Holly Block, the former executive director of New York’s Bronx Museum of the Arts, died last night of cancer-related causes.
In 2016, Block resigned from her post as executive director at the Bronx Museum. She had 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.
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 had not been 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, which was intended to exchange works with the National Museum of Fine Arts in Cuba for an upcoming show, but which, for diplomatic and logistical reasons, never came to fruition. (The museum wound up exchanging works with the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de Habana instead.) 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.
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.
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.
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.