2016-10-02 22:06:10
After Board Upheaval, Bronx Museum Regroups and Affirms Plans

It’s hard enough for a New York City museum outside Manhattan to generate continuing support among visitors and donors, let alone raise money for a major building expansion.

So the last thing the Bronx Museum of the Arts needed was to have its two top trustees resign very publicly in August, citing its director for betraying the museum’s mission and for a lack of transparency. The departures kicked up a cloud of controversy just three months after the museum had announced a $25 million capital campaign to renovate and expand its building along the Grand Concourse and to establish an endowment for the first time.

“Any discord is not helpful as you embark on these big campaigns,” said Michael M. Kaiser, chairman of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland, who has run several major arts institutions. “You want the mood to be positive — you want people to feel confident and comfortable giving large sums to an institution.”

In resigning, Laura Blanco, the chairwoman, and Mary Beth Mandanas, the vice chairwoman, asserted that the museum’s director, Holly Block, had failed to discuss proposals with the board and that the institution appeared to be facing a deficit of an uncertain amount.

Specifically, they protested Ms. Block’s plan to raise $2.5 million to create a replica of a sculpture of José Martí, the Cuban revolutionary leader, that would be sent to Havana as a symbolic gesture, and to an exchange of artworks with Cuba that they viewed as unlikely to happen. (Four other trustees resigned at the same time but did not return calls to explain their reasons.)

They also said Ms. Block promoted her supporters to the board’s executive committee to ensure that her decisions went unchallenged; of the 28 current trustees, all but two were appointed by the board’s nominating committee during Ms. Block’s tenure.

A special board committee was formed in June to investigate Ms. Blanco’s initial charges. But trustees generally say that Ms. Blanco’s description of an imperious director making unilateral decisions does not describe Ms. Block’s approach to her job.

“People on the board feel very comfortable going up to her,” said Marilyn Greene, a vice chairwoman of the board. “She’s very open and willing to talk.”

Sitting in the museum’s lobby cafe for her first interview since the resignations, Ms. Block said the museum was moving forward; at the most recent board meeting, on Sept. 21, a new roster of officials was elected, including Joseph Mizzi, a construction executive, as chairman.

“It’s just very sad,” Ms. Block said. “You live and learn from these kinds of experiences. We’ll learn from this.”

Clearly, board members are frustrated by the highly public nature of the departure of the two disaffected trustees. Several said that Ms. Blanco, who became chairwoman a year ago, did not understand her role, communicated poorly with the board and complained publicly about the museum’s operations, which had made her unlikely to be re-elected as chairwoman in September. “She was ineffective as chair,” Ms. Greene said.

In an interview, Ms. Blanco, a former entertainment executive who was born in Cuba and raised in Miami, said, “Neither I nor Mary Beth would ever have considered re-election or even continuing on as a trustee if serious changes were not enacted at the museum.”

Over her last decade as director, Ms. Block has generally received positive reviews for ambitious exhibitions, raising the institution’s profile and increasing attendance — in large part by establishing free admission in 2012.

“That was transformative,” said Tom Finkelpearl, the city’s cultural affairs commissioner, adding that Ms. Block had “brought value to the museum” and given it “visibility.”

But some others have been unhappy with Ms. Block’s decisions to reach beyond the borough, saying that local artists were not getting enough attention. And Ms. Blanco argued that the Martí fund-raising effort should have been directed at “things we really needed, like free admission, or education.”

Ms. Block said the borough had always been integral to the museum’s operations and programming, in part through its advisory council of Bronx volunteers. She also said that of 20 exhibitions since 2015, 55 percent have included Bronx-born or Bronx-based artists and that, of 120 public programs, 74 percent have involved Bronx-born or Bronx-based artists. Still, she added, “No museum can exhibit every local artist.”

Ms. Block also defended the sculpture project, saying said that Martí had lived in New York, that Bronx children study him in school and that the museum has already succeeded in raising the money from outside sources, with $1.5 million going toward creating the sculpture and the rest to be spent on educational programming.

Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, said his institution stood by its support of the Martí project ($500,000) and “Wild Noise” ($150,000), the museum’s visual arts exchange with the National Museum of Fine Arts in Cuba.

“We in no way lost our confidence in Holly or the Bronx Museum,” Mr. Walker said.

“What we’re seeing at the Bronx Museum is the tension between remaining locally authentic and grounded in the reality of that community,” Mr. Walker added, “and recognizing that we live in a global world and that culture is not defined simply by geography.”

Ms. Blanco has also accused Ms. Block of failing to inform the board that Cuba was unlikely ever to release any artworks for the exchange, because of Cuba’s fear that they might be seized to satisfy outstanding American claims to property confiscated by the Cuban government.

Ms. Block said, “The board was provided updates and information on the Cuba project on a regular basis.” She added that the notion that Cuba was unlikely to lend works was “speculation.”

“People outside the museum thought we’d never be able to successfully loan works to Cuba,” she said, “and we did.”

Ms. Block’s defenders also said that this type of international effort was important for a small museum seeking broader recognition. In another example, Ms. Block and the critic and curator Carey Lovelace proposed that Sarah Sze represent the United States at its pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2013, and the Bronx Museum commissioned Ms. Sze’s exhibition there.

“She has created visiting artist programs that have given emerging artists from Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean the chance to live and work in New York,” said Laura Hoptman, the Museum of Modern Art’s curator of painting and sculpture, who used to work with Ms. Block at the Bronx Museum.

Trustees also said that Ms. Mandanas’s assertion that the museum — which has an annual operating budget of $3.5 million to $4 million — was facing a deficit was inaccurate. They said that nonprofits often start with a shortfall that they make up throughout the year.

The museum continues to focus on its renovation and expansion. The architect Monica Ponce de Leon, of MPdL Studio, will redesign the museum’s old glass atrium and entrance at the Grand Concourse at 165th Street at a cost of $25 million, which includes money for the institution’s endowment.