The success of this spring’s “This Side of Paradise” exhibit, which took place at the Andrew Freedman Home on the Grand Concourse, has people talking about the emerging art scene in the Bronx like never before.
Curated by the nomadic non-profit arts organization No Longer Empty, “This Side of Paradise” brought over 9,000 people, over the course of two months, to the historic 1920s building that once served as a retirement home to the formerly wealthy.
The featured galleries and projects, created by over 30 artists, many based in the Bronx, weaved together themes such as history and socioeconomics.
“The positive energy generated by bringing artists together to create art works that reflect some aspect of the Bronx and Bronx history was a terrific idea,” said Linda Cunningham, one of the artists featured in the exhibit.
The once-lavish Andrew Freedman Home was a source of inspiration for many, including the staff at No Longer Empty.
“There’s really a sense of paradise here, not just in the building and its history, but to the first generation of people coming to the Bronx and making it their destination, the beginning of a new life,” said Naomi Hersson-Ringskog, executive director for No Longer Empty. “[The sense of paradise extends] well into the art scene here that’s reemerging, rebirthing and there’s a lot of potential here in the Bronx to really showcase it to a wider audience.”
The exhibit was able to attract audiences not only from the Bronx, but Manhattan and beyond. In addition to the art installations, No Longer Empty also organized a variety of educational and cultural programs at the Home. Nearly 2,200 students attended hands-on workshops, free of charge. Other events included movie screenings, panel discussions and dance workshops.
“It’s creating a variety of entry points to experience the arts,” said Hersson-Ringskog.
No Longer Empty also relied on other arts organizations in the Bronx to make “This Side of Paradise” a remarkable success.
“This year, No Longer Empty has done a lot to bring this art and people together into this huge show, and I think that’s a big, big step,” said Hatuey Ramos-Fermín, who participated in the show.
“Organizations in the Bronx are coming together, weaving this cultural landscape,” Hersson-Ringskog said.
“The No Longer Empty project generated energy and interest in the arts that has now affected all of the arts institutions,” Cunningham said.
One recent offshoot of these collaborations is the formation of the Bronx Arts Alliance (BAA), a collective of 20 Bronx anchor art organizations, including the
Bronx Council on the Arts, BronxArtsSpace, The Point, the Bronx River Art Center and the Bronx Museum of the Arts.
The BAA aims to support a cohesive and vibrant arts presence in the Bronx, using its collective resources to bring more group exhibitions and events to the borough, as well as advocate for art and cultural policies.
This coordinated effort is a far cry from how the art scene in the Bronx was even a decade ago.
“When I moved here in 2000, if there was an art scene, it was nothing I knew about or participated in,” Cunningham said. “By 2004, artists like Wanda Ortiz and arts organizer Mitsu Hadeishi had begun putting on periodic events, video showings, performance and art exhibitions, and soon coordinated with the Bronx Council on the Arts.”
The growth in the art scene reflects the progress throughout the borough over the last 20 or so years.
“I started working in the Bronx in 1989, 1990 because I got a grant to do murals from the MTA from the early arts project Creative Station,” said Carey Clark, now the visual arts director at The Point and its representative to the BAA. “It was a very tough neighborhood when I started going there, and I’ve seen nothing but improvement since then.”
Clark, who resides in Mott Haven, said that even today’s economic roadblocks “won’t ever stop what’s going on in terms of this being an incredibly artful, soulful place.”
“I think everyone is doing the best they can with the circumstances, and there’s not a lot of economic support for the arts in the Bronx,” said Ramos-Fermín. “The [Bronx Museum of the Arts] is really trying to change the perception that art is only for certain people, that it’s only for the elite or something like that. They’re really trying to be more inclusive of people of different backgrounds.”
Just as before, an evolving art scene is changing some perceptions of the Bronx outside the borough.
“The Bronx has an amazing, rich history that people are not as well aware of as they should be and the more organizations and artists and even residents talk about it, and its beauty and dynamic quality, more people will come and more people here will be bolstering that borough pride,” said Hersson-Ringskog.
Many involved in the arts see even more potential for the Bronx.
“The most important thing is to work collaboratively, to create sort of festival days and you sort of have to keep pushing for those sorts of things and more and more,” Clark said. “It’s coming up with sort of promotional strategies [for the Bronx] to become more of a cultural destination.”