Since ceasing operations as a grand retirement home in the 1980s, the Andrew Freedman Home had been standing quietly inconspicuous on its spacious lot off the Bronx’s famed Grand Concourse. Just a handful of activities had been taking place on-site, mostly in the basement: a Head Start preschool program, a food bank, a thrift shop. The property owner, the Mid-Bronx Senior Citizens Council (MBSCC), began thinking about how to more fully utilize the multi-storied mansion to bring this unique space into active community use. That was the impetus for the phone call that MBSCC and Holly Block of the Bronx Museum of the Arts (BMA) made to No Longer Empty (NLE), a Brooklyn-based arts organization that organizes site-specific public art installations to revitalize fallow spaces.
For NLE, “site-specific” means including both the physical place and the people who live and work in the surrounding community. By using art to interpret physical space and its historical context, NLE uses its installations to re-frame vacant, forgotten spaces as places that are open for interpretation. As Executive Director Naomi Hersson-Ringskog explains, “What we do well is listening to the initiatives, challenges, and caveats the community expresses.”
No Longer Empty’s exhibition “This Side of Paradise,” served as the impetus for community groups to engage with the space and link this resource with their own plans and needs. Getting conversations flowing among existing cultural organizations, including members of the nascent Bronx Arts Alliance, inspired visions of the events and programs that the mansion could host and also led to new creative collaborations.
In addition to opening up avenues of dialogue, Naomi also says, in terms of the physical site, “The first thing we do is open the gates. It’s a sign of welcome and a way of getting the community to start associating with the site and what the site should be.” One of the groups that took advantage of the space was the Bronx Children’s Museum (BCM). With its gates open, the mansion turned into fertile ground for Museum programming, especially with the BCM’s new home still under construction.
NLE’s Director of Programming and Outreach, Jodie Dinapoli, recalls talking with the BCM’s Executive Director, Carla Precht, who wished to develop an early childhood program that would explore the question “What is art?” The mansion, filled with the works of more than 20 artists through NLE’s exhibition, became an ideal site for realizing interactive tours and workshops. The BCM, working with three teaching artists, paired-up with local children’s organizations, two of which were literally under the mansion’s nose: Head Start, which was operating from the basement floor, and BronxWorks, which was across the street. It was an outstanding example of how people began to re-connect with a long-ignored space that was already along the route they followed in their daily routines.
The mansion became recognized as an asset in a variety of ways. For Inspirit, a Bronx-based dance company, rehearsal space is always a necessary resource. The re-activated mansion was able to provide not only physical space but inspiration and a unique performance context. Another performer, Diana Crum, expressed a “[craving for] more spaces in between: performance settings where artists and pedestrians gather to experience time-based work and in the process forge a temporary community, ripe for reflection and re-imagining.”
Hip-Hop Dance Conservatory used the mansion’s unique setting to film and document their work. For Boogie Down Rides and the Bronx Arts Alliance, the space became a convenient gathering spot for meetings. BronxNet, which produced the film of featured artist Mel Chin, began using the space to offer media courses throughout the run of the exhibition and possibly on into the future. Reflecting on the process of these successful collaborations, Jodie emphasizes, “Collaboration is beautiful, but requires diligence. To be a true success, each group must define their objectives, goals, and needs.”
The care taken to interact and engage with people throughout the programs and events helped this private space achieve the warmth and vibrancy of a true public destination. As the hosts of the space, NLE staff and volunteers remained active and engaged with the site once programs were underway. They observed that many visitors, especially non-habitual art-goers, will hesitate at the doorway to the exhibition or the event. One of the simplest methods for putting a visitor at ease and imparting a sense of belonging was to have a friendly greeter at the front desk. A smile and a hello goes a long way in cultivating a welcoming environment. “Our tone is about engagement,” Naomi says. “We want to engage people in conversation, which is the way to share knowledge and inspire more curiosity.”
As with bringing vibrancy to a place, the aspect of a warm human presence cannot be overestimated in creating vibrant exhibitions and programs. On the day of NLE’s Easter Egg Hunt at the mansion, volunteers were present to walk people up and down the street between multiple events also being orchestrated by the BCM and the BMA. It turned into a huge day out on the Grand Concourse for close to 800 children with the feel of festive neighborhood block party.
On the other hand, not every activity that occurred in the space was planned. With the gates unlocked, local workers would spontaneously use the front lawn and garden as a lunch spot. “This was an example of how the community began using this private space in a public manner,” Naomi says, reflecting.
Creating an open testing ground for ideas both spontaneous and planned is a great value of NLE’s Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper approach to public art. Although NLE only temporarily occupies any site, the spirit of nimble mobility is ideal for sparking communities into new awareness and playful experimentation with their everyday surroundings. The ability of any community to recognize the potential of its hidden assets is is the first step to turning a place around.
To learn about one of PPS’s favorite projects up in the Bronx, visit our project page for the Bronx River Arts Center (BRAC) renovation and expansion!