The Bronx Museum has come a long way since its founding forty years ago. The institution came out of the museum protest movement of the late 60s, which brought a greater awareness to a lack of diversity in cultural institutions, and a demand for the museum to serve as a community center. In 1971, it opened in the rotunda of the Bronx County Building, with a show of Impressionist artwork loaned from the Met, alongside Bronx artists. It took another eleven years to move to its current building at on the Grand Concourse, and four more to start a collection.
Recently, the museum has joined the realm of major New York institutions, thanks, in part, to director Holly Block. We’ve seen the first Biennial for the AIM (Artists in the Marketplace) Program; the museum dropped its suggested $5 admission fee in March; it’s “adopting” 43 schools, assuring free field trips; it’s on the way to raising $1 million for new acquisitions; and it will now take the international stage as the commissioner of the U.S. Venice Pavillion in 2013.
I had some skepticism about the latest move, as they’ve chosen Sarah Sze, an artist who is from Boston, and not the Bronx. So I called Holly up to talk about it. She assured me that while that while the museum may be on the rise, it keeps its mission in sight with “eyes and ears” in the community, education programs, and efforts to remain as accessible as possible. “We’re not going anywhere,” she told me.
And like any genuinely community-minded organization, they need money. You’re invited to give them some at tonight’s 40th Anniversary Party, where there will be film screenings, music including Afro Latin Jazz and Ghanaian Rhythmic drumming, and, most importantly, an auction.
WK: You’ve been involved with the museum in some capacity since 1985. Would you say it was a different museum back then?
HB: Definitely. The Bronx was a different borough back then, too. [Laughs] We were in one building on the corner, [with only two galleries]. I don’t think at that time there were twelve co-ops along the concourse. I know the neighborhood was quite different. So a lot of changes.
And also our program is much more varied now, especially with education, artist residencies, and the types of shows we’re doing. Certainly, we’ve been following the mission all along, but there would have been probably less focus on urban ideas and images and more focus on ethnicity. That’s kind of a broader way of looking at our museum.
So there was a huge learning curve with the museum, especially when we moved from the courthouse to this building in 1982 and then started collecting in 1986.
WK: And you experienced all of that firsthand…
HB: Yeah. I worked here from 1985, when I was a curator of a program we ran called Satellite Galleries: a number of galleries throughout the Bronx to build awareness about contemporary arts. We also had Bronx Artist Works to build awareness about what we call the “hub” here. That satellite gallery program has been pretty much eliminated, but we’re very much focused on what we have to offer here, through the community council that we’ve recently created. They’re serving as our eyes and ears throughout the borough and sending information about the museum out within the borough. So it’s been replaced by community council members.
WK: What brought you up to the Bronx in the first place? What was your initial interest in the museum?
HB: Originally? I had worked in Latin America already, I had moved to New York, and I was looking for a curatorial job. My father was from the Bronx, so I was pretty familiar with the area. I grew up as a kid spending New Year’s Eve with my aunts in the Bronx.
I was also very committed to working with the team that was in the museum. I was working with Laura Hoptman, who’s now at the Museum of Modern Art. Philip Verre was the chief curator, and he’s now the deputy director of the High Museum. So we had quite a few professional people who’ve moved on and done great things. Timothy Rubb, the director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, did an exhibition here. So there are quite a few people who have moved on and done amazing things after having worked at the Bronx Museum.
WK: What were some of the initial challenges you faced when you came on as director in 2006?
HB: Well, we opened a brand-new building with no resources! [Laughs] We had to expand the staff in order to manage this plant. It didn’t have any cash reserves, it didn’t have a solid funding sources. Government did support, but we really needed to diversify the funding as much as possible. A heavy portion was in government funding and a small portion from foundations.
Now, it’s completely changed. While government funding is still strong, there’s less, and foundations are much higher. Individuals and earned income are higher because we’ve been able to do space rental on other things that have helped. [When I came], the museum had no history with benefits, regular fundraising that actually made money, so that’s something we’ve done quite successfully.
I always say we’re in a life cycle, we’re in early stages of development, and we’re growing. We aren’t going anywhere, we really are an anchor here, and I think the biggest thing is for us to expand our visitorship and work very closely with our community council…having committed people behind the museum.
WK: Will Bronx history continue being such an important focus?
HB: It will continue. Some aspect of life in the Bronx is really important here. We’re still the only visual arts museum in the borough, that’s always going to be an underlying theme. We’re not going to be everything for everyone, but we certainly are very interested in the themes we’ve developed.
We did this huge 100th year anniversary project of the Grand Concourse and really spent a lot of time building an awareness of it—so much so that certain aspects of the concourse were landmarked.
WK: And why is preserving Bronx history so important?
HB: The Bronx has had a long history here in New York City. We’re the largest farmlands, we’re part of the mainland, in the early days, we fed Manhattan; all of the farmlands grew vegetables, everything was shipped from the borough down. We were one of the first neighborhoods in New York City to be integrated.
WK: Would you say that’s one of the particular challenges of the Bronx Museum, more than, say, mid-Manhattan museums?
HB: Sure. We have a recent immigrant population that has no history with going to museums, so that’s a learning curve right there. The museum has always been devoted to education, and we still enhance that engagement as an important commitment to the museum’s programs.
WK: You were recently quoted as saying it’s important for the museum to start looking outward. Why do you think it’s important for the Bronx as a community to be seen?
HB: The Bronx is very big, diverse, it’s very easy to go north and south, it’s not so easy to go east and west. So many neighborhoods are very isolated, and even pockets that haven’t changed. Transportation is a major factor here. So the idea is to really think more broadly about ways to circulate our ideas beyond the museum walls.
WK: Obviously the museum has activist roots, and it recently dropped its $5 admission fee. I was wondering if you still feel a strong activist commitment.
HB: Yes, we feel strongly, the way we’re celebrating the 40th anniversary. We have a number of initiatives. The idea of free admission is something we want to keep permanent, and we have to raise the money to cover the expenses related to it. It’s not just about free admission. We’re trying to do a marketing campaign for people who don’t normally come to the museum to get them more involved, and that’s a big interest.
WK: What are some of the wider reaches of the museum within the community that people might not see from the website?
HB: Our commitment to education, but also, our bilingual labels in the galleries. Half of the borough are Spanish-speakers, so we feel very strongly that we’re more participatory with the kind of work that we show, and we try to do work in-depth and have more explanations about the work.
WK: How did you go about addressing that at first?
HB: It’s a very, very new way of working, which is to merge education and curatorial together. To think very intensely about the approach to curatorial and how education can work hand-in-hand. One person heads education and curatorial, and both groups meet regularly to discuss the kind of work that we should be showing in the museum. So these two departments that worked in opposite poles were joined together and worked in consideration of both; each program was considered when thinking of future programs. That was a major shift in museum culture because of the change, and making a commitment to the Community Council.
WK: And for those who don’t know, how does the Council work?
HB: They meet monthly, and they help with some of the selection of public programs.
It’s not elected. It’s selected, but it’s a meeting that happens here once a month. They use the space, they learn about the programs, and they serve as ambassadors to the museum. They’re very active in building new audiences for the museum.
WK: Anything you’re particularly excited about for the celebration?
HB: Having music in the building. I love having art and music together.