Major Board Shakeup at Bronx Museum as Trustees Quit Over Pricey Cuban Art Projects

Six trustees are taking the director to task over new initiatives.

Holly Block and Laura Blanco at the Bronx Museum of the Arts Spring Gala in 2012. © Patrick McMullan. Courtesy of RYAN MCCUNE/ PatrickMcMullan.com.

Two executive board members at the Bronx Museum of the Arts abruptly resigned and publicly criticized longtime museum director Holly Block over concerns about the institution’s involvement with two Cuban art projects—an exchange of artworks with museums in Havana, and a replica of a statue of Cuban national hero José Martí near Central Park.

New York Times art writer Robin Pogrebin broke the news on Friday.

Chair Laura Blanco and vice chairwoman Mary Beth Mandanas sent an email to the board on Wednesday, notifying it of their resignations and commenting: “We are alarmed by the serious nature of these issues and the lack of an unbiased mechanism for resolving them. While many of our comments concern the executive director and her lack of transparency, we are equally focused on the broader system that has been constructed to erode the power of the board.”

Block has been director of the museum since 2006. Pogrebin reports that questions for Block were referred to Joshua Stein, a real estate lawyer and fellow board member. artnet News reached out to Stein for comment and he referred us to PR firm Resnicow and Associates, which is representing the museum.

Blanco and Mandanas’s names still appear on the museum’s board of trustees page. Four other trustees have resigned, including Jeanna Hussey, Isabella Hutchinson, Jonathan Plotkin, and Jason Silverman, according to the Times story.

Blanco, who was born in Cuba and raised in Miami, became chairwoman a year ago. She told the Times that the first “troubling development” was Block’s decision to host a party by developers to promote a condo development. In an email to artnet News, a museum representative writes, “It is an overstatement to say that Holly ‘hosted’ the event. Her name appeared, along with many others, as a participant in the event. After concerns were raised about this many months ago, the board concluded that it had no objection to anything Holly did regarding this party.”

The event drew criticism for “exploiting the South Bronx’s troubled history,” Blanco told the Times. She said she drafted an email letting Block know she disapproved of the choice, saying, “you will end up betraying the very community we are supposed to serve.”

In response to the accusation, a museum representative pointed to Block’s track record, writing, “Criticism of any individual event notwithstanding, Holly’s enduring commitment to preserving the character of the Bronx is clearly demonstrated through her long history of championing the local community, culture, and artists through programming and in her decades-long involvement with the museum.”

Laura Blanco and Holly Block at the Bronx Museum of the Arts Spring Gala and Art Auction 2014. ©Patrick McMullan. Courtesy of J Grassi/Patrickmcmullan.com.

Laura Blanco and Holly Block at the Bronx Museum of the Arts Spring Gala and Art Auction 2014. ©Patrick McMullan. Courtesy of J Grassi/Patrickmcmullan.com.

Blanco also took issue with “Wild Noise,” a project involving an exchange art with the National Museum of Fine Arts in Cuba. “Only in the middle of fund-raising for the venture did Ms. Blanco say she learned that Cuba was unlikely to ever release any artwork for fear that it might be seized to satisfy outstanding claims from Americans whose property was confiscated by the Cuban government,” according to the Times.

The museum says it is unlikely to drop the project, however. “If we have to postpone opening of Wild Noise in the Bronx, we will, but the museum remains committed to the partnership, which provides tremendous benefit both the international arts community and to the local community in the Bronx,” writes a museum representative. “No one believed that we would be able to successfully mount the exhibition of works from the Bronx Museum in Cuba last year, but we persevered and made it happen.  We remain committed to the exhibition.”

Anna Hyatt Huntington's sculpture of Cuban hero José Martí near Central Park. Courtesy of Wally Gobetz via Flickr.

Anna Hyatt Huntington’s sculpture of Cuban hero José Martí near Central Park. Courtesy of Wally Gobetz via Flickr.

Friends of José Martí Sculpture Project, a non-profit the museum set up to present a copy of the statue by Anna Hyatt Huntington on Central Park South, also came under fire. It is supposed to be sent to the Office of the Historian of the City of Havana.

Blanco told the Times the cost is $2.5 million, while the museum’s yearly budget is $3.2 million: “To say this will have no impact on our fund-raising for our actual operating budget…seems to be overly optimistic at best.”

However, a museum representative writes, “The museum has minimal financial exposure on this project so any comparison to the museum’s operating budget has no relevance. The José Martí project is separate from the operating budget of the museum, just as projects like Bronx Museum’s presentation of the US Pavilion in Venice in 2013, and has received wide support in the broader arts funding community.” She continues, “The museum is glad to help lead this project, which fits well with the museum’s interest in Cuban art and helps enhance the museum’s visibility in the larger art world.”

In the end, the representative notes that “a committee of the Board is looking into all the concerns Laura raised.”


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