Klaudio Rodriguez, The Bronx Museum of the Arts Executive Director
Klaudio Rodriguez (left, photo by Brendon Cook, BFA) was named Executive Director of the Bronx Museum of the Arts in November after being its interim director since January. We spoke with Mr. Rodriguez to learn more about his role and how he entered the museum field.
MANY: The first thing we want to do is congratulate you on being named Executive Director at the Bronx Museum of the Arts. Can you tell us a little bit more about the museum?
Klaudio Rodriguez: The Bronx Museum of the Arts is the contemporary art museum in the borough of the Bronx. We’re about to celebrate our 50th anniversary in 2021. It started in 1971 in the Bronx county courthouse down the street from us and then moved to its current location in 1982. There was an expansion in 2006 with the addition of the Architectonica designed North Building. We’re actually in the middle of a capital campaign project to do a remodel of the south building. We are one of the only free art museums in the city. We’re the only contemporary art museum in the whole borough of the Bronx. I see the museum as a local, national, and international museum. We expand our reach everywhere, but I think one of the things that makes the Bronx Museum the Bronx Museum is that we are firmly planted in the community. We strive to serve all of our diverse communities. The Bronx is one of the most ethnically, economically, and socially diverse of the boroughs here in New York and in the United States with large Latino, African American, and Caribbean communities. We want to reach those audiences while looking at the broader, international art dialogue.
When did you officially take on the role of Executive Director?
I was officially named on November 13. I had been working in an interim capacity since January.
What were you doing before you joined the staff at the Bronx Museum?
I was a Curator at the Frost Art Museum in Miami Florida for ten years.
From your time as a curator, what experiences have you found most helpful for your role now?
In my role as a curator, I learned about managing multiple people. As a curator you're working with a variety of artists, you’re orchestrating a whole exhibition, you’re working with your whole staff...registrars, marketing and PR, fundraising...so a lot of that is very transferable into the work that I do every day here. As a curator in a university museum, I also mentored a lot of students. The ability to work with young people, to empower them, and to inspire them translated well into the work I do here, especially with the education department. FIU [Florida International University] is a majority minority community and a lot of the student body had never walked into the museum or had familiarity with the museum. My task was to make it [the museum] accessible to them and understand how it relates to their daily lives. I feel like there are similar challenges here [at the Bronx Museum of the Arts] as well. A lot of the community surrounding the museum doesn’t believe that the museum is for them. So how do we open it and make it accessible for them and make it of value to them? These parallels are very important and helped me as I was thinking about how to engage with our community and how to open doors for them, breaking down perceived and actual physical barriers.
Were those some of the reasons that attracted you to leave your position as Curator at FIU to the Bronx Museum of the Arts?
Absolutely. One of the only reasons I considered leaving Miami for New York was the type of work this institution was doing, how it's firmly rooted in the community and how it’s really engaged in outreach. That was probably the biggest driver for me to come up to New York.
Can you describe a favorite day on the job?
The one that stands out is a few weeks ago when the New York Times article came out on November 13. I was overwhelmed by the support and well-wishers from everywhere. I’m still trying to catch up on my emails, texts, and social media because it’s been such an avalanche. It was a pretty spectacular day. As far as day to day, I mean pre-pandemic, my favorite day on the job here is every day that we are open. Every single day that we are open is a good day. I like to walk the galleries. I like to see and engage with people in the galleries. I can’t do this as much now because of social distancing, but seeing people inside the galleries is always a favorite. Pre-pandemic, I loved exhibitions openings too because besides being a big celebration, it validates all the work my staff was doing. So we celebrate the staff, we celebrate the artists, the exhibition. Those days are very fulfilling and I miss those days and having people together.
What are some of your initial and long-term goals for the museum?
One of the initial goals that I wanted to do was mix things up and find better ways to engage the staff across the museum’s departments. I also want to look at the type of work that we’re doing and how it benefits the community. One of the things that this pandemic taught me was that we do have a very nimble staff. The staff were able to shift very quickly and adapt the things that we were doing before the pandemic. I want to continue that momentum.
Then there are the basic goals of stabilizing the museum financially because, like all cultural institutions, it has been a challenging year. We’re a small museum and financial stability is a short-term and long-term goal.
As far as other long-term goals, we want to continue to put together a dynamic series of exhibitions, filling the calendar for the coming years with dynamic programming. I’ve been working with our curator on strategizing and planning what that vision is going to look like. We have our 50th anniversary coming up, which of course now it is a little upended with the pandemic so we’re thinking about starting the celebration in the summer and going into the following year. Another thing that excites me is the capital project. It’s a $20 million capital campaign to redo the south side of the museum. It will really remake the museum. We’re hoping to create a new entrance to the museum, a more interactive, outward facing engagement with our audience.
What most excites you in this opportunity to lead the museum?
I’m a curator at heart. The exhibitions excite me. Sitting with our curator [Holly Block Social Justice Curator Jasmine Wahi] to talk and planning out the next three years of exhibitions is exciting. Thinking about where we will be in two or three years and thinking about what’s important and what kind of dialogues and conversations we want to have around the art.
So I think I have a tough question for you. Is there any item in the collection that stands out as a personal favorite?
That’s a tough one and I don’t think I’m going to answer in the way you want me to answer.
That is okay! It’s a difficult question for a former curator.
You know in some ways what I like the most is that I am still discovering the collection. I relish learning about new artists, works, styles and regions. When I was a curator at the Frost [Art Museum], even though my background is Latin American Art, I worked as a generalist. I would do exhibitions on second century Roman Art, contemporary art, video art, fashion, and everything in between. I was always re-educating myself by trying to learn something new. Therefore, of the many reasons that I love the collection [at the Bronx Museum of the Arts] is that I am regularly discovering artists and works that I was not familiar with. Mainly because being from Miami I had less exposure to Bronx-based artists. The depth of the collection here is amazing and I am always discovering something new, I find something and I want to learn more about it.
Let’s go back a bit further. Where did you grow up and what was it like to grow up there?
I grew up in Miami but that doesn’t tell a whole story. My dad is Nicaraguan and my mom is Croatian. They met in Rome and moved to Nicaragua. They lived there for a few years before moving to Miami. I was in Nicaragua for 5 or 6 years. My parents are immigrants, twice over I guess, but I didn’t have the traditional immigrant experience that a lot of my friends had because I sort of had this different background. My dad studied architecture and had a love for the arts and my mom did too. While we didn’t have a lot of money, it was important for my mother to travel to Europe constantly to see family and that meant I went too. She took me to all the best museums in the world growing up. It was important for her to take me to see all these things and it had a huge impact on my life.
Did any of those experiences influence your decision to enter the museum field?
I didn’t know that I wanted to go into the museum field, but I knew that I had to be involved with the arts in some capacity.
Looking back, would your 18-year-old self imagine that you would be where you are today?
My 18-year-old-self wanted to be an architect because my dad wanted to be an architect. He never completed it, so I told myself that I was going to finish what he started. But I also loved art and went to art school and studied painting.
What advice would you give yourself?
I would tell my 18-year-old-self to stay the course. I think that things happen organically in some ways and I ended up exactly where I wanted to be. I don’t know that I could have articulated that when I was 18 necessarily.
I studied painting, I studied art history, I studied sociology, I studied architecture, I studied all these different things and I was always learning something more about where my interests lie. I went to art school first because I could draw and that was my first experience learning that just because I could produce something didn’t mean that I was an artist. It takes so much more to be an artist to have this sort of passion for what you do and the commitment to your vision. I learned very quickly that I was more interested in studying it and stepping back away from it and having that dialogue with artists. All those steps were important because it was a period of discovery. It informed me about what I wanted to do and I ended up where I wanted to be. My advice would be to stay the course but explore and experiment and see where it takes you. If I had been too narrowly focused, I don’t think that I would have ended up here.
Do you have any key mentors or someone who has deeply influenced you? Can you tell us about them?
One was a professor at FIU of mine, Juan Martínez [Professor Emeritus of Art History], who passed away recently. He was a mentor that really pushed me into this field. He told me that I could make a living and that I could really do something with this during a time when I was sort of questioning what I was going to do with the rest of my life. I took many classes with him and he just created this love of art and dialogue.
The other person who influenced my life was actually someone I never worked with and only had a handful of conversations with and that was Holly Block. She worked with a lot of Cuban artists in the Bronx and she was an expert in the Cuban art field and community. I had been doing a lot of exhibition work with Cuban artists in Miami and she sort of followed what I was doing and she would send me these nice little notes like “Congratulations on this opening,” and I really didn’t know her other than in passing. I came to New York several years ago for a curatorial conference and one of those sessions was held in the Bronx Museum of the Arts and I ran into Holly. We got into a conversation and she was asking me a lot of questions. I didn’t know what she was up to at that point. After I returned to Miami, she called and invited me to come back for a consultation for a Cuban art exhibition at the museum. I flew back up and she asked for my opinion on a lot of things. That’s the best way to get interviewed for a job, when you don’t know that you’re being considered. I was being very critical about a number of things. I think she actually liked that and a few weeks later she asked me to apply for the job. At that point I had no interest in leaving Miami nor my job. I was fairly happy with what I was doing but I applied and flew up for an interview. At the end I hesitated about making the move, but Holly would not take no for an answer. She sold me on the possibilities and here I am. She was the one who told me that I needed to be here. Sadly, I never worked with her. My first day on the job I was told that she was stepping down because she was sick and two weeks later she passed away. But the sole reason I’m here today is because of Holly and you can’t have more of an influence than that.
Are there any insights you have gained in the past six months about working in a museum that you’d like to share with our museum community? Besides working from home, what has been the biggest change for you?
I saw a staff that was creative, innovative, and worked as hard during this period than before. We learned a lot about how we can engage our community without physically being able to do so. My education team stepped up incredibly. Almost overnight our educators produced a full slate of online content. We are very nimble and small enough to move quickly and creatively. For me, I learned a lot and there’s a lot that I will take away from this experience about how to manage, how to keep people motivated, and how to continue the work that we’re doing. If we’re able to do all of this with these obstacles, just think of what we can do without these obstacles.
Also, the museum field got together and started working collaboratively on plans to reopen. We [NYC museums] met every Wednesday to create our policies and procedures for reopening. It was nice to see the collaborative, city-wide way of operating that created a bond within the field. But the pandemic has also challenged us to think differently. It’s been an interesting exercise when thinking about the traditional models and how we can adjust and reimagine this model. Hopefully when we come out of this, we take these lessons and implement them in our day to day to continue on.
Learn more about the Bronx Museum of the Arts: http://www.bronxmuseum.org/