Different strokes for different folks

art in The Bronx

Las hermanas Mirabal mural by Sharon De La Cruz
There is no art market in the Bronx. Things are community based, not market based in the Bronx. — Blanka Amezkua, artist [1]

The Bronx has a rich, diverse, and productive artistic community, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a commercial gallery in the borough. Community groups, including artists and arts organizations, who rebuilt the Bronx from the inside out have played a critical role in shaping the renaissance that has taken place there over the last 40 years. These arts initiatives support and build solidarity, bringing people together not to sell objects but to lift up the voices and experiences of people of color and confront injustices perpetuated by a city and a private sector that had constantly looked the other way. So what validates art, anyway? The market? Its effect on individuals or communities? Its role as a pedagogical instrument? The Bronx art ecosystem of independent artists, DIY spaces, and non-profit institutions offers a viable alternative to the profit-driven art world just a few miles away.

Bronx Council on the Arts (home of En Foco)

The Bronx has many “centers,” or many peripheries, depending on where you stand. With this geographic diversity comes a variety of artist communities operating independently, out of places ranging from personal apartments to alternative and non-profit art spaces. Dominican artist Arismendy Feliz, founding member of the artist-run space X-Collective said: “It’s almost as if the house party culture has met the art scene here in the Bronx and people are having these functions at their houses and you are seeing this cross section, what was once [a] disjointed [art community], and it still is, but now you start seeing more solidarity. ” [2] Mr. Feliz founded X-Collective in 2011 in a basement apartment. [3] The collective puts on a handful of shows per year that feature social and cultural issues affecting the Bronx and communities like it.

Gustiamo’s The Bronx Graffiti Gallery

The do-it-yourself way of working has deep roots in the Bronx but the role of not-for-profit organizations in supporting artists can’t go unacknowledged. For the self-proclaimed Mural Kings Tats Cru, one Bronx-based nonprofit was key in their transformation. “If it weren’t for a nonprofit organization existing [the Point Community Development Corporation] we probably wouldn’t be here,” said Puerto Rican Wilfredo “BIO” Feliciano [4], one of the founding members of the collective. It was a slow transformation from supporting their illegal graffiti projects on subway cars in the early 1980s to becoming a thriving mural business with international recognition. Not far from Tats Cru’s headquarters is Casita Maria Center for Arts and Education. They have successfully gone beyond the walls of their gallery space and brought art experiences to unexpected places, from performances at a boxing gym to film screenings projected onto former concert hall facades. The vision of Casita’s Director of Performing and Visual Arts Christine Licata, is to continue to support artistic experimentation and encourage artists to try new ways to present work, with recent exhibitions from Latina artists such as Alicia Grullón with her environmental justice work, and Glendalys Medina, who investigates the role of women within hip hop culture. From community centers to non-profit art galleries, and to the streets, neighborhood institutions have helped Bronx artists thrive within and beyond the borough’s boundaries.

Top: Tats Cru gate. Bottom: Evelina Lopez Antonetty mural by Tats Cru

In 1996, New York Times art critic Holland Cotter reviewed an exhibition at the Bronx Museum of the Arts entitled Bronx Spaces. The exhibit featured four Bronx nonprofit arts institutions, Lehman College Art Gallery, [5] the Bronx River Art Center, [6] En Foco, [7] and Longwood Art Gallery. [8] Each organization presented a range of projects showcasing the work of Bronx-based artists. Mr. Cotter begins the review asking, “‘Alternative to what?’ one might ask, and the answer is fairly simple: To the predominantly white, academically inclined gallery system that was firmly entrenched in Manhattan in the 1970’s and 80’s when these galleries first opened their doors.” [9]The do-it-yourself and nonprofit models of support for art and artists offer support and space to artists who are not widely represented in the mainstream art worlds in Brooklyn and Manhattan. [10] The diverse spectrum of artists working in the Bronx, where there is a significant Latino population as well as African American, Middle Eastern and West African among others, makes a significant contribution to the overall diversity of the racial, social, and economic landscape of New York’s art worlds and the city at large. Although often unacknowledged beyond their borough, that diversity is both celebrated and supported by Bronxites.

The vibrancy of the Bronx art scene is not measured in artworks sold, or studios rented. It is demonstrated in the range of the cultural production taking place, and the relationships between artists, communities and local institutions unmediated by the art market. The Bronx art scene cannot be validated by anyone outside its boundaries. Its greatest impact and its greatest strength lies within.


This essay was published on Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Cite, Site, Sights series and is a re-edited version of the essay published originally for the exhibition Bronx Calling: The Third AIM Biennial at the Bronx Museum of the Arts.


References:

[1] Artist Blanka Amezkua, in an e-mail message to the author, December 5, 2014.

[2] Arismendy Feliz, in an interview with the author, November 13, 2014.

[3] Winnie Hu, “Illustrating the Importance of Words, Letter by Letter,” New York Times City Room (blog), February 12, 2013.

[4] BIO, in an interview with the author, November 6, 2014.

[5] Lehman College Art Gallery’s mission states that they “strive to make significant opportunities available to emerging artists to advance their work and their level of recognition. At the same time the Gallery makes contemporary art accessible to our Bronx audience as well as the greater New York City area.”

[6] The Bronx River Art Center is “a culturally diverse, multi-arts, non-profit organization that provides a forum for community, artists, and youth to transform creativity into vision. Our Education, Exhibitions, Artist Studios, and Presenting Programs cultivate leadership in an urban environment and stewardship of our natural resource — the Bronx River.”

[7] En Foco is “a non-profit that supports contemporary photographers of diverse cultures, primarily Latino, African and Asian heritage, and Native Peoples of the Americas and the Pacific.”

[8] The Longwood Art Gallery is part of the Bronx Council on the Arts, which is “a pioneering advocate for cultural equity, nurturing the development of a diverse array of artists and arts organizations … [and] builds strong cultural connections in and beyond The Bronx.”

[9] Holland Cotter, “Art Review: As an Alternative, but an Alternative to What?” New York Times, April 19, 1996.

[10] “What is a work of art in the age of $120,000 art degrees?,” BFAMFAPHD.com.