Bronx Art Groups Share Challenges Seeking Sustenance and Growth

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After a friend was killed covering the Libyan civil war in 2011, veteran photographer Mike Kamber helped found the Bronx Documentary Center.

Photo by: Adi Talwar

After a friend was killed covering the Libyan civil war in 2011, veteran photographer Mike Kamber helped found the Bronx Documentary Center.

The tall red brick building at 614 Courtlandt Ave. was a German meeting hall, a record store, a candy store, an illegal nightclub and a crack house before Michael Kamber bought it for good. Kamber and his good friend Tim Hetherington, both accomplished photo-journalists who worked in areas of conflict and won World Press Photo awards, dreamed of opening a documentary center focused on education and social justice rather than profit.

Before moving to Iraq to cover the war for The New York Times, Kamber, low on money, moved to Willis Avenue. He was struck by “what a dynamic, interesting, warm place” he found. When he returned to the South Bronx after he left Iraq, he says he was comforted by neighbors involved in the realities of the world: his newspaper vendor was from the Ivory Coast, his coffee vendor from Afghanistan and his sandwich vendor from Yemen. A year after settling and beginning plans for the center—in April 2011—Hetherington was killed while photographing the Libyan civil war. Kamber and photo curator Danielle Jackson decided to launch the Bronx Documentary Center that summer in memory of Hetherington.

Two years later, Kamber, who left The Times last year, still hasn’t taken a day off and doesn’t know how he will finance next month’s payroll. He donates 75 percent of the rent and relies on volunteers and three “very part-time” employees, but says that even with no money, the operation will continue. The hard part, though, isn’t dealing with the money. It’s attracting Bronxites to their own creative backyard.

The BDC has built a reputation in the European and Manhattan art scenes, but the art scene in the Bronx is still being built. What’s lacking isn’t creativity or interest—many of the world’s most famous artists once called the Bronx home.

“I hate this thing of like, ‘Oh yeah, you brought culture,’ it just drives me insane,” says Kamber, referring to comments from visitors shocked at the caliber of art in the once-burning Bronx. “There’s so much culture here, you don’t know what to do with it.”

Instead, what’s afflicting the already sensitive arts community is similar to what affects borough residents: issues with network building, landlords and city planning.

Since Kamber owns the building, his late nights are devoted to ensuring that BDC’s presence on the block is as seamless as possible. The Center is active in forming connections with the community, advertising immigration clinics, producing a film on health care with local high school students and screening a documentary on mass incarceration. While 65 percent of visitors are from the Bronx, retention can be difficult when many have never attended a gallery before or created an email address. The Center is still known locally as “the museum.”

For Charles Rice-Gonzalez of the Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance, headaches come from the rent debacle. When BAAD first opened its doors in 1998 in Hunts Point, the first two years of the lease were free. Then, artists dominated the building. As soon as their one-year leases ended, though, the artists dispersed.

“There is a symbiotic human experience when you’re walking in the hallways and there’s another artist and you stop to have a conversation about what you’re doing,” says Rice-Gonzalez. The shared space helped create a sense of community and develop stable audiences, he says, but because the artists lacked business savvy, the landlord had the upper hand. “To own our own space, we have to be a different kind of organization, where people are not just riding on the passion of art, but have to become real estate people.”

With its long-term lease ending this year, BAAD is looking at Westchester Square in the east Bronx, an area comparable to what was once the arts hub at Hunts Point. The rent, though, is incomparable. BAAD keeps its staff and budget small—its two full-time staff members aren’t paid a full-time wage—but it will have to significantly increase funds to meet all of its needs. Rice-Gonzalez, who comes from a working-class background unaffiliated with the arts, says that asking for money from the gay and Latino communities is always a struggle.

“It’s a cold mental shift from a culture that encourages you to be independent and to take care of yourself,” he says. “I never feel like I have a parachute. If the floor gives, it’s gonna fall.” The days of five audience members for seven performers are over, but Rice-Gonzalez says that every show takes persistence to sell.

The Pregones Theater, which began in the 1980s as a touring company of Latino plays, barely survived on its contracts and won its first grant after a year of operation. It was $1,000.

“It meant the world to us,” remembers artistic director Rosalba Rolon. Today, the ensemble owns its theater Melrose Avenue, which benefits from the foot traffic of The South Bronx Cultural Corridor .

Through partnerships with community organizations, participation in public meetings and cross-generational educational programs, the theater has built enough stability to function through cycles of public and private cuts with a $1.3 million budget. The theater is committed, Rolon says, to acting as a good citizen for the South Bronx community. But to meet the needs of its artists, it also focuses outreach in West and East Harlem. Rolon says that Bronx artists are conflicted between staying home, where rent is cheaper, and moving to where they can find work.

In 2005, when Hunts Point was at its most vibrant and Pregones Theater remodeled its space, the Bronx Museum of the Arts
expanded into a new $19 million North Wing. The Bronx Museum, a neighbor and partner of Pregones Theater, handles a $2.6 to $3 million budget. The BDC, BAAD and Pregones Theater sometimes offer free tickets to draw in locals; the Bronx Museum offers it to all.

It benefits from its membership of the city’s Cultural Institutions Group, and a strong board of trustees including Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. According to the museum’s director of External Affairs, Allison Chernow, the next push is corporate funding. Though only one of its staff members lives in the Bronx, Chernow says she was attracted to the Bronx Museum for its “very grassroots and international thrust at the same time.” To ensure its 80 percent Bronx attendance, the museum closely works with schools and invites community leaders to promote public programming through the Community Advisory Council.

While Kamber also invites schools to the BDC, he says he aims to teach them a lesson that’s beyond the art on the wall: how to make money. Artists and journalists cannot survive on dwindling public funds and the whims of grantmakers, he says.

“There’s a destructive history in this neighborhood of giving away a very small amount of free stuff in a way that keeps people poor and disincentivizes people from being entrepreneurial,” Kamber says.

This lesson, the BDC is learning simultaneously. To ensure the longevity of the Center, Kamber is raising the majority of funds through profit-making strategies—from selling posters and books to charging for workshops. The operations may expand, but the organization, to protect itself, will remain intimate. Two portraits of Hetherington still sit in the windowsill; Kamber still lives upstairs.

Kamber has established a personal sense of place around the BDC; now, he says he hopes to build a sense of place for Bronx artists. Without a Bronx nucleus, he says that art becomes an easier topic to ignore.

“If you get out in front and you become the person that’s pushing for the change, you control the conversation,” says Kamber. “We need to start taking control of that. Otherwise, you have development and gentrification, and it’s frequently not for the people.”

The fight for a voice in city planning, though, is not just up to the artists.

“We have to get people in the habit in participating and in demanding that they have access,” Kamber says.

Some of Bronx Art Scene’s Event Links and Contact Info

Bronx Council on the Arts
http://bronxarts.org/
1738 Hone Ave.
718-931-9500

Bronx Documentary Center
http://bronxdoc.org/events
614 Courtlandt Ave.
718-993-3512

The Bronx Museum of the Arts
http://www.bronxmuseum.org/events/
1040 Grand Concourse
718-681-6000

Bronx River Art Center
http://bronxriverart.org/
2064 Boston Road
718-589-5819

Pregones Theater
http://www.pregones.org/Now%20Playing.html
571-575 Walton Ave.
718-585-1202

The Point
http://thepoint.org/artsculture.php
940 Garrison Ave.
718-542-4139