation where they can actually realize their full potential and ambition. I don’t want to think about just having shows like retrospectives or just showing old work but I’m also trying to figure out how this space, which is uniquely positioned, can maybe further (the artists) vision.

Students working as a part of Taller's after-school art programs

5. How do you think the two big aspects of Taller, being the gallery and the community outreach/teaching programs, interact and coincide?

My view about art, especially now, is that everything is very fuzzy. There was a conversation at the Common Field, which was here a few weeks ago, about possibly removing the word and replacing it with the term cultural workers. But I always thought when you’re thinking about an artist, their conversation with themselves, with the public, and the exterior, you need an audience. You need a viewer. Then having that conversation where the work can register and then maybe move that conversation forward. It doesn’t really matter if you like the work, but if it has an impact then maybe you can make something out of it. The worst thing you can say to an artist is that it’s just “eh.”

We’re cultivating, this is a place of engagement. I think that’s the richness of having a lot of different things happening in this building. Most of the artists who come here, we try to give them grade A opportunities whether it’s an artist’s talk, an engagement with the youth artists program, and to the more advanced students and I’m sure it’s like something (you all) did in your own practice. Things like that can further that conversation. Being a contemporary artists you want to be seen and I think the public needs to be engaged.

When you start thinking about art loosely, and you become critical, you can become critical about everything and so it extends beyond the gallery wall.

The Naming Wall, a list of Taller's donors and partners in the lobby of their new building

6. So finally, Paradise Has No Memory is showing until June 8th, what’s next?

During the Summer time, June 24th will be an opening for the Youth Artists Program in the gallery, if you’re interested in the young artists, and that will be up for about a month. Our next major show will be an exhibition by Samuel Lind. Samuel Lind is also a self taught artist and he’s been doing a lot of sculptural work, that (show) is going to be curated by Jose Ortiz Pagan who is also a contemporary artist and a former curartor at Fleisher. This show is really going to be (Jose Ortiz Pagan)’s baby and I think that goes up August 30th and runs through November. Then after that it’s Henry Bermuda’s show, which I’ll be curating, and that goes up December 6th to February 29th. Henry is a local artist in Philadelphia.

A big thanks once again to Rafael Damast and everyone over at Taller, it was an absolute pleasure and we hope to get to work with them more in the future. For more on Taller, visit their website at to find more information on everything we talked about as well as all social media links. Unfortunately Paradise Has No Memory is in its final day of showing today (June 8th) but if you can hustle down their to see it, it’s quite a spectacle.


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