Bronx Museum of the Arts

Edification value  
Entertainment value  
Should you go?  
Time spent 104 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned Photographs by Cuban artist Felipe Dulzaides called Eighteen Reasons to Cease Making Art, depicting everyday objects that in their sublime ordinariness might well convince an artist he or she had nothing left to do. A bent frame of a chair; a tractor mysteriously cut in two, a la Damien Hirst; a particularly picturesque piece of giant, abandoned infrastructure; a paint spattered hammer and sickle. I have a weakness for cleverness, and the magic of the mundane.

I told several friends aware of this project that I was going to the Bronx Museum of the Arts and the universal reaction has been “I didn’t even know there WAS a Bronx Museum of the Arts. Not that there shouldn’t be, of course…”

But I think it’s a fair question, in our art-museum-glutted city, is there really a need for a Bronx art museum on top of all the other ones? Based on my visit, I think there really is.

The museum occupies a modern building that has a very early-millennium feel to it (it opened in 2004). One of the things this project is giving me is a very strong sense of how hard it is to do a glass atrium for a museum that doesn’t age like a 1980s Marriott. The Bronx Museum has an atrium that must’ve looked fresh and modern when it opened, but already, not so much. It’s a real museum, though, with a tiny gift shop, a (lackluster) cafe, and expansive gallery spaces on the ground floor, and an event area and terrace on the second floor.

You enter the building into an oddly shaped (ah, the vogue for asymmetry in the early 2000s) space, containing the ticket/info desk and the cafe, as well as a ramp that leads to one gallery space and from there to stairs up to the second floor.

Something that’s stuck with me from my visit is this sign, a patient explanation in English, Spanish, and French about why you shouldn’t touch artworks in museums. My first reaction was that of a smug, overeducated museum veteran. And I wondered whether the sort of person inclined to touch a piece of art in a museum is the type of person who’d bother reading a sign that explains why that’s bad for the art. But on further reflection I see in it an indicator that this museum’s constituency isn’t generally me.

The Bronx maybe wants to be a starter museum, helping a community that is turned off by museums, or at least inexperienced with them, get a taste of looking at and thinking about art. If it does its job well, maybe they move on to other museums from there. Hopefully. Maybe. And maybe it can help them pick up skills and savvy that will make them more comfortable in the fancier museums in the city.

Another thing that’s stuck with me is a quote from Mary Hellmann, who’s piece Monochrome Chairs, is in the museum’s atrium. In the description, she says “museums are places to hang out.” I’m not sure about that. Yes, lots of people just go to museums today, but I hope there’s more to it than hanging out. Still, with its free admission, and in its role as a starter museum, convincing residents of the neighborhood that they should hang out there is a good goal.

The Bronx has gone all in on Cuba. It’s currently running a show called Wild Noise/Ruido Salvage on contemporary Cuban art from the 1970s until now. This show is dynamite. Complex, diverse, and expansive, I came away from it feeling like I have a sense of the breadth of Cuban art today. I also feel like if this show were at say the Brooklyn Museum or even one of the smaller art museums of Manhattan, it would be something of a blockbuster. The museum claims that this is “the most extensive cultural exchange between Cuba and the United States in five decades” and also says that five years of work and research went into this. I believe it. Super timely, and canny in other ways, too: a significant number of the pieces in the exhibit are now part of the museum’s collection.

The other main show is called Love thy Neighbor, and in a way it’s sort of the opposite of the Alien Nation show at Lehman College. Interesting I saw both of them in the same day. It was hit or miss for me, but interesting and worth putting together, although I will say that the exhibitions description’s talk of exploring “cultural processes of ‘othering'” caused me almost physical pain.

Finally there were some pretty colored acrylic abstractions by Arlene Slavin on the terrace, and a series of photographs by Clayton Frazier of the people of St. Dominique (aka Haiti and the Dominican Republic).

Clayton Frazier, The Smoker, Port-au-Prince, Haiti, 1998

Oh and a chunk of the old Yankee Stadium. Because it is the Bronx.

My museum buddy for this trek remarked of the Cuba show, “Isn’t this what you expected El Museo del Barrio to be like?” Yeah. This is the kind of meaningful exhibition that El Museo should or could be putting on. And definitely a happy surprise to find it here.

In my first and only visit to the Bronx Museum I feel great affection for it. The Cuba show is worth making a special trip for, and it’s got a sort of endearing scruffiness to it (partly due to the quirky, aging building, partly because it’s a little rough around the edges). The Bronx Museum of Art is on the Grand Concourse just 10 minutes walking, or one subway stop, north of Yankee Stadium. If you’re willing to schlep to the Bronx to see baseball–or even if you’re not–you should definitely schlep to the Bronx to see art.

For Reference:

Address 1040 Grand Concourse, The Bronx
Cost  Free

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