Passion Points: Arts/Culture
Art and travel have long been intertwined for Holly Block, the spirited new executive director of New York’s Bronx Museum of the Arts (www.bronxmuseum.org). During her eighteen-year tenure at Art in General—a contemporary space in SoHo that she headed before arriving in the Bronx last September—Block launched an ambitious travel program, leading small art tours through such places as Cairo, Havana, Istanbul and Buenos Aires. To Block, who has spent much of her career seeking new international talent, experiencing the world through the prism of art is second-nature. But she’s equally passionate about introducing others to this world, whether in her curatorial work or in the journeys she organizes.
A new travel club for the Bronx Museum is launching soon. INDAGARE spoke to Block about why meeting an artist in his studio or viewing a private collection that has never been open to the public before adds an invaluable perspective to a journey abroad.
What led you to launch Art in General’s travel program?
I was on the road all the time to see the kinds of works I wanted to present at the space, and at some point, there was interest from people involved with AIG to join me on these journeys. So I launched the travel program, which ended up functioning like a club.
Where did you go?
In the beginning, I planned the trips around international exhibitions so that the group could see works from a lot of different places. For instance, I was one of the co-commissioners for the Cairo Biennale in 2003 and the artist Paul Pfeiffer and I went twice before the event to do some scouting and ended up bringing a small group for the opening.
Can you talk a little about the value of taking an art tour?
You get a snapshot of the cultural scene of a place that you would simply not be able to access on your own. You can’t just go to a city, meet an artist and do a studio visit on your own. Maybe in Havana, a place that has a great cultural program, you might be able to encounter an artist during your stay, but to know which ones to seek out for studio visits you have to be led by an insider. It’s an amazing moment when a traveler realizes that they are part of an experience that they wouldn’t have had on their own.
How do you view yourself in these situations?
I serve as a group leader, but I am not in the travel business per se. I’m a museum director with a curatorial background, so really what travelers get with me is my knowledge of contemporary art and my network of art-world people. When I visit a place, I’ve already gotten tons of recommendations and everything has been tested. I always give a lecture before we depart and compile an extensive reading list for the group.
What advice would you give to someone on the fence about joining an art tour?
I think you have to be open-minded and if you’re considering one of my trips, you have to be ready for a density of activities, since I tend to cover as much as possible.
For example, I took a group to Kassel, Germany, to do Documenta, and afterwards, we went up to Berlin for studio visits, some with artists we had just seen at the show. We also got a special tour of the Berlin Chancellery’s private contemporary art collection, which is usually only accessible to government officials. The Reichstag has a good collection as well. We toured it with a guide who had been the main coordinator for Christo when the building was wrapped in 1995, so he was able to share an incredible first-person experience.
What destination surprised you the most with its art scene?
Cuba. In 1994, the first time I went, there was absolutely no information about it in the U.S. I had done a lot of work with Cuban-American artists, so I wanted to see the country first-hand. As soon as I came back, I created a Web site about the local art scene. In 2004, Time Out asked to publish this list of galleries, artists and cultural institutions in their guide to Havana.
Editor’s Note: For Holly Block’s Havana recommendations, click here.
What about other memorable trips?
I’ve been to Thailand, to Bangkok and Chiang Mai, where I discovered an interesting art scene. Argentina was great as well; there’s tons to see, including amazing architecture. Another surprising and intense trip was to the Philippines. I found some really good work, especially in Manila. I also saw the work of Philippine-born Alfonso Ossorio, an artist from the 1950s, whose work can be seen in this incredible church, the Chapel of St. Joseph the Worker, located in Victorias, in the Western Visayas.
Are there any art destinations you consider underrated or overrated?
When you’re going with a group, I think it’s more a question of timing. For instance, I prefer to go to Miami when it’s not filled with people like it is during Art Basel Miami Beach. Same with the Venice Biennale. I’m going this June, but I would never take a group during that time.
Have you ever taken groups to Venice?
Of course—the city is great for a small group. There are some places that can be truly miserable if you don’t have access to the behind-the-scenes and Venice is one of them. It’s full of smaller addresses that you would not necessarily find on your own. For instance, I often begin a tour at this little store that carries antique beads in Giudecca. The owner can talk for hours about their historic value, which is fascinating.
On the same trip, we may also go to Torcello to see the Byzantine murals and mosaic; to Cannaregio for studio visits—a lot of people think there aren’t any artists left in Venice, but there are!—and to its architecture school. And we might tour the synagogues and visit the Arsenale as an off-site location. I’ve had people tell me that they need a vacation after traveling with me. But I think a full program gives a great perspective on a city’s day-to-day life.
What are some of your favorite lesser-known museums?
The Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Havana; the Palazzo Fortuny and the Palazzo Grassi in Venice. In Mexico City, there’s the Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporáneo, which was recently remodeled and has a fabulous contemporary collection and a very nice gift shop. The Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź, Poland, has amazing abstract paintings. I also like the Gallery for Contemporary Art in Leipzig. And in Bangkok there’s the Jim Thompson House, a wonderful example of old architecture, of which there’s not much left. The building, with its old teak and mahogany, is special.
How about your favorite gallery neighborhoods?
The Mitte district in eastern Berlin is a huge complex of galleries, and I love it there. The same thing goes for the 13th arrondissement in Paris. I like the Marais as well, but the contemporary scene is really strong around the Rue Louise-Weiss in the 13th. In Los Angeles, it used to be all about Bergamot Station but now Culver City has interesting commercial and non-profit spaces that are worth seeing. And the Schindler House does incredible projects that I never miss when I’m in town.
What destinations would tempt you in the future?
I’m working on a trip to China, where we would do Beijing and Shanghai but also Quanzhou, which has a wonderful art school. Touring a secondary city would help offshoot the metropolises and give a different perspective.
When will you launch the Bronx Museum’s travel club?
I hope by the fall. I would like to do two trips per year. We will send a group on a U.S.-licensed trip to Cuba in February or March 2008 and do a shorter trip to San Juan, Puerto Rico, this fall. We’re also talking about doing ARCO, the contemporary art fair in Madrid, and then heading up to Bilbao and San Sebastián, where there’s a group of interesting local artists.
Who will get to go?
We will invite high-level members of the museum as well as people who make a significant donation.
What’s on the itinerary for San Juan?
It’s a four-day trip. We will see the Museo de Arte de Ponce with curator Cheryl Hartup, do a guided tour of the historical zone of Old San Juan and have drinks in a private home that was designed by the artist Jorge Pardo. We’ll also drop in on painters Antonio Martorell and Melvin Martínez in their studios and visit a few private collectors. When I was there last year, I saw the collections of six substantial collectors, three of whom had never opened their homes to the public before. We will stay the Condado Plaza.
Looking back, can you pinpoint the journey that inspired this passion for travel?
Yes, absolutely. To celebrate my 30th birthday, I went to Mexico City for the first time and something just clicked. Of course I had traveled before, but this trip made me say: ‘I want to see the world.’
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