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Holly Block. Photo: Peter Serling / the Bronx Museum

Holly Block (1958–2017)

Holly Block, the executive director of the Bronx Museum of the Arts, has died. The institution confirmed her passing from cancer on the morning of Saturday, October 7. “Holly was a visionary and a pioneer whose international reputation as a director, curator, and arts administrator is boundless,” it said in a statement.

Under her leadership, attendance at the institution soared, quadrupling since it ended its suggested $5 admission policy in 2012. She launched a $25 million capital campaign in May of last year in support of a major renovation and expansion project that will increase exhibition space and establish an endowment. By the time the museum had announced the project, it had already successfully secured $7 million from the city of New York.

Block also spearheaded an unprecedented cultural exchange with Cuba in 2015. The museum agreed to an arrangement with the National Museum of Fine Arts that would allow for hundreds of works to travel between the two institutions. Despite facing backlash over the initiative when the Havana museum pulled works it had promised for the second half of the exhibition “Wild Noise/Ruido Salvaje,” which opened at the Bronx Museum in February, Block defended her global vision. When she first learned that the institution might not come through, she told City & State New York, “When you’re the first to do things there’s always challenges!”

Block first joined the Bronx Museum of the Arts as a curator in 1985. In 1988, she left to serve as executive director at Art in General, a nonprofit that assists artists with the production and presentation of new work. After eighteen years at the helm of the organization, Block returned to head the Bronx museum.

A champion of Cuban artists, Block authored the book Art Cuba: The New Generation (2001), a comprehensive survey on contemporary art from Cuba, and organized several exhibitions, such as “Revolution Not Televised” (2012); the first solo exhibition at an American museum of Carlos Garaicoa, “The Ruins, the Utopia” (2001); and “The Nearest Edge of the World: Art and Cuba Now” (1991).

The arts professional also served as a co-commissioner for the Department of State for the 2003 Cairo Biennial and the Fifty-Fifth Venice Biennale in 2013. Block grew up in Washington, DC. After graduating from Bennington College in Vermont in 1984, she moved to New York, where she started her career in the arts.

“Everyone who knew Holly encountered her determination, brilliance, and open spirit,” said gallerist Nicole Klagsbrun, who praised Block’s many accomplishments in an email to artforum.com. “She established residencies for international artists, highlighted community justice issues, championed the underdog, engaged with the underserved communities. She organized landmark shows on women, AIDS, Latin American art, and for many deserving, overlooked artists.”

“Holly Block was a visionary curator and museum director whose profound impact on the field will be felt for decades to come,” Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, told artforum.com. “She envisioned a world in which art was meaningful and accessible for all, and then worked tirelessly to make that vision a reality. As the director of the Bronx Museum, she advocated for an institution that was simultaneously open and rigorous, charting incredible paths through global contemporary art practice as it welcomed and advocated for local artists and communities. She was courageous, curious, and deeply guided by her love of art and culture, and she will be truly missed.”

A memorial service is being planned for November 5.

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