A Boogie Down Biennale: Holly Block Is Bringing the Bronx to Venice

And remaking an institution

Block. (Courtesy the Bronx Museum)

One could almost trace the career of Holly Block through biennials. So the selection of a program she oversaw for the 2013 Venice Biennale, which opens next June, is not much of a surprise.

In 1994, she led a group of intrepid museum directors, curators, critics and artists down to Cuba during the embargo to attend the Fifth Havana Biennial. In 2003, she and James Farber co-commissioned the Cairo Biennial, with the support of the State Department. In 2010, under her direction, the Bronx Museum was charged with administering a $1 million cultural diplomacy initiative called SmARTPower. Then in 2011, Ms. Block brought the biennial flair to the backyard of the Bronx Museum when the Artist in the Marketplace (AIM) program (an artist residency program founded in 1980, and one of the museum’s trophies) staged its own for the first time.

The Venice Biennale, arguably the world’s most prestigious international art festival, doesn’t seem like a stretch for Ms. Block so much as the last item on a 20-year “to-do” list. What is a surprise is that the program comes from the Bronx Museum, where Ms. Block is director.

For the museum, it was a windfall. Under the guidance of Ms. Block and independent curator Carey Lovelace, the institution, which is hosting a party for its 40th anniversary on Friday, put together a proposal presenting the work of installation artist Sarah Sze and was granted the unique privilege of commissioning the U.S. Pavilion of the Venice Biennale.

The U.S. Pavilion regularly sees commissions by long-established contemporary art museums with competitive programming, large curatorial teams and large endowments. The past decade has seen commissions by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago and the List Visual Arts Center at MIT.

The Bronx Museum, on the other hand, is a small institution in an economically disadvantaged area that doesn’t have a generous endowment or long-term philanthropic funders. “We’re located in the poorest Congressional district in the country,” said board chairman Douglass Rice in an interview with The Observer. “For our museum to have been chosen to represent the United States at the Biennale is a great honor for us and the Bronx.”

The prominence of the Bronx Museum is a testament to the revitalization of the Bronx as a whole. “BMA isn’t a city-funded window dressing project anymore,” said board member, artist and longtime Bronx resident Tim Rollins, who has known Ms. Block since the ’80s. “It’s not a shiny object in a shit pile. It’s vital. I wouldn’t be involved otherwise.”

With an annual budget of $3.4 million—which is equivalent to its projected budget for the commission of the Venice Biennale alone, and small potatoes when compared with the budgets of other New York museums like MoMA, with $231.4 million in expenses for the 2010-2011 tax year—how does an institution strapped for resources even conceive of an exhibition of such caliber?

Enter Ms. Block. Having first worked as a curator at the Bronx Museum from 1985 to 1988, she returned in 2006 after an 18-year hiatus, during which time she served as executive director of the scrappy nonprofit alternative space Art in General in Lower Manhattan. She arrived in the Bronx just in time for the opening of the museum’s $19 million building expansion by Miami firm Arquitectonica, which doubled its size, upping it to 10,000 square feet of exhibition space, and enhanced its education facilities. Her arrival was met with much anticipation. As Carol Vogel put it in The New York Times, “After years of internal struggles, spotty programming and an overall lack of vision, the 35-year-old Bronx Museum of the Arts is bracing for a metamorphosis.”

But no one said metamorphoses were easy going, especially during a financial downturn. The museum underwent severe budget cuts and staff layoffs in 2008 and 2009. In the first few months of her tenure, the staff shrank from 28 to 22. The registrar, full-time preparator and assistant curator positions were dismantled. Full-time curator Lydia Yee left the museum. Still, it remained an invigorating place.

“It was an environment that was supportive of the community but also had the eyes and ears of the art world, even though a lot of people didn’t make it out to the shows,” said Rod Malin, who worked at the museum as a freelance tech specialist and museum designer at the time of its transition. “And funding was always an issue.”

Ms. Block set to work on that problem.

One thing she did was to beef up the museum’s galas. In the past they’d been infrequent, but she made them an annual event, starting with 2008’s “Spring Gala: A Bronx Feast,” an affair complete with towering floral centerpieces, a dinner of “Bronx cuisines,” a silent auction and a musical performance by the Dave Valentin Quintet. The most recent one, in May 2012, netted almost $300,000, 15 to 20 percent of which was from individual donations—way up from the $6,000 in individual donations the museum had in 2002. And since Ms. Block was hired, the board has grown from 15 members to 27, including Ms. Block and Mr. Rice.

But it’s not all glitz and glad-handing. Ms. Block’s interest in community development dates to when she was a college student at Bennington College in Vermont in the early ’80s, and then interned at the Washington Project for the Arts, a nonprofit in D.C. whose mission was to provide resources to struggling regional artists. Around that same time, she became politically active. “That kind of commitment and engagement really informed everything that she does in a true way,” said Ms. Lovelace, Ms. Block’s co-curator for the Venice pavilion, who met Ms. Block nearly 20 years ago when they were both involved in feminist activist groups. “The idea of reaching out to different cultures and bringing the neighborhood in is important to her. It’s not like there’s this big museum on the hill.”

A Boogie Down Biennale: Holly Block Is Bringing the Bronx to Venice