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September 20, 2016

Holly from the Block: A Q&A with Holly Block, executive director of the Bronx Museum of the Arts

Photo Credit: Bronx Museum of the Arts, Peter Serling

Holly Block

Holly Block, executive director of the
Bronx Museum of the Arts

The new Yankee Stadium may not have the history of the original, but for the team and thousands of fans, it’s still home. Situated a few blocks north of the stadium, The Bronx Museum of the Arts is similar: despite several moves and renovations over its 45 year history, it’s still the premier home of art in the borough. A scholar of Cuban art, executive director Holly Block has led the institution since 2006. She talked to City & State’s Jeff Coltin about board troubles, gentrification and going free.

C&S: The Bronx has a great artistic legacy – one example is the new Netflix miniseries “The Get Down.” What's the museum’s role in keeping that legacy alive?
HB:We’ve had a long history with hip-hop, that whole community, for a long time. We started a program called Bounce, we’ve hosted Afrika Bambaataa and the Zulu Nation for years. Kool Herc, all of them have been affiliated with the museum and different programs … [This year, the museum] hosted an exhibition with John Ahearn and Rigoberto Torres by borrowing the casts that they made from local community members who were all done in backyard street parties. They all got to see their own images at The Bronx Museum, so there’s been a long history with the museum. We’ve actually offered many times to host some of this memorabilia collection, but there’s just so many factions and, unfortunately, not a lot of support to offer to do a big exhibition, but we’re certainly interested.

C&S: The museum decided to stop charging for tickets and go free in 2012. What was behind that? Did your location in a low-income neighborhood influence that?
HB:I grew up in D.C. I went to the Smithsonian Institutes. They were all free. I know what free museums are like. I always felt the suggested donation—even though we were one of the cultural institutions of the city—the suggested donation was a barrier for people in our immediate community and I felt that this would be a fantastic gift for the 40th anniversary to give back to the community. It wasn’t just going free admission, because admission wasn’t a huge amount of money for us. It was really building a marketing campaign about how accessible the museum is and how important it is for visitorship. Even though their kids come to see the museum, parents can also benefit greatly and we’ve had a lot of wonderful testimony regarding free admission. People who have to pay admission have to think widely about how many times they can go to a cultural institution. With free admission, they can pop in at any time and look at a work or hang out in the café. They feel much more comfortable with visitorship, and for us, it’s been huge.

C&S: A thriving arts community often foretells gentrification, and the arts are only growing in Mott Haven and elsewhere in the Bronx. Is it possible for the museum to support the arts without encouraging luxury development?
HB:We’re all supportive of the Bronx economy doing well. That’s really important. What it means for us is trying to think broadly about how we can help artists and other members within the community without displacement. I have been a big proponent of some shared responsibilities and this brings us to think more widely, like what do artists in our community need? Space is a huge issue and we’ve been thinking a lot about that, but we’re not the only ones. All of the museums across the city – I mean if you work with contemporary artists, that is a focus. We have this emerging artists program and we hear from our artists every year how hard it is for them to access space. So it is something that we’re thinking about widely and we will have news about that soon.

C&S: You've begun an ambitious capital campaign to renovate your building on the Concourse. Can you tell us about those plans?
HB:We’re working with a wonderful architect named Monica Ponce de León who comes to us through a competition through the Department of Design and Construction in participation with the Department of Cultural Affairs. It’s fantastic, she’s been doing all these community meetings in the month of August – workshops with adults, kids, we just had a town meeting. She’s collecting data and information on all this from local residents and from our neighbors and users of the museum to talk more about the future corner should be designed.

We started with a renovation of a glass atrium that no longer functions because the fenestration is really bad. We have a climate control problem, and that’s not a heavily utilized space at all. The great thing is, we decided instead of just analyzing the corner, to really think broadly about how the two entrances can be incorporated. And we’ll actually add a new visitors’ service center and we’ll have a gateway gallery that will be a connector. There’s no connection between the two buildings. When they built the North Wing, they always thought that they were going to tear down the South Wing and build a new building. It’s the site of a former synagogue. The galleries were in the congregation and now we have an opportunity to create a better entrance and you’ll be entering through the corner, which is where the original entrance was.

C&S: How much of the museum will be closing?
HB:It will just be the corner, but you know, the jackhammering and all that stuff – we’ll have an exhibition in the North Wing, but the majority, three-quarters of our space will be closed while we’re under construction, so the idea is to create programs outside.

C&S: The Bronx Museum is participating in an exchange with a major arts museum in Havana, but there were reports the Cuban art would never make it here over worries that it would be seized. Do you have any updates on that?
HB:We’re still working very closely with the museum and hope that we will be able to do the exhibition. If there’s a problem, we will definitely be showing The Bronx Museum’s Cuban art collection and borrowing work from other spaces. When you’re the first to do things there’s always challenges!

C&S: That exchange was one of the factors leading to last month's resignation of four board members, including the chairwoman. Will their positions be filled? Do you fear a hit in fundraising?
HB:There were many reasons why they left. It was very clear they didn’t have a majority of the board’s support and they were coming up for re-election. And also, remember, the role of trustees is about policy, not necessarily programs. It’s more about mission and The Bronx Museum last year, we organized a huge exhibition that we worked on for five years about the Young Lords. That was a politically oriented show and no one really wanted to fund it. We often take on projects that are complicated. We have new officers coming in and potential trustees who have been really interested in The Bronx Museum and will continue working.

C&S: There's lots of great, public art in the Bronx. What's your favorite piece?
LK:Ah! We have a new beautiful mural around the corner by Lady K Fever who works with us and is an educator and did a big mural behind the museum and also on 165th Street on the steps that lead down. Terence Gower did a beautiful temporary pavilion at the Andrew Freedman Home two years ago. We’re actually working closely now with the Parks Department and Joyce Kilmer Park about the idea of doing some temporary projects in the park. We’re already using the park quite a bit – we do our film screenings during the summer, the summer youth program is working in the park – there’s a lot of activity. We often treat the park as our front yard.

C&S: Anything exciting coming up for The Bronx Museum?
HB:Yeah, quite a bit. We have several really important exhibitions, but this whole dance program is new for us, so we’re very excited about that. We have an artist-in-resident dancer and it’s called Co-Lab and it’s a new program that we’ve added. And as we close for construction, the big plan is to work outside the museum walls, so that’s where public art fits in perfectly.