Bronx Museum of the Arts Hires New Director

Posted June 19, 2018 4:39 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — After a period of turmoil and tragedy, the Bronx Museum of the Arts has tapped a new director: Deborah Cullen. A Bronx resident, she is currently the director of the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University.

Cullen, 53, will succeed Holly Block, who served as director at the Bronx Museum for 11 years and died of breast cancer last fall at 58. During her tenure, the museum saw a sizable increase in attendance and made a splash on the international stage, sponsoring the exhibition that represented the United States at the 2013 Venice Biennale.

“Holly took the Bronx Museum through a period of significant growth and positive change,” Joe Mizzi, the chairman of the museum’s board of trustees, said in a phone interview. “Those are big shoes to fill.”

But the museum has also been split by internal disagreements, with two board members resigning in 2016 after a public dispute over the museum’s finances and international aims. Board members say the incident was isolated.

“That was two years ago and really hasn’t played any role whatsoever,” Mizzi said. “It’s been a strong, unified board.”

As the director of the Wallach Gallery, Cullen oversaw the opening of a new gallery space in West Harlem and was known for championing art from Latin America, the Caribbean and the African diaspora. In 2017 she founded “Uptown,” a triennial of contemporary art that showcased artists from in northern Manhattan. “This show hits high, especially when it offers a view of the vibrancy of uptown,” Jason Farago wrote in his Times review.

The Wallach Gallery estimates it had seven times more visitors last year than in 2012, when Cullen took over. Before then, Cullen served as the director of curatorial programs at El Museo del Barrio.

In a phone interview, Cullen did not put forth any specific goals for the Bronx Museum, saying she wanted to get to know the staff and board before making any decisions. She acknowledged the importance of completing the museum’s $25 million capital campaign and balancing its communal and global aims. “My history has always been forging collaborations and building connections,” she said. “I think that needs to happen both locally within the Bronx and on a more national or even international stage.”

Cullen will assume her post in July at a museum that is stable financially. Mizzi said the museum increased its reserve fund by $200,000 in 2017 and has boosted its operating budget by 10 percent this fiscal year to pay for initiatives including a downtown studio space at 80 White St. “We’d like to increase the number of people we reach and we’d like to expand our programs,” Mizzi said.

Programming is already set through early spring, so it may take a while before Cullen’s ideas are seen in the galleries. Next up at the museum is an exhibition showcasing the sculptures of the Syrian-born artist Diana Al-Hadid.