The raindrops that pelted the Bronx hampered efforts to draw a large crowd to a gathering at the Gasolina Lounge on Boston Road on April 26. The Bronx Arts Initiative was hosting a fundraiser to support its main goal of opening an affordable studio space for musical and visual artists, and a secondary goal of hosting a summer festival.
Cynthia Prisco, who heads the initiative, darted back and forth in front of the bar, consulting the evening’s host and checking in on volunteers and artists. About two hours into the event, around 25 people, many of them the evening’s performers and organizers nestled in the small space.
Winter Wolf, a two-piece punk rock band from Harlem, was followed by rock outfit Big Sweater’s milder jams. Big Sweater’s lead singer and guitarist Franklin Santiago, who had helped Prisco secure the night’s talent, also managed the sound equipment. Santiago, 25, plays guitar and piano in five bands.
“For a long time it felt like I was being pushed to do my art only in Manhattan and Brooklyn,” said the Tremont resident.
Attendee Anya Nova, 28, shared the sentiment. “There’s so much talent here and people need the space to showcase it. I’m tired of commuting to Brooklyn and Manhattan.”
Prisco, 21, launched the initiative last December, hoping to open a performance and studio space in the borough in the next three to five years. Members and users of the space will be asked to pay what they can, says Prisco. She wants it to be available to artists across mediums, from music, to cartooning, to embroidery, and is looking for donations of art, music, and office materials to fill the space.
The initiative is a long way from the $50,000 it hopes to raise for its first phase of operations, and farther still from the $350,000 Prisco says they’ll need to run at full capacity.
“We want to make sure that we’re community funded,” said Prisco, adding that she is adamant about not taking money from corporate donors that may be interested in supporting the venture. “While it slows down a fundraising process, it makes it a more authentically-run process.”
Prisco has been largely dependent on performance art fundraisers around the Bronx, like the “Community Healing Open Mic” she held at La Morada Mexican restaurant on Willis Avenue. The four fundraisers they’ve held thus far have brought in about $500, and additional revenue has been generated through GoFundMe donations–$310.
A handful of arts-oriented nonprofits currently operate around the Bronx, but many artists and art lovers say that venues and work spaces are limited. There’s the Bronx Music Heritage Center in Soundview, which Prisco points to as a model for her own space, though she doesn’t want to limit the offerings to music. There’s The Point, but much of its arts programming is limited to youth. There’s the Bronx River Art Center, but their studio space is limited to creators “selected on artistic merit,” who borrow spaces for up to two years. Additionally, BRAC’s classes, ranging from $85 to $120 for 10 sessions in courses like digital photography, are too expensive for people like her, she said. Still, she wants to avoid establishing a studio near those three organizations.
“It’s not about competition. It’s about filling a void,” she said. Prisco spent her formative years in Melrose but wants to establish the venture in Bronx neighborhoods with even less available space for arts programming, like the Northeast and western sections of the borough.
Currently about eight artists and friends, mostly are helping her plan and execute her fundraisers. Host venues La Morada and The South of France, another Latino restaurant, have offered her their space for free, whereas the Bronx Beer Hall, where they held their third fundraiser, charged 20% of the admission earnings and a third of the earnings from a drink special it offered for the event. The group also raffles art and supplies donated to them at fundraisers.
“Having 10 or 20 people show up is something that’s incredible for [us],” she said, “and the folks that came to the first [event], came to the second one. We’re building a community that has a desire to attend repetitively.”
Akeyla Wallace, 23, met Prisco through Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign, on which Prisco was an organizer and Wallace was a volunteer. Prisco, who has also worked on Alessandra Biaggi’s and Jessica Ramos’s upstart, progressive campaigns, is channeling the energy, planning, and community spirit of political organizing into the project, said Wallace.
“Bringing more performing arts to the Bronx is important, and I saw Cynthia’s passion for it,” said Wallace, who plans to help with grant writing and financial planning. “It’s really easy to get money for good causes,” she said.
But organizers will have to be patient before they can open the studio of their dreams.
“Building a space will be much harder than throwing events,” she added, “but I feel like the support is there.”