New Director for the Bronx Museum of the Arts? It’s a Familiar Name

A report by Hilarie M. Sheets for The New York Times.

The Bronx Museum of the Arts announced Friday that Klaudio Rodriguez, its interim director since January, would become executive director of the contemporary art institution, which has been without a leader since December 2019.

Born in Nicaragua in 1971 and raised in Miami, Mr. Rodriguez joins a growing group of Latino art museum directors in this country, including Julián Zugazagoitia at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo.; Amada Cruz at the Seattle Art Museum; and Silvia Karman Cubiñá at the Bass Museum of Art in Miami.

“Klaudio’s leadership really brought out the best of the entire staff,” said Joseph Mizzi, chairman of the Bronx museum’s board, praising Mr. Rodriguez’s ability to find donor support, balance a budget, keep all staff at full pay and pivot quickly to online programming during the challenging months of the pandemic. After an international search, Mr. Mizzi said in an interview this week, “The board recognized at our September meeting that there was no need to do anything but support and promote from within.”

Founded in 1971, the Bronx Museum draws both international and local audiences to its exhibitions of globally recognized and culturally diverse artists. The institution commissioned Sarah Sze’s exhibition at the U.S. pavilion in the 2013 Venice Biennale, encouraged cultural exchanges in Cuba, and inaugurated a robust education program aimed at its immediate community, with a large immigrant population that is more than 50 percent Latino.

Mr. Rodriguez was recruited to the Bronx Museum of the Arts by Holly Block, the museum’s longtime executive director, from the Frost Art Museum in Miami in 2017. As deputy director, he oversaw all daily museum operations, including managing staff and developing exhibitions. “My very first day on the job was a full board meeting where I learned that Holly was stepping down,” Mr. Rodriguez said. Ms. Block died in October 2017, and he stepped into the de facto role of leader after that, but the top job ultimately went to Deborah Cullen-Morales, an outside hire. She left after 18 months, and Mr. Rodriguez — again — took the helm as interim director.

“It’s been a tumultuous few years with the passing of Holly, the pandemic, financial stresses,” he said in an interview on Wednesday. “Really my main goal right now is to stabilize the ship and make sure that everyone is steering in the same direction.”

Mr. Rodriguez recalled his childhood as an immigrant in Miami after his family fled the revolution in the late 1970s. “The museum is situated in a community very much like the one I grew up in,” he said. He described seeing Picasso’s “Guernica” at age 12 in Madrid’s Prado museum, an experience that was “absolutely transformative.” He has been driven professionally to engage students who had very little exposure to museums in his role as chief curator at the Frost, part of Florida International University, where he received his undergraduate and masters degrees in art history, and now in the Bronx.

Currently on view there are exhibitions by Sanford Biggers, of mixed-media works informed by the African-American history of quilt-making, and by José Parlá, of abstract paintings referencing distressed walls in urban landscapes. Mr. Rodriguez is holding off announcing new exhibitions for the museum’s upcoming 50th anniversary year. “We have plans, of course, but it’s pandemic-pending,” he said.

Mr. Rodriguez has overseen a $20 million capital campaign for a long-planned renovation and expansion of the museum’s original building, a former synagogue, and the 2006 addition by Arquitectonica. He hopes to select an architect in the next six months and break ground within two years. “It will create a new entrance, more outward-facing to the community,” he said, and add some galleries.

In 2016, a U.S. Latinx Arts Futures Symposium hosted by the Ford Foundation shone a light on the lack of representation in art institutions from the nation’s fastest-growing ethnic group, with Latinos holding only 3 percent of museum leadership. (Latinx is a gender-neutral term loosely defined as people of Latin American birth or descent who live primarily in the United States.) Joining that rank this year were Jacqueline Terrassa at the Colby College Museum of Art, Julie Rodrigues Widholm at the University of California Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive and Victoria Sancho Lobis at the Benton Museum of Art at Pomona College.

“I’m very proud to represent the Latino community,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “It’s the power of presentation, leading by example.” Shirley Solomon, director of government and institutional giving at the museum for more than 15 years, has been named deputy director.

The Bronx Museum uplifts the work of Black, Indigenous and artists of color, said Gonzalo Casals, commissioner of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs. “It provides a social and civic anchor for residents of the South Bronx and serves as a cultural destination for people from across New York and beyond,” he said. “We look forward to working with the new leadership to make this important organization thrive.”

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