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Activists Protest Swizz Beatz’s Art Fair in the Bronx

Both a declaration and the name of the organization (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
Both a declaration and the name of the organization, at the “Defend the Bronx” rally (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Last weekend, the rapper and record producer Kasseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean, along with Bacardi — for which he’s reportedly the new “global chief of culture” — staged an art fair in the Bronx. According to Remezcla, the event, titled No Commission, was first produced last December in Miami, where artworks were offered without the participation of galleries or other middlemen, earning a million dollars for the artists who participated. Perhaps that’s why Dean, himself an art collector, thought the fair might be a way to support the communities of the Bronx, the borough in which he was born and raised.

Dean’s plans, however, were mired in controversy from the start. To launch the event, he arranged a party in a property newly acquired by developer Keith Rubenstein, who’s head of Somerset Group, one of the leading commercial interests seeking to rebrand and build out the Port Morris section of the South Bronx. Rubenstein is notorious among local residents for having thrown a widely reviled, star-studded party last year, which featured bullet-riddled cars and flaming trash cans to illustrate its theme, “Bronx is burning.”

Then there was the artist list for No Commission: according to the Welcome to the Bronx blog, only about a third of the participants had significant connections to the borough, and no Latino artists were included (the full list of artists appears here). So, although another son of the Bronx, A$AP Rocky, played at the opening night party on Thursday, August 11, for many activists, artists, and concerned citizens, the entire event seemed like a sales tactic to provide street cred and cover for rapacious developers. Ed García Conde of Welcome to the Bronx was reportedly able to meet with Dean for several hours and express his concerns that “artists [are] being used as pawns for developers.” He secured a promise from Dean that the producer would collaborate with Conde on a future event that will include local artists in a “more neutral location.”

The protesters flanked by a few police officers (click to enlarge)
The protesters flanked by a few police officers (click to enlarge)

Nevertheless, many longstanding local activist groups decided to stage a protest on opening night of the fair, spurred by artist Shellyne Rodriguez, a member of Take Back the Bronx who also spoke with Dean. According to Rodriguez, her sit-down with the rapper was unproductive. Essentially, she said, Dean pleaded ignorance of Rubinstein’s significant role in the gentrification of the South Bronx. Dean claimed that he just wanted to give back to his community, and that Knicks star Carmelo Anthony had suggested Rubenstein when Dean was looking for a No Commission venue. Rodriguez went on the say that Dean dangled the option of a closed-door meeting between Rubenstein and the activists, but only if the protests did not go forward. Rodriguez refused the bait — unlike Conde, she said, who ended up endorsing the fair — because “our position is that no artists should be involved.” She thought a forum with Rubenstein would need to be public, or it would essentially function as PR for his interests.

Artist Shellyne Rodriquez of Take Back the Bronx, who was a leader in organizing the protests
Artist Shellyne Rodriquez of Take Back the Bronx, who was a leader in organizing the protests

Rodriguez spread the word about the protest to other organizations and reached out to Hyperallergic, which has been reporting on the competing agendas of pop-up art exhibitions, commercial real estate developers, and activist groups in this economically depressed area. In fact, it’s the area I live in, so when Rodriguez contacted us, I decided to walk down to 101 Lincoln Avenue, where the on-ramp to the Third Avenue Bridge and Bruckner Boulevard meet and Lincoln begins its southeast turn to skirt the Harlem River. When I arrived, around 6:45pm, I saw some 12 protesters carrying signs and sporadically addressing people heading into the party. They were accompanied by a few police officers standing off to the side, looking completely uninterested. One woman was speaking into a microphone attached to a portable speaker: “ … will appropriate your culture, disrespect and replace you!,” she chanted.

Pilar Maschi of The Bronx Is Not For Sale clearly expressing her sentiments
Pilar Maschi of The Bronx Is Not For Sale clearly expressing her sentiments

I spoke first with Pilar Maschi, who was affiliated with The Bronx Is Not for Sale; she was holding a sign that read “Fuck You Keith Rubinstein.” “They are trying to get buy-in with the community,” she replied when I asked her why the protest had been organized. “They’re bringing in their tokens, their sellouts, people who are not necessarily from the Bronx, but I guess they are of color. They are legitimizing and selling out their community by participating in an event like this.” The theme of “selling out” was repeated by several protestors. Wanda Salaman, executive director of the local nonprofit Mothers on the Move, told me she knew the one-bedroom apartments in the buildings that have yet to be constructed would cost $3,500 per month, a price point she believes would drive out longtime residents. She claimed to have heard during tenant meetings that owners of buildings in the district are already offering residents thousands of dollars to move out so that they can raise rents. This starts a cycle, she said, “and in less than two months, they may be homeless.” She thinks the art fair is connected to this process. “Do not use artists to sell our community out,” she added.

Wanda Salaman of Mothers on the Move
Wanda Salaman of Mothers on the Move

Trying to get more clarity on the precise connection between an art fair and selling out, I turned to the artist Alicia Grullón, who founded Percent for Green. She explained that the argument the groups were mounting was not against the artists themselves — and here we were interrupted by Pilar, who yelled and insisted that they were protesting the artists. When Pilar allowed her to continue, Grullón explained that she, at least, was there to protest the developers, both because the artists in No Commission were not from the South Bronx community, therefore Dean and company were not actually welcoming locals, and also because the mix of art, development, and real estate often leads to gentrification and displacement. How that happens, according to Grullón, is speculation. She contended that when wealthy people come to a neighborhood to buy paintings, they don’t just purchase art — “they are also speculating the area to make further investment, to make their money grow. That’s how the process works.” It’s a story that has played out in many Brooklyn neighborhoods, such as Bushwick, and is now happening in Harlem as well.

Of all the people I talked to, Shannon Jones of Why Accountability — the one who’d been speaking into the microphone when I first arrived — had the most comprehensive conception of how all the distinct issues swirling around Dean’s fair related to each other. “It all goes hand in hand: the militarized police state, greedy developers pushing you out of your neighborhood, horrible housing, miseducation of black and brown children,” she said. “A classic move of white supremacy is to use black people to further what they want to do,” she continued, seeming to suggest that Rubenstein was using Dean to further his own aims. Shannon claimed that Bronx politicians sold out the community by “rezoning these areas and not mandating any new housing built here be affordable for the people who live here,” and pointed out that the South Bronx “is the poorest congressional district in the entire country” (a designation corroborated by The Economist earlier this year). She said it made no sense for her to go to an art fair party when her friends and neighbors were at risk of being displaced. “6,000 evictions [take place] every year in the Bronx,” she said. The statistics I found paint a worse picture: 11,000 evictions took place in the borough in 2012. Given such dire numbers, which indicate the slim chance the working poor have of surviving, it’s no wonder that Pilar said to me, in referring to the fair and party, “this is violence.”

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Protesters questioning the economic future of the South Bronx

It struck me that all these women (and it was mostly women at the rally) were determined and principled, and refused to see themselves as powerless in confrontations with developers who have already secured contracts and agreements and will start building soon. It’s a difficult task they’ve taken on, but a crucial one: to convince artists, politicians, landlords, and tenants not to participate, not to take the money and run, to forgo the ostensible, immediate profit for a long-term plan that’s sustainable for the majority. Their struggle reminds me of a phrase Deep River, an alternative exhibition space run by a group of artists in LA, used to print on its stationery and send out with its emails: “Resistance is futile, except when it isn’t.”

The No Commission fair took place August 11–14 at 101 Lincoln Avenue in the South Bronx.

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