No Longer Empty – From Courthouse to Art Gallery and Beyond

Sandra Bertrand

 

 

Thanks to No Longer Empty, a New York-based non-profit involved in pumping new life into community spaces abandoned or left behind, the Old Bronx Borough Courthouse is opening its doors once again.  Only this time, after being shuttered for 37 years, its walls no longer resound with the smack of a judge’s gavel.  Instead, artists, performers, and the community-at-large can enter its cavernous space and call it home.

The current installation, When You Cut into the Present the Future Leaks Out and curated by Regine Basha, is an eclectic grouping of works by 27 artists that have used its threadbare floors and darkened corners to impressive effect.  There are moments when visitors—climbing and descending rickety staircases to peer into yet another surprising exhibit—can feel as if they’ve entered a haunted house.  One such work by Abigail Deville, entitled “…and justice for all?” is a huge dumpsite of sorts, including among others throwaway items TVmonitors, a child’s bed and unidentifiable construction parts greeting the eye.  The whole business is flanked by flashing lights and sounds of urban blight. 

 

 

Another work by Shellyne Rodriguez is set apart in its own basement alcove, and it’s one shimmering chandelier to behold.  Constructed with copper wire, plywood, rhinestone, gold chains and 168 mousetraps (yes, mousetraps!), it exemplifies perhaps best the idea of transforming our refuse into something beautiful.  Melissa Caldren’s The Bronx River consisting of three panels of plywood embroidered with aqua-colored twine is not the eye-candy artistry of Rodriguez’s chandelier but it’s a heartfelt symbol of a neighborhood fixture.  An exhibit under glass incorporates hundreds of antique postcards of civil buildings and in another hallway, a cut and paste poetry exhibit gives each visitor their turn at finding their own muse. 

On the day I attended, a panel on “Shifting Sands: New Dynamics in the Bronx Art Scene” was underway.  Both arts consultants and artists were extremely vocal about the role of the arts in their community. While one participant felt that “everyone is an artist” and the majority expressed the need for nonprofits, small businesses and artists to work together, Bill Aguado, the former director of the Bronx Council of the Arts, was not one to mince words.  He emphasized that the borough’s own artists were often “missing from the equation.” He noted that “major arts organizations provide services to the schools but don’t use their own local artists in the Bronx.”

 

 

At least with organizations like No Longer Empty on the watch, such communities can find fun and constructive ways to come together in unlikely sites.  It’s important to note that this is the same Beaux-Arts-style courthouse that once boasted granite floors, lavish stairways and bronze doors.  Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in Bronx County, it may be a shadow of its former self, but it’s a ghost worth welcoming.

 

Author Bio:

Sandra Bertrand is Highbrow Magazine’s chief art critic.

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