Curatorial Practice
from the Bronx

by Betti-Sue Hertz and Lydia Yee

The editors of Part invited us to contribute a piece on curatorial practice, and we decided to take this opportunity to discuss an exhibition project titled Urban Mythologies: The Bronx Represented Since the 1960s, which we are currently developing for presentation at The Bronx Museum of the Arts in Winter 1999. We hope to engage fellow Graduate Center students and faculty in a dialogue concerning curatorial practice and collaboration during the development of this project, which has already benefited from feedback and suggestions from Alan Moore, Joan Ockman, and Sally Webster. A discussion of the collaborative process and the planning phase of this exhibition precedes a summary of the project narrative.

We began working on Urban Mythologies more than a year ago. By examining visual representations of the Bronx -- which have captured the public imagination on a worldwide scale -- we hope to situate local concerns and issues within a larger global context. Much of the work we have accomplished thus far has been directed towards the conceptualization of the project: developing a checklist of art and media works, a general installation plan and design, a catalogue concept including format and content, and a related symposium. Many of these tasks have been driven by fundraising and other external deadlines.

Our five year history of collaborating in various ways laid the groundwork for participating as equal partners in this ambitious exhibition project. Although we have worked together on several projects, the roles and relationships have been structured by institutional concerns. For example, the first time we worked together Betti-Sue organized Beyond the Borders: Art by Recent Immigrants (1994) as a guest curator for the Bronx Museum, and Lydia was the staff curator who coordinated the exhibition and catalogue production. In 1996, the Museum organized an exhibition titled Bronx Spaces and invited four Bronx visual arts organizations to make a selection of artists representing their exhibition histories. Lydia and her colleague Marysol Nieves oversaw the organization of the entire exhibition, and Betti-Sue served as a curator for one of the four sections. Meanwhile, we each continued to work on separate projects for our respective institutions as well as organize exhibitions for other venues and contexts. With this experience behind us, we were more than ready to collaborate on a major project that represents our shared interests and commitments.

Each of us has been presenting a range of programming which embraces both local as well as international approaches and concerns. Working in the diverse communities of the Bronx, we are both sensitive to the fact that we must find new ways to connect with issues that embody the local without becoming provincial and myopic. We have traveled extensively and are constantly evaluating how the Bronx fits into broader national and international contexts as well as a variety of local agendas. It is out of these intersecting observations and commitments that we decided to embark on a project -- examining visual art and media representations of the social and geographic environment in which we work and, which, are literally about how the Bronx is perceived from within and without.

We bring different perspectives to the project, and it is important to note here that we represent two different generations. Betti-Sue has worked on both grassroots and professional visual arts projects, including folk arts, public art, and conceptual projects and collaborations with local agencies, and thus brings more of a "community arts" background to the project. Since she has been working in the Bronx since the early 1980s, Betti-Sue participated firsthand in many of the events and exhibitions that will be represented in the exhibition. She remembers the work when it was first presented, the circumstances around the creation of specific artworks, and the general sense of excitement that surrounded particular projects. As such, she feels that she is documenting (with some distance) a part of her own life. By contrast, Lydia began working in the Bronx in the early 1990s and approaches the project as one of historical investigation and recovery. Many in her generation have not heard of Fashion Moda, an important venue that brought together artists from the downtown art scene -- including Collaborative Projects (Colab) artists such as Jenny Holzer and Kiki Smith -- with local South Bronx "street" and graffiti artists such as Crash and Daze. Even non-artists were welcome at “The Moda.” Lydia read about these works and events belatedly in exhibition catalogues and other publications while working at The New Museum of Contemporary Art and attending the Whitney Museum of American Art Independent Study Program. She feels that it is important to recognize such events and their impact on and relationship to current artistic practice and production.

Working collaboratively gives form to a rich and dynamic conversation about the cultural history of the geographic space where we base our professional activities. Given the history of our professional relationship, we have a good idea of our individual strengths and weaknesses. We are, however, able to switch roles as needed. We are willing to take responsibility to initiate different tasks, and then discuss, share, evaluate, and reshape them in subsequent stages. The open flow and sharing of information is key to the collaboration and is critical for developing a shared vision which incorporates both partner's interests and priorities. Because Betti-Sue does not have direct access to the workings of the institution and its decisions to apply for grants and to otherwise support this curatorial effort, Lydia, as staff curator at the Museum, brings shared curatorial concerns as well as Betti-Sue's concerns to the table. Working for the Bronx Council of the Arts, Betti-Sue has access to many organizations, individuals, and sources of historical information.

Each collaborator must believe that the other person is working in the best interests of the project and is willing to hear her opinion. When there are disagreements, it is often better to incorporate both points of view where possible. Sometimes a particular difference may take months to work out, and it becomes necessary to temporarily set things aside in order to move forward with the other aspects and myriad details of the project. The working process is engaging and challenging, and keeps us going amid all the administrative and logistical duties. The studio visits with artists are enlivening and illuminating, adding dimension to our understanding of the way in which the Bronx has been represented. While the exhibition is still a year away, the collaboration and the process itself is very tangible.

Urban Mythologies:
The Bronx Represented Since the 1960s

Project Narrative

Urban Mythologies will examine the image of the Bronx -- as represented in contemporary visual art, street culture, and the mass media -- in relation to significant urban issues and historical shifts from the 1960s until the present. The exhibition will feature works that include representations of the Bronx, that are situated in a Bronx context, or that otherwise contribute to the way in which the Bronx has been constructed in the public imagination. Organized by curator Lydia Yee and guest curator Betti-Sue Hertz, the exhibition is scheduled to open in Winter 1999.

This project will be configured as a hybrid exhibition model, in which art objects are situated within a complex web of cultural and historical relationships, revealing both the influence of art in society and how the conditions and processes of culture and history create new possibilities in the visual arts. Thus, the exhibition provides a multi-layered framework to initiate dialogues on issues of urban representation and experience. Key images and objects will be highlighted as symbolic markers prompting recollection and response. Other objects will serve to expand on this dialogue or offer alternative points of view.

The works in the exhibition reveal a wide range of attitudes and perspectives on the Bronx from the grassroots level to an international viewpoint. In numerous artworks and media images, the Bronx becomes a trope for urban decay and the failure of capitalism. In other cases, positive images contest the predominantly negative ones and advocate for changes in social and economic policy. While the Bronx has been sensationalized as a wild and dangerous urban frontier by some, others engage with positive aspects of this urban context and its communities in their work.

The exhibition will examine representations from different perspectives: self-representation; social, political, or economic advocacy; and commercial interests. Arranged in a chronological manner, the exhibition will juxtapose various types of representations, producing complicated, even contradictory images of the Bronx. The exhibition will feature visual artworks representing various aspects of life in the borough (Ida Applebroog and Whitfield Lovell), produced in a local context with community participation (John Ahearn, Sophie Calle, Pepón Osorio, Rigoberto Torres, and Tim Rollins & K.O.S.), or providing a critical commentary on urban conditions (John Fekner, Dan Graham, and Gordon Matta-Clark), as well as documentation of artworks made for sites in the Bronx (Justen Ladda, Richard Serra, and Alan Sonfist). Documentary photography, film, and video (Henry Chalfant, Lisa Kahane, Carlos Ortiz, Mel Rosenthal, and Camilo José Vergara) -- important vehicles for self-representation and ethnographic approaches to urban culture -- will be included as well as examples from vernacular culture, such as street art or graffiti (Crash, Daze, Lady Pink, Tats Cru), and community and memorial murals. Video clips, film stills, and promotional posters will represent films and TV programs (Fort Apache, The Bronx; Bonfire of the Vanities; A Bronx Tale; Rumble in the Bronx; Car 54 Where Are You?). Architectural and urban planning projects (South Bronx Academy of Art and the revised Bronx Center Plan) with specific cultural components will also be represented. Additionally, the exhibition will be framed by a timeline of important events from recent Bronx history in relation to the broader national context.

Urban Mythologies will be accompanied by a fully-illustrated exhibition catalogue with critical essays on artistic and cultural developments in the Bronx by the curators of the exhibition; on issues of urban representation (with a focus on the Bronx in the mass media) by Marshall Berman, Professor of Political Science, City University of New York and author of All That is Solid Melts into Air; on the politics of urban “public” art by Rosalyn Deutsche, art historian, critic, and author of Evictions: Art and Spatial Politics; and on urban cultural memory from a grassroots perspective by David Gonzalez, columnist, The New York Times. Brief essays will cover specific forms of cultural practice in the Bronx: Juan Flores on the evolution of music styles, Tricia Rose on the origins of hip hop culture in the South Bronx, and Joe Wood on street culture. The catalogue will also include reprinted excerpts from essays on Bronx cultural issues of historical significance: Lucy Lippard on Fashion Moda (“Real Estate and Real Art,” originally published in Seven Days) and Jane Kramer's 1992 New Yorker essay on the John Ahearn public art controversy (“Whose Art is It?”). A photo essay will include images of the Bronx by photographers in the exhibition interspersed with commentary from diverse sources, reflecting a wide range of attitudes about the image of the Bronx in the popular imagination.

Artists under consideration include: Charlie Ahearn, John Ahearn, Ida Applebroog, Sophie Calle, Henry Chalfant, Mel Chin, Martha Cooper, Renee Cox, Crash, Daze, John Fekner, Ricky Flores, Dan Graham, Daniel Hauben, Lisa Kahane, Justen Ladda, Lady Pink, Whitfield Lovell, Gordon Matta-Clark, Carlos Ortiz, Pepón Osorio, Fabrizio Plezzi, Sophie Rivera, Tim Rollins and K.O.S., Jonathan Martin Rosen, Mel Rosenthal, Aldo Rossi, Richard Serra, Alan Sonfist, Tats Cru, Francesc Torres, Rigoberto Torres, Camilo José Vergara, and David Wells.