Different strokes for different folks: the art market and the Bronx.

This blog post is the complete version of an essay published at the ‪#‎bronxcalling‬ Third AIM Biennial catalog at Bronx Museum of the Arts

“There is no art market in the Bronx.Things are community based, not market based in the Bronx.”1

In the essay Art without Market, Art without Education: Political Economy of Art, the artist Anton Vidokle wrote, “Historically, art and artists have existed both with and without a market. Important art was produced in socialist countries for most of the twentieth century, in the absence of an art market. Much of art production today occurs in places without a market for art, or in countries where a capitalist market system is not the dominant form of social and cultural organization. Art can clearly exist without a market, but artists fundamentally rely upon a certain economy in order to live and make art in the first place.” 2 Not far from one of the world’s biggest art markets, this statement rings true in the Bronx. This is the result of two main forces. First, there is the space of the Bronx itself and how art operates in it. Then there are the ways that artists are working in the borough and how they are perceived from inside and out.

According to the 2010 census, 29.8% of people in the Bronx live below New York City’s poverty level. 3  In this landscape one can see how opening a commercial gallery is a challenging endeavor and it is nearly impossible to find one. There are a handful exceptions, but basically there is no art market in the Bronx. Nevertheless, the Bronx has rich, diverse and productive artistic community. According Barry Kostrinsky, a former Bronx gallerist who operated a space called Haven Arts (2004-2009), “The Bronx is a small satellite at best and hardly influenced by the art market.” 4  When you consider art produced or presented in the Bronx you have to put things in context. This essay will attempt to outline that context, considering the many complex issues that influence artistic production in the borough and explore the alternatives to the art market that exist and thrive by their own rules in the Boogie Down Bronx.

“Artists living in the South Bronx see their work rebranded by the mere fact of having moved here.” says author and artist Libertad Guerra in her essay, “Uncommon Commonalities: The Aesthetic Politics of Place in the South Bronx,” “They suddenly enter the curious category of ‘Bronx artist’. This area brands the artists as much as the outside expects them to re-brand the area. When the South Bronx gets into the mix, the main interest turns to its pre-conceived and perceived peripheral-ness. It is, first and foremost, an issue of spatial relationships; of the inside and the outside.”5

The ghost of the past 50 years of Bronx history still lingers. It is hard to erase the image of a “burning Bronx,” despite huge improvements in housing, infrastructure, and public space. It was community groups who helped to rebuild the Bronx from the inside out, and art has played a critical role in supporting and shaping these grassroots efforts and do it yourself attitude that continues today. Many Bronx artists work in community education, and address environmental, political, social, class and identity issues. For example, Hip Hop’s Universal Zulu Nation 6 created a foundation and framework that leveraged hip hop’s culture to uplift, empower and organize people through what was then a new form of cultural production. The self organizing principles and taking the responsibility into one’s hands to rebuild communities is still influencing Bronx arts communities today beyond hip hop’s scope.  It’s this tradition that has in one way or another permeated a lot of the non profit organizations and artist run spaces in the Bronx ever since; from the concept/art space Fashion Moda defined as “Museum of Science, Art, Invention, Technology and Fantasy.” 7  Founded by artist Stefan Eins in collaboration with fellow artists Joe Lewis and William Scott from 1978-1993 and it was where many Bronx artists met and collaborated with what was then the downtown Manhattan art scene, on their own terms.

In New York City there is no single art center. There are diverse art “scenes” with decentralized concentrations of artists and galleries in different neighborhoods from Chelsea, to the Lower East Side, to Bushwick. It seems that the center of New York City’s art world is always elsewhere, although some of these centers are more powerful and influential than others.  It is equally difficult to define a single arts “community” in the Bronx. “The Bronx arts community is a very general label thrown out there to a very diverse group of creatives inhabiting a large section in New York City.” says artist Blanka Amezkua, whose Blue Bedroom Project in her Mott Haven neighborhood apartment served as an exhibition and community space hub from 2008 to 2010. “But who belongs to this community and who decides what this community is? 8

The Bronx itself has many “centers,” or many peripheries depending on where you stand. With this geographic diversity comes a rich variety of artist communities operating independently from one and the other, ranging from personal apartments to alternative and nonprofit art spaces. Arismendy Feliz, a 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 disjointed [art community], and is still is, but now you start seeing more solidarity.  The do it yourself attitude is going to be the saving grace of this borough.”  9 Mr. Feliz founded X-Collective in 2011 in a basement apartment of a co-op building. 10

The “Do it yourself” way of working has deep roots in the Bronx, nevertheless the role of non for profit organizations in supporting artists in the Bronx can’t go unacknowledged. For the self proclaimed Mural Kings Tats Cru it was a slow transformation from supporting their own illegal graffiti projects on subway cars in the early 1980’s to becoming a thriving graffiti/mural business with international recognition. BIO, one of the founding members of the collective said: “If it weren’t for a non for profit organization existing [The Point Community Development Corporation] we probably wouldn’t be here.  They were able to provide us with a space to work from. A lot of time the non for profits are supporting the arts.” 11 There are many other examples of support in other ways from exhibition spaces, to grants that other Bronx organizations offer to artists that may be too long to list here.  Some say its not enough. 12  What is clear in this landscape is that the do it yourself model and the non for profit model to support art and artists are often times working in tandem and crossing each other paths.

Although do-it-yourself projects empower artists, and can have a meaningful effect on their local communities, they are difficult to sustain, and risk becoming isolated or provincial. Mission-driven non-profits can lose track of the world beyond their local communities, and can find themselves competing for limited resources. At their best, Bronx-based artists and arts organizations form a more robust ecosystem, amplifying the positive effects of neighborhood-based efforts to create truly unique modes of producing and presenting art.

In 1996 New York Times art critic Holland Cotter reviewed an exhibition at the Bronx Museum of the Arts entitled Bronx Spaces. In this exhibition the Museum featured four Bronx nonprofit arts institutions, Lehman College Art Gallery 13, the Bronx River Art Center 14, En Foco 15 and Longwood Art Gallery 16. Each organization presented a range of projects showcasing the work of Bronx-based artists. Mr. Cotter begins the review asking the question: “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.”17

Unfortunately, not much has changed in terms of the demographics of the artists who operate within New York City’s gallery system. The collective called BFAMFAPHD 18 published a recent study which stated, “New York City’s formally educated arts world (in this case defined roughly as working artists and those with arts degrees) appears to be 200% whiter than its general population.”19   In the Bronx only 27.9% of the population is white, while 36.5% is black/African American and 53.5% is Latino/Hispanic. 20 There is a diverse spectrum of artists of different races and ethnicities working in the Bronx who are represented and supported within the non profit and artist-run spaces. This is reflected clearly in the missions of some of the non profit arts organizations such as En Foco as well as many other artist run spaces like the X-Collective in the Bronx.

Recently, these diverse artistic communities have begun to become more aware of each other, building constellations of support for individual artists, as well as the hyperlocal issues facing particular groups and neighborhoods. This presents new challenges and opportunities for Bronx-based institutions as well as the public, affecting modes of production and presentation for contemporary art in the Bronx and beyond. It also offers a viable alternative to the market-driven art world in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

In 2012, twenty seven arts organizations formed the Bronx Arts Alliance as a:  “coordinated collective of managers, directors, decision-makers, of organizations, and spaces, whose missions include the support, presentation and/or promotion of arts and arts activities.”21  However, the most visible project undertaken by the Alliance to date is a satellite exhibition held in the Bronx in conjunction with The Armory Art Fair in Manhattan. By attempting to  “package” Bronx artists for consumption by an outside audience, groups such as this risk shortchanging the innovation and creativity taking place in the borough, missing a critical opportunity to develop new modes of support for artists and arts organizations the rest of the year, after the market has gone home.

What validates art, anyway? The market? It’s affect on individuals or communities? It’s role as a pedagogical instrument? The “do it yourself” and non for profit models of support for art and artists offer alternative models of artistic production. In addition, the diverse spectrum of artists of different races and ethnicities working in the Bronx contribute to the diversity of the racial, social and economic landscape of New York’s art worlds. The Bronx is a great example of rich grassroots efforts by artists and organizations working within communities and outside of New York City art markets. Nevertheless, the Bronx should not look for validation outside of its boundaries to be  recognized and respected for the richness and diversity of its arts communities even though a lot of these very important contributions are often ignored by the rest of New York City’s art circles. The biggest impact the Bronx can make lies within it.

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DIFFERENT STROKES FOR DIFFERENT FOLKS: Art in The Bronx

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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.

Read  the complete post at Cisneros Collection

Young lords work in progress 

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It’s not about you…

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First published at Set To Signal

by Hatuey Ramos-Fermín

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It’s not about you…

The ashes were just getting settled and they started losing their warmth.

You could hear a gush of wind calming the desolate silenced echo in the neighborhood.

The evening was coming fast as the whole city layered in smoke of various shades of oranges, pinks, light purples and greys. The smell of wet wood dampen all of my broken memories of that day. What was broken was never to be repaired nor replaced. Where it happened there were some remnants of a smell that wasn’t either plastic nor metal nor mold, but more like humid cockroaches. It seemed like a long time had past but only 5 miles per second long when it hit. The only clue was a scratch on the porcelain that resembled some city streets. What did it all mean? I looked to the sky and I saw nothing.

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For thousands of years I waited for a moment like this one. At last the contact, that even though for a fraction of second was given to me only. The longing lingers pondering for answers. In the meantime, I build with leftover rubble in the place.
This will be the site to remind us what we are, symbolically and literally. Just look at the map, right there where the lines cross, I’ll be there, building.

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Building and building, after building the rubble becomes a small-scale city, underground roots that grow into a collection of orbits of streets that resembled the lines of golden vinyl records. This is the place that you will come to see the stories written on its walls as medieval churches telling us what to believe without words. This will be your resting place. Come and visit me, you will know who you are.

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RESIDENT SPOTLIGHT 2013: HATUEY RAMOS-FERMIN

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First published at the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts.

Hatuey Ramos-Fermin is a participant in EFA’s 2013 Residency for Arts Workers as Artists. In addition to his art practice, Hatuey is the Media Lab Manager-Coordinator for the Teen Council Program at the Bronx Museum of the Arts.

Michelle Levy: What are you working on now?

HRF: I am working on 2 projects. One is editing a podcast episode from a series that I started a couple of years. It is basically conversations about art and culture and finally I got a chance to edit the second episode of the series.

The other thing I’m working on is an exploration of ideas about flags, mapping and geography.

ML: What is your experience so far?

HRF: It has been a great experience to have the chance to have a space to work and making the time to be in the studio, while slowly getting to know everyone and learn from their processes since all of us work in very different ways.

ML: Preferred mode of transportation?

HRF: Folding bicycle, walking and public transportation!

ML: What are your creative inspirations?

HRF: It changes all the time but I can say that the city and my immediate surroundings. I really appreciate when I encounter people’s own creative interventions in public spaces, like when street vendors occupy the streets and invent their own carts for example or when I see improvised chairs under a tree with milk crates.

ML: If you could have personally witnessed any event in history, what would you want to have seen?

HRF: The invention of the film camera and the projection of the first film to the public.

Creative Conversations: Nontsikelelo Mutiti, Elizabeth Hamby, and Hatuey Ramos-Fermin

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Reposted from the Laundromat Project.

Each year, The Laundromat Project commissions 5-7 Create Change Public Artists-in-Residence to create socially engaged art in their own neighborhood coinops. Over the course of six months, they join our Create Change Professional Development Fellows in a series of workshops meant to strengthen their creative practice. Over the next few weeks, we will share a series of conversations between pairs of our most recent Residents and Fellows.

Nontsi: Social practice implies collaboration between artists and community members. Elizabeth and Hatuey, you chose to build a project together before bringing other people into the equation. What was this experience like?

Elizabeth: Our collaborative work is both arduous and incredibly rewarding. I think that the constant work that is required in order to collaborate with each other is a big influence on the way that we work with other people. Hatuey and I hold each other to very high standards, and the accountability that we demand from one another frames our work in our neighborhood. I really related to Urban Bush Women’s presentation about mutual support through collaboration, and the work that is required to achieve that support–their presentation really articulated things that Hatuey and I have been working on and talking about but had not really been able to make clear for ourselves at that point.

Thinking specifically about neighbors, and neighborhood engagement, can you talk a little about your hair braiding project in Detroit? You were new to that community, but you used the vernacular of hair and braiding as a bridge between a lot of different social, ethnic, and geographic communities.

 

Nontsi: When I got to Detroit I realised that I had a very short amount of time to meet people in the community, conduct research, make some artwork and organise an event. I started with the people I had connected with on a previous visit and then met others through their network. I collaborated with a barber, ZooNine Bey and former hairstylist Dina Peace. We spent time together before the event talking in depth about our respective work, cultural differences and similarity. Our interactions culminated in a wonderful event where they demonstrated and spoke to me and everyone that came out about their craft. I really acted as a facilitator and allowed talented knowledgeable people to share with others in their community.

I stepped into a place that has a rich history and a strong African-American community committed to presentation, culture and craft. It was a great learning opportunity for me. It was wonderful seeing people coming around to share and be involved with leading and listening.

 

Elizabeth & Hatuey: Could you share a specific story from your experience doing this project that really captures that sense of people coming together?

 

Nontsi: Actually, the best part of the project was when it was all over. People stayed for a long time after we were done, continuing conversations, swapping information asking how and when something similar could be organised again. I am happy that people felt invested.

 

Elizabeth & Hatuey: On the website “Brainpickings,” there was recently a quote from Bruno Munari (from 1966) that we think is relevant to this discussion. Munari said:

“Today it has become necessary to demolish the myth of the ‘star’ artist who only produces masterpieces for a small group of ultra-intelligent people. It must be understood that as long as art stands aside from the problems of life it will only interest a very few people. Culture today is becoming a mass affair, and the artist must step down from his pedestal and be prepared to make a sign for a butcher’s shop (if he knows how to do it). The artist must cast off the last rags of romanticism and become active as a man among men, well up in present-day techniques, materials and working methods. Without losing his innate aesthetic sense he must be able to respond with humility and competence to the demands his neighbors may make of him.

The designer of today re-establishes the long-lost contact between art and the public, between living people and art as a living thing. … There should be no such thing as art divorced from life, with beautiful things to look at and hideous things to use. If what we use every day is made with art, and not thrown together by chance or caprice, then we shall have nothing to hide.”

 

Both your practice and ours vacillates between art and design. How do you navigate the differences between those two practices? Does thinking like a designer (rather than an artist) change your perception of “the public” and the way that you participate in public life?

 

Nontsi: I want to make work that has a space in the world and that can speak to or capture the imagination of people within the space of the museum but more importantly meeting people where they are at. Making things that people can hold in their hands, or focusing on ways of making that borrow from vernacular design and craft has been a way for me to move my work towards people. Sometimes the audience is specific, I aim to create dialog at street level or on the shop floor between my neighbours and peers.

One of the parameters of the Laundromat Project residency is that you produce a project in your very own neighborhood. How long have you been living in the Bronx?

 

Elizabeth: I have only lived in our neighborhood for about a year. But I don’t see myself going anywhere any time soon.

Hatuey: I’ve been living in the Bronx for 5 years total, 2 years near Yankee Stadium and in Mott Haven 3 years.

Elizabeth & Hatuey: Nontsi, you’re new to New York. How did The Laundromat Project Professional Development Fellowship affect your perception of the city–both as an artist and as an everyday person?

Nontsi: The workshops for the fellowship were held in different Boroughs. Commuting to and from sessions taught me my first lesson about New York – THE PLACE IS HUGE! The population density is incredible and even more so the diversity represented throughout the city. This has really made me reconsider my definition of community. What is a neighbour? What vocabulary, visual or otherwise, do I use to engage them?

Do you feel you had a connection to your community before the Laundromat Project residency?

Elizabeth: Absolutely. We are very lucky to live in a neighborhood with a lot of people who are very committed to achieving social justice through coalition and community-building. We have a lot of neighbors who are organizers and activists, as well as artists, which creates a really amazing space for the kind of work that we do. There are a lot of people who really want to work together.

Hatuey: Yes, we’ve been involved directly and indirectly with this project and other projects as well with our neighbors and organizations. So, we are present.

 

Nontsi: How did you decide on the issue to tackle for your project? Have you been doing other work around this theme?

 

Elizabeth: Last spring we did a project called Boogie Down Rides dealing with bicycling as a form of transportation, recreation, and art in the Bronx. We built relationships with a lot of organizations who were dealing with different aspects of the built environment in the Bronx, and we wanted to build on that. But we didn’t feel like bicycling was the right project for The LP.

Hatuey: Also, since we have to be in one place to do the residency (at the laundromat, as opposed to biking around) we chose the waterfront that is within our neighborhood to focus on. So, when we talked about the waterfront with our neighbors they could relate to it or not, but it was something tangible, a specific place that they could go to (even though with difficulty). It is the first time we tackled the idea of the waterfront, but we are interested in places and how they can tells us or give us clues about how they are, the way they are and how they affect, influence and in a way define neighborhoods, boroughs, cities etc.

Nontsi: Can you highlight something that you felt was most effective at reaching your goals or fulfilling the needs of the participants?

 

Hatuey:  The goals of the project were to interact with our neighbors about their waterfront, to listen to what they have to say about it and the neighborhood, and to use all of that information for the future. It is hard to meet people’s needs, but at the very least we served as a “channel” for people to tell us things that they saw and wanted to improve and we learned a lot from active listening.

Elizabeth: It’s similar to what you were saying about your project in Detroit– the best moments of the project were when we were talking with our neighbors about the next steps, the future, in our own terms.

Nontsi: Your project seemed interactive on so many levels, could you tell me about the range of activities you set up at the Laundromat?

 

Hatuey: James Rojas, an artist/urban planner, helped us set up an interactive model making project where people came to our table and played with different toys and objects by placing them in different configurations that transformed them from their regular uses into buildings, trees, slides, parks, boardwalks etc… It was the most successful activity since it is very easy to interact with, it is totally non-threatening and can engage multi-generational participants.

We also had a backdrop of a photo of a place within our waterfront and asked people to write on a speech bubble what they wished the place could be and we took portraits of them, we also recorded audio interviews with neighbors about the neighborhood, their stories about the water, etc.

 

Nontsi: I like the combination of activities you folded into your bigger project. My own work seems to be moving in that direction. The recording of oral history is as important to my investigations as making interactive tools. You’ve mentioned how you worked with participants of all ages. I was very impressed by that. It is so important to harness the energy of all the people to whom a project is relevant.

I also liked how your interactive model utilised everyday objects. This is a great way to get people to feel comfortable with touching and moving pieces around. Also it is a way of working that is not out of the reach for others, the children and adults that participated could easily use this format to extend the work you begun or build their own self-initiated projects.

 

Elizabeth & Hatuey: It’s similar with your braiding project. Hair braiding is certainly aesthetic and artful, but it is also an activity that takes place within people’s everyday lives. By framing it within an art context, you’re able to simultaneously amplify the “art” of braiding and hair and to (literally as well as metaphorically) weave together art and life.

 

Nontsi: My own practice as an artist is process-based. Iteration and labour are an important part of all my projects. Braiding embodies these aspects. For me it is very performative, both the learning and practising. It was interesting to see this played out in the space of a museum. I have also been collecting images and objects associated with this craft. It is important to take a close look at things that seem mundane. There is so much richness and variety around us, even in the things that are most familiar to us.

 

Lisa Kahane’s Photos

Elizabeth Hamby and Hatuey Ramos Fermín, photos by Lisa Kahane

Hatuey Ramos-Fermin and Elizabeth Hamby

Hatuey and Elizabeth rediscover a table they earmarked for one of their projects.

by Lisa Kahane