Shellyne Rodriguez featured in a Hyperallergic article on art, gentrification, and protest in the Bronx
VCS alumna Shellyne Rodriguez was featured today in a Hyperallergic article by Jillian Steinhauer dealing with controversy over a current exhibition staged in the Old Bronx Borough Courthouse by the arts nonprofit No Longer Empty (NLE). The space has become a flashpoint for protests over gentrification in the area, including criticism of NLE’s plans to host a party for real estate brokers in the space during the show’s run. The news angered Bronx residents who have seen several attempts to convert the building into a local cultural center thwarted since the early 1990s.
Steinhauer‘s article discusses Shellyne’s initial involvement in the controversy:
What people didn’t seem to know about was the brokers’ party. The artists in the show didn’t (or else didn’t care) — they only learned about it when one of them, Shellyne Rodriguez, stumbled upon it on NLE’s website a few days after the opening. “No one saw it; it was just quietly announced on their website,” she says. “So I screenshot-ed it and I emailed it to all the artists. I was like, you guys, what’s going on here?”
The article presents a detailed history of the situation, including an account of Shellyne’s continuing involvement since her initial discovery of the brokers’ party, and a few comments on her feelings about the situation:
“Me being from the Bronx but being an artist, I wear two hats,” she says. “I am critiquing the show and talking shit, but I’m in the show. You see what I’m saying?” Rodriguez’s relationship to the courthouse runs deeper than just being from the Bronx (like a handful of others in the show). The last time her mother was in the building, she was pregnant with Shellyne. And during the summer of 1977, Rodriguez’s uncle was briefly locked up there during the blackout riots. Two of her pieces in When You Cut Into the Present harken back to that time: magnetically expressive small-scale ceramic sculptures that portray her family members as allegorical figures. They’re among the works in the show most carefully attuned to their surroundings.
Still, Rodriguez has no illusions about what it means to be a working artist in New York today — even one from the Bronx. “Artists are not the root cause [of gentrification]. But artists are well aware at this point that we are the bees to the honey. We’re strike breakers, is what I say. The New York tenants, they’re on strike. They’re fighting for their lives, and we’re coming in as scabs for developers. So, if you know that — you know that’s the model — then are you using yourself as bait to developers in order to gain access to interesting spaces without really fully thinking about the repercussions?”
The article provides a lot more information about the controversy and its history than I have here, and is well worth a read. In addition to the situation at hand, it touches on broader issues that are crucial to both the city and its art scene right now, including the demographic and economic changes that have profoundly transformed much of the New York City area in recent decades, the ambiguous role art spaces are playing within those larger transformations, and the abiding tension between residents and developers in the Bronx and elsewhere.
(For more on Shellyne, see this recent post.)