Can a New Art Space Refresh a Tired Downtown?

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.


MONTICELLO, NY — Like its sister towns nestled nearby in the Catskill Mountains, signs are everywhere that the cultural and economic heydays of this seat of Sullivan County were deep in the past.

Amid the nods to contemporary life in the town center — barbershops, a sports bar, a pizza parlor and other casual eateries — storefronts in buildings from the 1800s sit empty and hotels from the borscht belt boom of the 1950s are still boarded up. Many of the buildings have been declared fire hazards.

But a new museum featuring 21st-century international artists could be a step toward rejuvenation when it opens May 21 on the town’s main street, Broadway.

“Museums are incredibly good anchors for main street revitalization,” said John Conway, 69, the county’s official historian, who compared the town’s Broadway to a smile that has lost its attractiveness. “There are gaps everywhere,” he said. “I don’t want to be too negative, but it really is a disaster area. It’s been bad for decades.” But, he added, “the potential is there for it to be great again.”

The new nonprofit art space is the latest project of the prolific Mexican-born, Brooklyn-based artist Bosco Sodi. The new art space is named Assembly. To create it out of what had once been a Buick dealership, Mr. Sodi worked with the Mexican architect Alberto Kalach to carve galleries out of the yellow-brick, hangar-style building.

Assembly’s inaugural exhibition is fittingly devoted to cultural, social and economic exchange, a longtime artistic preoccupation also evident in the artist’s new solo exhibition, “What Goes Around Comes Around,” on view as an official collateral exhibition of the Venice Biennale. (Mr. Sodi also has an ongoing exhibition of 30 sculptures at the Dallas Museum of Art through July 10.)

“I really believe in the exchange of information, ideas and knowledge among human beings,” Mr. Sodi said recently, as he gave a tour of the 23,000-square-foot space. “That’s what makes societies evolve.”

Mr. Sodi chose the name Assembly to emphasize his hope that it will be a gathering place and a forum for Monticello. Assembly will feature rotating yearlong exhibits and offer educational and community programming. He plans to add a restaurant as well. “In order to become a destination, you need a place to eat,” he said with a smile.

Mr. Sodi happened upon the place in fall 2020 as he was celebrating his 50th birthday in nearby Forestburgh, NY, where he and his wife, the designer Lucia Corredor, both of whom are based in the Red Hook area of ​​Brooklyn, have a country retreat with their three teenagers and a menagerie of dogs, goats and chickens.

Mr. Sodi’s preoccupation with “exchange” units his big projects this spring with his celebrated art center Casa Wabi on the Pacific Coast of the Mexican province Oaxaca. Founded in 2014, named after the Japanese concept of embracing the ephemeral and imperfect and designed by the Pritzker-Prize-winning architect Tadao Ando, ​​Casa Wabi functions as a foundation with on-site art studios, exhibition space and a residency program. Under Casa Wabi’s auspices, Mr. Sodi also operates an exhibition space called Santa María in Mexico City and an art residency program called Casa Nano in Tokyo.

Assembly’s inaugural exhibition has been organized by Dakin Hart, senior curator of the Noguchi Museum in Queens, who worked with Daniela Ferretti to curate Mr. Sodi’s exhibition in Venice at Palazzo Vendramin Grimani on the Grand Canal. The work on view in Venice is meant to explore the city’s unique history as a hub for global cultural and commercial exchanges.

In Monticello, the new museum’s first exhibition is about exchange as well, albeit more obliquely: All the artworks are being rescued from the isolation of storage crates and being re-entered into the world, where they can play their role in the marketplace of ideas . “If someone believes in the power of art as I do, it’s very sad to have those powerful objects in a box,” Mr. Sodi explained. The exhibition is aptly titled, “Unstored.”

The show’s organizing concept aims to solve a problem that plagues artists, particularly those who make large-scale works. “A lot of the things come back to you in crates,” as Mr. Hart put it, “stacked into every cranny of one’s studio.” ,

Mr. Sodi’s own work will be on view in the downstairs exhibition space, with some mixed media works in the same vein as those in Venice, and a series made on the commercial burlap sacks that are used to transport Mexican dried chiles.

There will also be sculptures: some of clay; others of ceramic, glazed volcanic rock; and one a miniversion of one of Mr. Sodi’s best-known public artworks, “Muro,” for which Mr. Sodi created the 6-foot-high, 26-foot- long wall out of Mexican clay in Manhattan’s Washington Square Park — and then had the public disassemble it brick by brick — during the first year of the presidency of Donald J. Trump when “ Build That Wall!” had become an anti-immigration and anti- Mexican chant at rallies around the nation.

That selection of Mr. Sodi’s work will be set against painted rocks by Izumi Kato and large pots by the celebrated ceramist Shiro Tsujimura. Mr. Sodi considers both artists, based mostly in Japan, close friends and major influences on his work.

Strewn across the former auto showroom will be two additional distinct shows. The more expansive is a survey of contemporary Mexican sculpture by Mr. Sodi and 16 artists, including Jose Dávila, Gabriela Galván, Ale de la Puente, Tania Candiani, who represented Mexico in the Venice Biennale in 2015; and Mario Navarro, who is Mr. Sodi’s studio and project manager for the new museum.

Also on view will be three large-scale works by another of Mr. Sodi’s close friends, the Swiss-born, Harlem-based Ugo Rondinone.

“Bosco thinks about everything in terms of people.” said Mr. Heart. “This first exhibition is a big social map of Bosco’s artistic life because it reflects people of importance to him from Mexico, Japan and New York.”

Mr. Sodi’s plan for all-year programming was good news for the Monticello native Marina Lombardi, who runs Nesin Cultural Arts, a small grass-roots visual and performing arts education program for the region’s children and teenagers. “Our population triples to quadruples in the summer, but those of us who live here year-round want to be able to do things in our community,” said Mx. Lombardi, who uses gender neutral pronouns.

Mx. Lombardi said the region had become much more ethnically diverse in recent times and expressed delight that Assembly would bring a wide array of artists and artwork from around the globe into the community. But it will be important, they added, that the new museum “is not just serving tourists” and will help economically disadvantaged locals and those unfamiliar with museum-going “feel like they can set foot in such a place.”

Mr. Sodi said just as Casa Wabi “emerged as a space that would celebrate art and the surrounding communities,” he hoped that Monticello, too, would help shape his new museum. “At the end, art is to better understand ourselves, the earth, other humans. All of the artists here have elements of that in their work,” he said.

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