By Samali Bikangaga. Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. was among the guests at No Commission NY.
By Samali Bikangaga. Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. (center, with blue tie) chats with fellow guests at No Commission NY.

Developer’s four-day fair features art and music, draws protests

Glitz, glam, and nostalgia were on display in Port Morris this weekend, as the neighborhood played host to the “No Commission NY Art Fair,” an art and music extravaganza curated by University Heights native and world-renowned music producer Swizz Beatz. The musician’s website billed the event as “a four-day immersive experience where art and music collide.”

The event took place inside a former warehouse owned by the Chetrit Group and Somerset Partners development team, at 101 Lincoln Avenue. 

But as was the case when Somerset’s Keith Rubenstein bankrolled a lavish art bash at the same location last year, the buzz was met with some resistance from the neighborhood, where the developer has fast become a lightning rod for controversy. A few dozen protesters rallied outside the site on Friday to vent their anger at developers they say are instigating the displacement of residents by building housing locals will be unable to afford.

Some also criticized the show for featuring only two Bronx-based artists of the 36 who were featured, and for the absence of Latino artists. Prices for pieces at the event ranged from $50- to-$65,000.

Still, the show went on. Works by emerging and established artists like Kehinde Wiley and Swoon were featured, alongside pieces by lesser known artists.

The invitation-only event also featured live hiphop to honor the Bronx as the birthplace of the genre, along with free cocktails, courtesy of the Bacardi Company, which sponsored the show.

“This experience is like the rose that grew through the concrete,” said Austin Squerl, who lives in Mott Haven. “The Bronx is the streets and it’s a beautiful place. It’s only right. We deserve something like this.”

But recognizing that the protesters outside had a less welcoming take on the event, Swizz Beats took the mic to address the tension.

By Samali Bikangaga. Protesters rally outside 101 Lincoln Aven. to denounce the show.
By Samali Bikangaga. Protesters rally outside 101 Lincoln Aven. to denounce the show.

“With controversy comes change,” he told the crowd of about 2,000. “But we’re here in the Bronx tonight!”

Although the event had been advertised as free and open to the public, hard-to-access RSVPs were required through a special invitation from Swizz Beats’ arts project, the Dean Collection.

“We have no interest in creating a battlefield here,” said one of the two Bronx-based artists at the show, sculptor John Ahearn, who was a last-minute addition. “Real estate is another subject. Let’s not confuse issues.”

One of the protesters, East Tremont resident Shellyne Rodriguez, 39, complained that the event was simply a way for the developers to market the developments they have in store to well-to-do, prospective tenants.

“It’s as obvious as day,” said Rodriguez.“They are doing free promotion for the Chetrit and Somerset Group.” She said that the event sent out a dishonest message, co-opting the borough’s rich culture, art and music, as a marketing tool.

“It doesn’t matter that you love the Bronx and have nostalgia for it, your nostalgia is going to kill us,” said Rodriguez, conveying a message intended for Swizz Beats.

Deborah Harris, founder and owner of Hush Hip-Hop Tours, a Manhattan-based cultural sightseeing company, said that having a native Bronxite guest-hosting the event made it all good.

“Say what you want to say, but it’s better for someone like Swizz, who was born and raised in the Bronx, to host his event here,” said Harris. “Now, what they do with it afterwards….we don’t own the property.”

Somerset-Chetrit Partners paid $58 million for a 1.5-acre waterfront site it plans to convert into market-rate apartments and retail space. Preliminary plans call for six towers up to 25 stories.

According to a 2015 report by the NYU Furman Center, rents in Mott Haven increased by 28 percent between 1990 and 2014, among the sharpest increases in the city.

As a response to No Commission NY, the nearby WallWorks Gallery organized an ‘anti-party’ the evening after the event began, featuring work by local artists. Anna Matos, the gallery’s director, said she found out about the fair a week earlier, through promotions announcing it was going to be held in the ‘Piano District.’ Rubenstein drew considerable criticism for using that term for last year’s event, when locals accused him of hijacking the neighborhood’s colorful past and unique history to promote his product.

Matos said promoters’ promise that their show was going to “bring art back to the Bronx,” as if it had none, bothered her, as did the lack of local artists.

“That was our catalyst,” said Matos. “We wanted to show art from the Bronx and open the space for artists to show their work.”

Afterwards, Swizz Beatz apologized to WallWorks for the lack of Bronx representation at No Commission NY, and promised to curate events that feature local artists in the future.

“Things change,” said Matos. “A neighborhood isn’t going to stay the same for 35 years. It’s how you integrate people who are already there that makes all the difference.”

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