The Bronx’s “No Commission” Art Fair: Promising? Yes, but Not for Local Artists and Residents

by Elliott Brown Jr on August 17, 2016 Art Fair

Bronx 5

Nina Chanel Abney, “Untruth,” 2016. All photos by the author.

The story of art’s role in gentrifying urban neighborhoods is not new. But plant an art fair in the Bronx—one of the more recent instances of skyrocketing real-estate—and throw in the involvement of big-name sponsors and developers, and you have the makings of an event that won’t please everyone. That isn’t to say that locals were not involved with “No Commission NY: Art Performs,” a four-day art fair hosted at a former piano factory in the South Bronx; the art fair was aided by the vision of a culturally respected Bronx native, Swizz Beatz, a rapper, music producer, art collector, and recently appointed Chief Creative for Culture at Bacardi Limited.

On Thursday of last week, the Dean Collection, founded by Beatz, opened “No Commission NY: Art Performs,” at a former piano factory in the South Bronx.

This factory might sound familiar. The derelict warehouse formerly showcased  Lucien Smith’s “Macabre Suite,” a controversial art installation that was part of a celebrity-studded Halloween party last year. Hosted by developer and founder of Somerset Partners Keith Rubenstein and Salon 94 founder Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, the event included flaming trash bins and a car riddled with bullets by Smith—art that many viewed as being insensitive and unaware of the community’s violent past. The party was further criticized for ushering in support for the rebranding of the South Bronx waterfront as the “Piano District,” which would feature a 1,600 unit residential community and ground-level retail space. Now, nearly 10 months after the “Macabre Suite” debacle, is a clean start possible? “No Commission” avoids aestheticizing the trauma of the Bronx’s past as did the “Macabre Suite.”  Instead, staging an art fair in the borough suggests that it’s just as viable an artistic center as Manhattan. Yet the intention of the developers is maintained between the two events.

But let’s start with the event itself. As an art fair, “No Commission” isn’t without its merits. Each of the exhibiting artists were given the space to show their work for no cost, and received 100 percent of the sale for each artwork. That’s a generous model for artists.

Though RSVPs to the event were password protected, confirmed guests received the location on the day of the opening and entry was free. So were Bacardi-sponsored drinks, and a ride around the ferris wheel. Watching guests simultaneously winding their waists to Beatz’s DJ set while comfortably fawning over works by both established and emerging artists alike, including Derrick Adams, Faile, and Delphine Diallo, was notable in its own right.

Detail of Ebony Patterson's "...they were just hanging out you know...talking about... (...when they grow up...)," 2015-16.

Detail of Ebony Patterson, “…they were just hanging out you know…talking about… (…when they grow up…),” 2015-16.

Hosting the event in the Bronx acknowledges the history of the boroughs influence on contemporary culture. The work on display, including a dazzling installation by Ebony Patterson, beaded and fringe sculptures by Jeffrey Gibson, and a fluorescent colored painting by Todd James, have a bravado similar to the pop and street art that the Bronx is well known for. Musical guests included A$AP Rocky, Cardi B, and Doug E Fresh, all of whom are from the Bronx or Harlem and have stretched the perception of what a rapper can be.

However, with John Ahearn being the only Bronx-born artist of the thirty-six on display, along with language on the event flyer that reads “…bringing contemporary art and music back to the Bronx,” residents of the Bronx accused the event of disregarding contemporary artists who call the borough their home. (See the Hyperallergic report on protests by residents.) “No Commission” uses the grit and valor of the Bronx’s cultural past to contextualize its efforts, yet fails to identify how the Bronx shows up in the present; the Bronx is recognized as a host, but not as an already active site of production.


John Ahearn, “Juan Manuel (boxer),” 2003-2009.

And of course, there’s a reason for that. Developers have plans to remake this neighborhood, so they need to construct a narrative that matches their plans. Swizz Beatz as the face of this charge makes the gesture appear more sincere.

It suggests that the effects of gentrification, at the hands of someone proudly from the Bronx, could be mitigated and used to benefit people already living there. Yet the purpose of “No Commission” was to sell art and have the artists reap the entire profit of their labor, not to create a sustainable investment in the Bronx and its current productions.

And that’s ultimately a problem. Somerset Partners may have done better this time around by hosting an event that at least seems friendly to the arts, but much like the Lucien Smith debacle, little to no effort has been put into community outreach. Given their plans for the neighborhood, that shouldn’t come as a surprise.  

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