This post 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 grey March morning, Claudio Rodriguez was pacing excitedly through the nearly empty galleries of the Bronx Art Museum, located at the southern end of the district’s famous Grand Place. Since the end of 2020, Mr. Rodriguez, the museum’s executive director, is articulating his vision for the Bronx Museum to operate with the greatest commercial and cultural potential.
Timing couldn’t be more important. This year marks the museum’s 50th anniversary. Like many museums across the country, it is emerging from a global pandemic that has hit smaller museums especially hard.
As he meanders through galleries, studios and studio spaces, Mr. Rodriguez talks about new restaurants run by Bronx chefs, boutiques selling Bronx products, and gatherings for the Bronx community Plans to enhance common areas. Dazedly, Mr Rodriguez explained that the most ambitious was a plan to expand the South Wing, which he hopes, when completed in 2025, will firmly herald the museum’s existence as the district’s leading cultural institution.
“Our show is open to all New Yorkers, but our core is always for Bronx, about Bronx and go through The Bronx,” said Mr. Rodriguez, who was born in Nicaragua and grew up in Miami. “We wanted to bust the myth that museums are only for ‘certain’ types of people,” he said.
Mr. Rodriguez came to the Bronx after a decade working at the Frost Museum of Art at Florida International University in Miami and has been at the forefront of planning the future of the Bronx Museum while stabilizing its status quo.
While no staff have lost their jobs during the pandemic, the museum, which has been free to all since 2012, closed for six months, cutting off an important cultural lifeline in the borough often overlooked by the city’s larger arts institutions. With its strong focus on social justice and extensive programs for students and families, “the museum immediately feels like it belongs to everyone who walks through its doors,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “We think it’s a place that truly has Transformative place.”
During the planned expansion, the museum has focused on its latest exhibition, “Jamel Shabazz: Eyes on the Street,” a career-leap-forward celebration of the pioneering African-American photographer, curated by the museum’s Brazilian Antonio Sergio Bessa and execute. Born Honorary Curator.
In a phone interview, Mr. Bessa said the exhibit was “at its deepest level completely aligned with the museum.” “The way Shabazz’s work deals with urban culture speaks directly to how local communities contribute to urban life and safety – it conveys a very New York sense of community and camaraderie.”
Beginning September 4, Eye on the Street has a special focus on NYC kids, showcasing youthful streetscapes from neighborhoods like Harlem, the Lower East Side, Brownsville, and, of course, the Bronx’s Grand Place. “The Bronx is very different in structure and diversity than East Flatbush,” said Mr. Shabazz, who was born in Brooklyn and lives on Long Island.
The 110 images are drawn almost entirely from Mr. Shabazz’s extensive archive, save for a few recent ones, which include a portrait of a young man in red hooks in piercing clothing — what else — a full face during the pandemic Protective gear (and a vibrant yellow fan). The immediacy of the imagery symbolizes Mr. Shabazz’s unique style of painting. “I’m walking around with my camera and getting ready,” he said. “I felt a great need to document my life visually.”
This commitment to urban kinship underpins the museum’s larger transformation efforts: the renewal of the South Wing, which will break ground in spring 2023 and will replace its outdated predecessor. Backed by a $21 million capital campaign, the new building was designed by PR-based Manhattan and San Juan-based Marvel Architects — whose proposal beat more than 50 other submissions from the New York City Economic Development Corporation, which will oversee the expansion.
When complete, the museum’s new wing will not only add much-needed new gallery space — and, Mr Rodriguez hopes, space for restaurants and boutiques — but better integrate its larger, somewhat disjointed footprint.
“So many people know the museum and recognize our work, but we still need to raise awareness,” said Shirley Solomon, the museum’s deputy director. “Maybe it’s time for us to be more boastful,” she added. “The new wing will greatly improve our physical visibility.”
Founded in 1971 by the Bronx Arts Council and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the museum was originally located in the Rotunda of the Bronx County Courthouse before moving to its permanent home in the former Great Square Synagogue in 1982. Two major expansions followed – the first in 1998 to create a much-needed central three-story atrium/lobby – followed by the three-story north wing in 2006, designed by Miami firm Arquitectonica.
Mr. Rodriguez observed that Arquitectonica’s efforts, while striking, were always embarrassing and imperfect—especially with its “accordion-like” appearance.
Comprising a series of seven vertical slats connected by frit glass, the façade both inhibits the flow of natural light and lacks the sense of grandeur usually associated with major metropolitan cultural institutions. Crucially, Mr Rodriguez explained, the revision isolates the museum from its core urban environment.
“Salsa dancing, hip-hop, graffiti are all a big part of Bronx street life,” he said. The expansion of the south wing will reduce the boundaries between the museum and the human vitality beyond the walls.
The current design firm, Marvel, is led by its Puerto Rico founding principal, Jonathan Marvel, who is intimately familiar with communities of color and has an extensive portfolio of commissions in the Bronx, including the soon-to-be-renovated Orchard Beach Pavilion and a Mill Pond Park complex Master plan, just a short walk from the museum.
Marvel also helped lead the final overhaul of the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2006 and designed the new red brick residence for St. Ann’s Warehouse, a performing arts institution in Brooklyn’s Dumbo area. It is also one of the largest employers of architects and designers of color in New York City. The diversity of Marvel staff and project histories easily aligns with the larger mission of the Bronx Museum.
“We also recognize the real historical need for the Bronx Museum to connect directly with the communities it serves,” Mr. Marvel said. “Our responsibility as architects is to reconnect the museum with these communities by creating a sense of transparency, openness, and bringing the sidewalks into the galleries — and the galleries into the sidewalks.”
To achieve this, Marvel will relocate the museum’s entrance to a more prominent and accessible corner of the 165th Street Grand Plaza.
In addition to providing new spaces for public art, Marvel’s additions will also directly reference the museum’s previous expansions, which he said will complement each other “like microcosms of history.” Key materials are still being finalized, but Mr Marvel said he wanted to build “mainly from structured and engineered wood”.
The launch of the wing coincides with two other major cultural openings in the Bronx, the Children’s Museum of the Bronx and the Universal Hip Hop Museum. Like the Bronx Museum, the two newcomers are emblematic of the Bronx itself—vibrant and ever-evolving, paying homage to the future while paying homage to the past.
“The Bronx Museum is at the intersection of culture and education, job creation and summer youth programs,” said Bronx District President Vanessa Gibson. “They understand that culture can solve social challenges and recognize that art can be a catalyst for change.”