50 Years of Art in the Bronx

This article is part of our latest special section on museums, dedicated to new artists, new audiences and new perspectives on exhibitions.

On a gray March morning, Claudio Rodriguez paced excitedly through the nearly empty galleries. Bronx Museum of Art, which is located among the southern limits of the area’s famous Great Hall. The Museum’s Executive Director since late 2020, Mr. Rodriguez, has outlined his vision for the Bronx Museum to operate with maximum commercial and cultural potential.

Time couldn’t be more important. The museum turns 50 this year. And, like many museums across the country, it is experiencing the effects of a global pandemic that has hit smaller museums especially hard.

Zigzag through a maze of galleries, workshops and studio spaces, Mr. Rodriguez outlined plans for a new restaurant run by Bronx chefs, a boutique selling Bronx-made products, and expanded public spaces to bring together the Bronx community. Most ambitious, Mr. Rodriguez casually explained, are plans for the expansion of the South Wing, which he hopes – when completed in 2025 – will firmly herald the museum’s presence as the area’s premier cultural institution.

“Our program is for all New Yorkers, but fundamentally we are always behind Bronx, about Bronx and on The Bronx,” said Mr. Rodriguez, who was born in Nicaragua and raised in Miami. “We want to break the myth that museums are only for ‘certain’ people,” he said.

Mr. Rodriguez arrived in the Bronx after ten years in Frost Art Museum at Florida International University in Miami and was at the forefront of planning for the future of the Bronx Museum, stabilizing its present.

While no staff has lost their jobs during the pandemic, the museum, which has been free to everyone since 2012, closed for six months, cutting off vital cultural life for an area often overlooked by the city’s larger arts institutions. With its strong focus on social justice and extensive programs for students and families, “the museum immediately feels like it belongs to everyone who walks through its doors,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “We see it as a place that is truly transformative.”

While the expansion is being planned, the museum is focused on its newest exhibition.”Jamel Shabaz: Eyes on the street”, dedicated to the career of this original African-American photographer, curated and performed by Antonio Sergio Bessa, curator emeritus of the museum of Brazilian origin.

The exhibition is “totally true to the museum at its deepest levels,” Mr. Bessa said in a telephone interview. “The way Shabazz’s work speaks to urban culture speaks directly to how local communities contribute to city life and safety – it conveys a sense of community and camaraderie that is very characteristic of New York City.”

Eyes on the Street, which takes place on September 4, is especially focused on New York kids, with images of youthful street scenes from neighborhoods like Harlem, the Lower East Side, Brownsville and, of course, the Bronx Grand Concourse. “The Bronx has a unique structure and diversity that is so different from East Flatbush,” said Mr. Shabazz, who was born in Brooklyn and lives on Long Island.

The 110 images are drawn almost entirely from Mr. Shabazz’s extensive archive, with the exception of a few more recent photos, including a portrait of a young man in Red Hook gaudily dressed in – what else – full pandemic-era face protection gear (along with bright yellow fan). The directness of the image symbolizes the special pictorial style of Mr. Shabaz. “I go everywhere with my camera ready,” he said. “I feel very compelled to record my life visually.”

This commitment to urban kinship is at the heart of the museum’s much larger transformation: the renovation of the South Wing due to begin in the spring of 2023 and replace its outdated predecessor. Backed by a $21 million capital campaign, the new addition was developed by Manhattan and San Juan public relations-based PR. Marvel Architects — whose bid outperformed more than 50 other submissions to the New York City Economic Development Corporation, which will oversee the expansion.

When completed, the museum’s new wing will not only add much-needed new gallery space as well as space for Mr. Rodriguez’s highly anticipated restaurant and boutique, but will better integrate its larger and somewhat disjointed plaza.

“So many people know about the museum and recognize our work, but we still need to build awareness,” said museum deputy director Shirley Solomon. “Maybe it’s time for us to be a little more boastful,” she added. “The new wing will greatly improve our physical visibility.”

Founded in 1971 by the Bronx Arts Council and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the museum was first located in the rotunda of the Bronx County Courthouse before moving to a permanent location in the former Great Hall Synagogue in 1982. Two major expansions followed, the first in 1998 creating a much needed central three-story atrium/entrance hall, followed in 2006 by a three-story north wing designed by the Miami-based firm. Architectonics.

While Arquitectonica’s efforts certainly drew attention, Mr. Rodriguez observed that they always seemed clumsy and imperfect, especially their “accordion-like” façade.

Consisting of seven vertical slats connected by fritted glass, the façade blocks out natural light while lacking the sense of grandeur usually associated with major metropolitan cultural institutions. Most importantly, Mr. Rodriguez explained, the renovation cut the museum off from its main urban neighborhoods.

“Salsa, hip-hop, graffiti are all key elements of Bronx street life,” he said. the expansion of the South Wing will reduce the boundaries between the museum and the human life force behind its walls.

The current Marvel design firm, led by its Puerto Rican founder Jonathan Marvel, is intimately familiar with communities of color and has an extensive portfolio of commissions in the Bronx, including the upcoming Orchard Beach Pavilion redevelopment and a comprehensive master plan for Mill Pond Park, within walking distance of the museum .

Marvel also helped with the last major renovation of the Harlem Studio Museum in 2006 and designed a new red brick home for the St. Ann’s Warehouse in Dumbo, Brooklyn. It is also one of the largest employers of architects and color designers in New York. The diversity of Marvel’s staff and the history of the project fit seamlessly into the larger mission of the Bronx Museum.

“We also recognize the real historical need for the Bronx Museum to be directly connected to the communities it serves,” Mr. Marvel said. “Our responsibility as architects is to reconnect the museum with these communities by creating a sense of transparency, openness and bringing the sidewalk to the galleries and the galleries to the sidewalk.”

To do this, Marvel will move the entrance to the museum to a much more visible and accessible corner of the Great Hall on 165th Street.

Along with providing a new space for public art, Marvel’s addition will directly reference the museum’s previous expansions, which it says will play with each other “like a palimpsest of history.” Key materials are still being finalized, but Mr. Marvel says he hopes to build “mostly from structured and engineered wood.”

The launch of the wing coincides with two additional major cultural events in the Bronx. Bronx Children’s Museum and Universal Museum of Hip Hop. Like the Bronx Museum, both newcomers symbolize the Bronx itself – dynamic and ever-evolving, nodding to the future and welcoming its past.

“The Bronx Museum sits at the intersection of culture and education, job creation and youth summer programs,” said Vanessa Gibson, President of the Bronx Borough. “They understand that culture can solve social problems and recognize that art can be a catalyst for change.”