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The Luce Foundation was one of the first grants we got, and it made such an impact. It allowed us to develop the idea and move forward with an exhibition that has meant so much to us, and to our community."
Grant Spotlight: Martin Wong: Human Instamatic at the Bronx Museum of the Arts

In 2014, the Luce Fund in American Art awarded a grant to the Bronx Museum to support the exhibition Martin Wong: Human Instamatic. The exhibition received a great deal of popular and critical attention, with Peter Schjeldahl from The New Yorker noting that the show should cause a needed re-evaluation of Wong’s importance, and the New York Times listing it as one of the outstanding solo shows of 2015. The show is now traveling to further venues, including the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio and the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. As Martin Wong: Human Instamatic drew to a close in New York, we sat down with curator Sergio Bessa to ask him a few questions about the experience of organizing the exhibition.

Q: How did this exhibition come about?

SB: I became the head of curatorial in 2006, and one of my main concerns was to bring more focus to the collection. Until then the focus was really diffuse, often with one work by each artist. We had one painting of Martin’s, and when a couple of collectors gave another painting, I got very excited – I’ve always loved his work, and with that gift we began to look for ways to acquire more of it. I also realized that the last show that had happened of his work was in ’98, at the New Museum, and I thought it was time for a fresh look. In addition, a great deal of what he talks about in his paintings has to do with the vision of this museum – the museum was created in 1971 by community activists in the midst of a lot of destruction, and the kind of communities that Martin portrays can be translated quite directly to what the Bronx was going through at the time.

Q: Why now? What do these works mean for audiences now, and to the world we’re living in today?

SB: One is just the sheer recognition of Martin’s stature as a great American artist. Although he was recognized early on, a lot of people underappreciated his contribution to the canon. I felt very strongly that the audience needed some context, so for the essays in the catalog I sought out John Yau. Not only is he an amazing writer, but he also has a great sensibility for painting, and I knew that he could talk about Martin’s qualities as a painter, which have been overlooked.

I think that Martin’s work has a lot of meaning for young artists today. When you think of New York in the 70s and 80s and especially in regards to gay culture, you think of Mapplethorpe, the black and white images of the clubs etc. Martin’s paintings present sort of an alternative to that. Also, because he was Chinese American, and was living in the Lower East Side surrounded by very young Latino kids, it shows a whole other side of New York that’s usually not portrayed.

Q: What have audiences been connecting with the most?

SB: The exhibition has such a strong narrative thread, and I think people really follow that. I see people going from tableau to tableau, and they can in essence follow the life of this man. The first room is when he comes to New York, and the second room is the Lower East Side and later the prison, and the last room he’s back in San Francisco. It’s a little bit like seeing a movie. I just love that the galleries are very quiet, and people are looking very carefully, amazed with the level of detail and with how carefully rendered each image is.

Q: What has the show and the grant meant for the museum?

SB: Holly Block, our executive director, said the other day that the show was a model for the museum. The museum has had a number of exhibitions about urban culture, but the new element for us has been the focus on one artist. It’s been very rare for the museum to do a one person show, to dedicate that much space to one person, and it has paid off really well. The support, the reviews… It’s been so great. The Luce Foundation was one of the first grants we got, and it made such an impact. It allowed us to develop the idea and move forward with an exhibition that has meant so much to us, and to our community.


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“When you think of New York in the 70s and 80s, you think of Mapplethorpe, the black and white images of the clubs. Martin’s paintings present an alternative to that. Because he was Chinese American, and was living in the Lower East Side, it shows a whole other side of New York that’s usually not portrayed."