50 Years of Art in the Bronx

This article is part of our latest special section on Museums, which focuses on new artists, new audiences and new ways of thinking about exhibitions.


On a gray morning in March, Klaudio Rodriguez was pacing excitedly through the near-empty galleries of the Bronx Museum of the Arts, which sits amid the southern reaches of the borough’s famed Grand Concourse. The museum’s executive director since late 2020, Mr. Rodriguez was laying out his vision for a Bronx Museum operating at its maximum commercial and cultural potential.

The timing could not be more significant. This year is the museum’s 50th anniversary. And like so many museums around the country, it is emerging from the effects of a global pandemic that hit smaller museums especially hard.

As he zigzagged through a warren of galleries, workrooms and studio spaces, Mr. Rodriguez spoke of plans for a new restaurant run by Bronx-based chefs, a boutique selling Bronx-made products and enhanced public areas for the Bronx community to gather. Most ambitious, Mr. Rodriguez giddyly explained, are plans for an expanded South Wing that he hopes — when completed in 2025 — will firmly herald the museum’s presence as the borough’s leading cultural institution.

“Our programming speaks to all New Yorkers, but at our core we’ve always been for the Bronx, about the Bronx and by 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’ kinds of people,” he said.

Mr. Rodriguez arrived in the Bronx after a decade at the Frost Art Museum at Florida International University in Miami and has been on the front lines of planning for the Bronx museum’s future while stabilizing its present.

While no staff members lost their jobs during the pandemic, the museum — which has been free to all since 2012 — closed for six months, severing a vital cultural lifeline for a borough often overlooked by the city’s larger arts establishment. With its strong focus on social justice and extensive programming 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 truly transformative place.”

While planning for the expansion is underway, the museum is focused on its newest exhibition, “Jamel Shabazz: Eyes on the Street,” a career-spanning celebration of this seminal African American photographer curated and executed by Antonio Sergio Bessa, the museum’s Brazilian- born curator emeritus.

The exhibition “wholly aligns with the museum on the deepest levels,” Mr. Bessa said in a telephone interview. “The ways Shabazz’s work addresses urban culture directly speaks to how local communities contribute to city life and safety — it conveys a sense of community and camaraderie that is very New York.”

Running through Sept. 4, “Eyes on the Street” is particularly focused on New York City’s children, with images of youthful street scenes from neighborhoods including Harlem, the Lower East Side, Brownsville and, of course, the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. “There is unique structure and diversity in the Bronx that is so different from East Flatbush,” said Mr. Shabazz, who was born in Brooklyn and lives on Long Island.

The 110 images are almost entirely from Mr. Shabazz’s extensive archive, except for a few more recent photographs, including a portrait of a young man in Red Hook stridently clad in — what else — full pandemic-era face protection gear (along with a vibrant yellow fan). The image’s directness is emblematic of Mr. Shabazz’s distinct pictorial style. “I walk everywhere with my camera out and ready,” he said. “I feel very much compelled to visually record my life.”

This commitment to urban kindness anchors the museum’s far larger transformational effort: the South Wing update, which is to break ground in the spring of 2023 and will replace its outdated predecessor. Supported by a $21 million capital campaign, the new addition has been designed by the Manhattan- and San Juan, PR-based Marvel Architects — whose proposal beat out 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 room for Mr. Rodriguez’s hoped-for restaurant and boutique — but better integrate its larger and somewhat, disjointed footprint.

“So many people know about the museum and recognize our work, but we still need to increase visibility,” said the museum’s deputy director, Shirley Solomon. “Perhaps it’s time we were a bit more boastful,” she added. “The new wing will go a long way toward boosting our physical visibility.”

Established in 1971 by the Bronx Council of the Arts and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the museum was first located in the rotunda of the Bronx County Courthouse before moving to its permanent site in the former Grand Concourse Synagogue in 1982. Two major expansions followed — the first in 1998 created a much-needed central triplex atrium/lobby — followed in 2006 by the three-story North Wing, designed by Miami-based firm Arquitectonica.

While certainly eye-catching, Arquitectonica’s effort, Mr. Rodriguez observed, always felt awkward and imperfect — particularly its “accordionlike” facade.

Composed of a series of seven vertical slats connected by fritted glass, the facade both natural light flow while lacking the sense of grandeur typically associated with major metropolitan cultural institutions. Most crucially, Mr. Rodriguez explained, the revision cut the museum off from its core urban surroundings.

“Salsa, hip-hop, graffiti are all key parts of the street life of the Bronx,” he said; the South Wing expansion will reduce the boundaries between the museum and the human vitality just beyond its walls.

The current design firm, Marvel, is led by its Puerto Rican founding principal, Jonathan Marvel, and is both deeply familiar with communities of color and has an extensive portfolio of Bronx-based commissions, including the upcoming renovation of the Orchard Beach Pavilion and a Comprehensive master plan for Mill Pond Park, a short walk from the museum.

Marvel also helped lead the Studio Museum of Harlem’s last major overhaul in 2006 and designed the new red brick home of the performing arts institution St. Ann’s Warehouse in the Dumbo area of ​​Brooklyn. It’s also one of the largest employers of architects and designers of color in New York City. The diversity of both Marvel’s staff and project history easily align with the Bronx Museum’s larger mission.

“We also recognize the real historic 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 to those communities by creating a sense of transparency, openness and by bringing the sidewalk into the galleries — and the galleries out into the sidewalk.”

To achieve this, Marvel will relocate the museum’s entrance to a far more visible — and accessible — corner of the Grand Concourse at 165th Street.

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

The wing’s launch coincides with a pair of additional Bronx-based major cultural openings, the Bronx Children’s Museum and the Universal Hip-Hop Museum. Like the Bronx Museum, both newcomers are emblematic of the Bronx itself — dynamic and ever-evolving, nodding to the future while saluting its past.

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

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