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Holly Block, Executive Director of Bronx Museum of the Arts, Dies

Holly Block.

©2013 PETER SERLING

Holly Block, the executive director of New York’s Bronx Museum of the Arts, died last night of cancer-related causes.

As executive director of the Bronx Museum, Block significantly altered the museum’s presence in the New York art world over the course of her decade-long tenure there, including a decision in 2012 to stop charging admission fees. Between 2012 and 2016, as a result of the change in admissions policy, the museum quadrupled its attendance.

“So much of the programming she did was about accessibility and  democratizing the museum,” said Ford Foundation director Darren Walker, whom Block approached when she was planning to make the museum free. “It was about Holly’s own values around equality, fairness and justice. And she was at the forefront of these discussions about diversity.” Referring to Mayor de Blasio’s recent cultural diversity plan, he added, “Holly didn’t need a cultural plan to know that diversity is essential. Inclusion was the life she lived.”

She also launched a campaign to raise $25 million to expand the museum’s home. By the time the expansion was announced in 2016, the museum had already received $7 million from the mayor’s office. The new addition, designed by architect Monica Ponce de Leon, will create more exhibition space as well as better climate control and a new glassed-in home for the museum’s public programming. The first phase of the project is expected to be completed in 2020.

Block’s tenure at the museum was not without controversy. A 2016 New York Times report revealed tensions among museum staff that resulted from what some criticized as Block’s lack of transparency. She had come under fire for the museum’s Wild Noise initiative, to exchange works from the Bronx Museum’s collection with the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana. Curators from the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana co-curated the exhibition “Wild Noise: Ruido Sauvaje” with the Bronx Museum and that show was presented at the Bronx Museum. The museum’s board was not sufficiently notified of potential issues involved, according to Laura Blanco, the board’s chairwoman. Separately, tensions flared over the museum’s involvement in a notorious party held in the South Bronx to celebrate a new condo building and plans to create a $2.5 million replica of a sculpture of the Cuban revolutionary José Martí.

Block had a passion for Cuban art, and it showed in her programming at the museum. During her tenure as executive director (she was also a curator at the museum between 1985 and 1988), she organized a host of exhibitions devoted to Cuban art, among them “Wild Noise: Ruido Sauvaje,” “Wild Noise,” “Cuba Libre!,” and “Revolution Not Televised.” In 2001, she published the book Art Cuba: The New Generation.

At the Bronx Museum, she also co-organized “Art AIDS America,” “Beyond the Supersquare: Art & Architecture in Latin America after Modernism,” and “Martin Wong: Human Instamatic,” and played a role in the early stages of planning the museum’s forthcoming Gordon Matta-Clark survey. She also inaugurated the museum’s Art in the Marketplace program, which links emerging artists and art-world professionals.

“I first met Holly nearly three decades ago and have I remained continually astonished by her fearless and compassionate commitment to artists, audiences and communities,” Thelma Golden, the director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, said in an email, adding that “her work influenced and inspired me. She refused to bow to preconceived notions of what an art museum—particularly one in the Bronx—could or should be, envisioning an institution that was simultaneously extraordinarily global and hyper-local. She truly believed in access to the arts, and her championing of free admission was a paradigm-shifting statement about the responsibility of arts organizations and their leaders to translate their values into meaningful change.

Block’s contributions to the art world extend beyond the Bronx Museum. In 2013, under the aegis of the museum, she co-commissioned Sarah Sze to create work for the United States Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Sze’s installation later appeared at the Bronx Museum. Between 2011 and 2013, she oversaw smARTpower, a diplomacy program run by the U.S. government that sent American artists abroad to work with artists in different locales.

Bronx Museum board member Linda Blumberg, a longtime friend of Block’s who is a co-founder of PS1 and executive director of the Art Dealers Association of America, remembered her as “a pioneer, and a true visionary.” She recalled a luncheon at Block’s honor at which she gave a speech, saying of Block “a lot of people talk the talk. Holly walked the walk.”

Prior to starting as executive director of the Bronx Museum, Block was executive director of the New York–based nonprofit Art in General, where she worked from 1988 to 2006. She started the organization’s International Artists Residency and New Commissions programs, the latter of which is still in place at the institution.

Adam Weinberg, the Alice Pratt Brown Director of the Whitney Museum, said that Block’s work at Art in General exemplified some of her greatest qualities. “I was impressed by how artist-centric she was in her thinking,” he said. “Artists and community were her two great commitments.” And while she was making great strides in the art world, Block kept herself out of the limelight. Weinberg described her as “modest” and “really caring,” and added, “In celebrity culture, one can make a contribution without being a showboat.” Block’s career was proof.

A statement provided by Block’s family reads, in part, “True to character, she fought valiantly to the end, continuing until the very last to engage with visitors, ask about their projects, and even to make executive decisions. Everyone who knew Holly encountered her determination, brilliance, and open spirit.”

A memorial is being planned for November 5.

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