A large, imposing and seemingly abandoned mansion occupies an entire block on the Grand Concourse between 166th and McClellan Streets in the Bronx. The building — a neo-Renaissance, limestone palazzo behind a black iron fence and a large, tree-shaded lawn — stands apart from the neighboring apartment buildings and the stately street wall of the boulevard. Across from the Bronx Museum and just a few blocks north of Yankee Stadium, the Andrew Freedman Home looks, at first glance, like an uninhabited relic forgotten during the decades of the Grand Concourse’s decline from grandeur. But closer inspection reveals a range of community-oriented activities that will be amplified this spring, when No Longer Empty, a young and nomadic cultural institution dedicated to bringing contemporary art to underutilized spaces throughout New York City, invites the public inside to experience a contemporary art exhibition of 30 new works that weave evocations of the building’s unique history into interpretations of contemporary realities in the Bronx.
Andrew Freedman, a self-made millionaire financier who died in 1915, left much of his fortune to build the place as a retirement home for formerly wealthy people who had lost their fortunes, so that these newly indigent could spend their final years in the manner to which they were accustomed: dinners served in banquet halls by servants with white gloves, readings in a wood-paneled library, entertainment in the billiard, card or ball rooms. The Home operated on this vision from 1924 until the 1970s, when mounting operational costs and a dwindling endowment forced it to charge for accommodations. In 1984, the facility was purchased by the Mid-Bronx Senior Citizens Council (MBSCC), a non-profit formed by local residents in 1973 to provide direct services to the elderly and disabled that has since grown into a property developer of low- and moderate-income housing with a portfolio of 28 buildings throughout the Bronx and a suite of programs in economic development and children and family services. MBSCC attempted to re-start the retirement home under a more inclusive model in 1985, but the endeavor eventually proved unsustainable, and activity was restricted to the refurbished lower ground floor, where a Head Start program, a day care center and a job resource center operate at a remove from the vestiges of both luxury and penury upstairs. The function rooms on the main floor are recently refurbished. The bedrooms on the higher floors have been abandoned for almost 25 years, and amid the chipping paint and splintering furniture are the personal effects of former residents, from postcards to upright pianos, and the professional equipment of a nursing home, from medical cabinets to beehive hairdryers. It’s not hard to imagine how the combination of grand spaces and ghostly absences could inspire visual artists. And Manon Slome and Naomi Hersson-Ringskog, the founder / president and executive director of No Longer Empty respectively, have been hard at work since last September making that happen.
No Longer Empty’s mission, as Slome and Hersson-Ringskog explain in the interview below, is to use the presentation of contemporary art as a mechanism for community revitalization — through partnership with local institutions, increased activity and awareness from non-local visitors, and innovative live programming that engages both. This process corresponds well to MBSCC’s current plans for the site. According to Walter Puryear, who manages much of MBSCC’s real estate and is responsible for the development of several ambitious new programs, in order for the organization to realize its mission of comprehensive community development, the long-term employability of local residents is an urgent priority. The vision for the Andrew Freedman Home includes an array of ambitious workforce development initiatives, including training programs for culinary and hospitality services (in coordination with the opening of a bed and breakfast currently under construction in one wing of the building), a small business incubator, a media center and a green technology training institute. In the meantime, make plans to visit the building in its current state this April, when No Longer Empty’s new exhibition, This Side of Paradise, opens to the public. –C.S.
Tell me about No Longer Empty. How did the organization come to be?
As a curator, my interest has long been the intersection of art and social issues. I founded No Longer Empty in April 2009 and since then we’ve organized 12 exhibitions throughout the boroughs. Before that, I worked at the Guggenheim and at the Chelsea Art Museum, where I was chief curator. But when I started I wasn’t out to set up an organization, I was just thinking about an exhibition and a site for it. It was around the time of Lehman’s collapse and the broader economic crisis, and I was walking down Madison Avenue noticing how many storefronts were empty and how even the active businesses were empty of customers. I began to conceive of an exhibition called Empty, and when I thought about where to do it, an empty storefront seemed like a great space.
A friend offered us a storefront adjacent to the Chelsea Hotel, a former fishing tackle store. We put on a show of ten artists’ work in a very short amount of time, and given the store’s history and the fishing-related artifacts that were left in the space, we worked around a maritime theme. For example, the artist Michael Bevilacqua’s piece referenced the drowning of the economy in nautical terms. We found the notion of responding to the site to be very evocative.
What was most interesting to me was the reaction of people wandering down 23rd Street who popped their heads in and asked questions. We found that people who might not normally go to a gallery or a museum were comfortable coming to see this, and were interested in the work and in engaging in conversation about it. As a curator, there’s very little interaction with visitors built into the traditional processes of an art exhibition. For me, being present and available for conversation with visitors was very interesting.
After that, we were offered a second space in the Meatpacking District. It was a brand new condominium building with a vacant retail space. So, contrary to the fishing tackle store with its rich history, here was a site with no history. So we decided to reference the idea of a community in transition. We called the exhibition Reflecting Transformation and a lot of the works explored the notion of a neighborhood turning over and what that meant.
At that exhibition, we had our first panel discussion with thought leaders in public art, to probe the nature of what we were doing. The notion of a storefront as a semi-private, semi-public space was interesting to us; and orienting the exhibitions towards a wide public was very important for us. This launched our programming, which has since expanded to include children’s programming, artist-led workshops, roundtable discussions with the artists, and more. The programming and the community engagement became as important to us as the exhibitions.
The art can have multiple purposes, and every time we go into a new neighborhood, we are actively figuring out how art is going to be used differently in a new context.
For example, when we held a show in the former Tower Records Store on Broadway and 4th Street, visitors’ nostalgia for the record store where they hung out in college informed their experience of an exhibition curated around themes of music and the changing nature of music distribution.
Or when we did a show on Governors Island, at which a lot of visitors remarked on the magic of being brought into a house that was otherwise vacant to see art that referenced the history, the past, the people that lived there, or what the island might be without human inhabitants.
How does your community research process typically work?
I come from an arts background and Naomi comes from an urban planning background, so our working together is a fabulous marriage of disciplines for community-based work.
When we go into a neighborhood, the first thing we do is get to know the organizations with deep roots in the community and partner with them to provide programming, to bring new people and new ideas to the community. And often community organizations are strapped financially, so our collaborative process is quite valued.
Take the Andrew Freedman Home as an example, which has a very particular history. All of that influences our ideas of what we might do here. First, you can’t ignore the history. But you also don’t want simply to mirror that history. This enormous abandoned building is a white elephant as it is on the Grand Concourse, so you don’t want merely to accentuate that. Rather, we want the exhibition to merge the history of the Andrew Freedman Home with the current day realities of the Bronx.
Any representations of the Bronx have to contend with the borough’s history of disinvestment and poverty and also the feeling that everything that’s not wanted in Manhattan is pushed onto the Bronx. This led to a good discussion about the title. Poor, in Style was our working title, but then we moved onto This Side of Paradise with all of its associations with F. Scott Fitzgerald, with 1920s ideas of class and the class loyalty that Andrew Freedman embodied, and with the ambiguous, ironic notion that we assume Manhattan is the paradise and the Bronx is something else, so let’s see how we can shift that.
We did a lot of research into the art that’s produced here. We didn’t want to create a show of exclusively Bronx-based artists; we didn’t want to make another kind of ghetto. But we learned about some phenomenal local work. And we learned about some fabulous organizations working in choreography and music. Obviously, the legacy of the Bronx as the birthplace of hip-hop is incredibly important. All that will be reflected in the exhibition.
One of the things we’ve found in the Bronx is that it is a very fragmented borough. It is easier to get from here to Manhattan than it is to get to parts of the South Bronx. So it became very apparent that if we wanted people outside of the immediate vicinity to know about the show, we should partner with cultural organizations in other Bronx neighborhoods and work on transportation and cross-promotion. We’re going to be meeting with the Bronx Tourism Council to think about how we can realistically shuttle people around to various locations.
We’re exploring whether it’s possible to establish a pilot program that addresses the mobility issues here, like a bike-sharing program. Being able to move between different cultural organizations is an important aspect of having a vibrant arts scene.
An alliance is being formed called the Bronx Cultural Alliance, which will create a structure for collaborations between organizations like Wave Hill in Riverdale, the Point in the South Bronx, Lehman College in Bedford Park, Hostos College in the South Bronx, and others. The point is to create a tighter-knit cultural landscape in the borough.
Tell me about your curatorial process?
Most works we present, about 70%, are commissioned. The basis of our curatorial work is site-responsive or site-specific. In most cases, we already have interest in the artist to begin with: I’ve done a studio visit; I know the work. And because the sites we go into are non-traditional sites, there’s often phenomenal opportunities for the artists to create outside the box.
Community revitalization is also a part of your mission, how does that factor into your process?
We take a potential liability to a neighborhood corridor – an empty building or inactive business can bring down a neighborhood’s quality of life by reducing foot traffic – and activate it with artwork, and with live programs that engage the community: panel discussions, children’s workshops, music or dance performances. In this way, we are advocating for interim use, for a more nimble, flexible and creative city. In addition to curating and producing the exhibition, we also research what’s unique about the area and create cultural maps that indicate to exhibition visitors all of the other cultural opportunities available in the vicinity – from parks to other art organizations to stores or restaurants.
We encourage our audience to discover the area. So we might arrange some sort of discount to a local restaurant for exhibition visitors, or try other kinds of things to keep foot traffic up and to keep people patronizing local businesses.
And we track these effects through head counts, through measuring increased foot traffic and evaluating collaborations. Our research and analysis allows us a distinct and deep understanding of the site, the building details, and the area where it’s located. And we are able to relay some of that understanding back to the property owners. Further down the road, it would be interesting for No Longer Empty to have an arm that could advise on community conscious retailing or to provide other insights into community revitalization that emerge from our process.
In terms of the legacy of the projects we work on, the Bronx Cultural Alliance is a fantastic initiative that will continue forward. Art in Empty Spaces is another legacy project, where we work with Manhattan’s Community Board 3 to take No Longer Empty’s model and scale it up.
The community board learned that storeowners and residents weren’t happy about the vacancy rates in the area. So they asked us to match arts groups up with these empty spaces and then to create a program that would get visitors to visit them. An organization we’ve talked to here in the Bronx is WHEDco, the Women’s Housing and Economic Development Corporation, which is working on a new site on Southern Boulevard. WHEDco surveyed how many local dollars are going out of the community because of the lack of stores and services. They’ve asked for our advice on how to activate the storefronts under an elevated rail-line, to get the community to recognize the stores’ existence in order to increase foot traffic and eventually attract the kind of retail they need. If you can draw foot traffic for an exhibition, you can demonstrate the demand for the right kind of retail.
If you produce quality programming, people will come. I’m always very concerned with issue of legacy.
And after we conjure up an exhibition and programming, in the long term we are also giving people an opportunity to dream. People come into an exhibition and see a space transformed. I think that’s where, perhaps, crowdsourcing could come in: we could create opportunities for visitors to share their vision for the site or the area.
We are a young organization with a clear mission of knitting a vibrant cultural landscape through art and interim use. We know how to take over empty spaces and turn them into professionally curated art exhibits with programming, but in terms of creating and supporting a cultural landscape that’s sustainable, we’re working towards that, testing and learning different tactics along the way.