“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.