The Studio Museum in Harlem Effect: How the Institution Became a Key Art Space

Alex Greenberger (ARTnews) traces the history of The Studio Museum in Harlem, specializing in on artists of African descent.

As museums go, the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum, and the Guggenheim tend to dominate conversation about the New York art scene, but an institution much smaller has come to tower over them in influence. Since it was founded in a loft in 1968, the Studio Museum in Harlem has grown in size and ambition, and its reputation has skyrocketed along with it. Focused on artists of African descent, the institution is now considered a touchstone for today’s Black artists, and a pipeline for aspiring curators of color.

As it prepares to reopen in a new David Adjaye–designed home—with construction now expected to continue into 2022—ARTnews surveyed the museum’s tremendous impact on the art world over the years, charting its growth from a small “culturally specific” institution to one of the nation’s most closely watched museums. Thanks to an ambitious artist-in-residence program, forward-thinking directors (most of whom have been female), and top-tier curatorial and education teams, the Studio Museum is now “the nexus for creative Black excellence in the 21st century,” said Christine Y. Kim, who worked there in the early stages of her career and is now a curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. To pass through the museum’s ranks, whether as an artist or staff member, all but ensures success during the formative years of one’s career. Call it the Studio Museum effect.

For Thelma Golden, the current director, the Studio Museum acts as a key link in several ecosystems—those of the art world, the larger cultural scene, and the Harlem community. “At the Studio Museum, there’s a wide network of people [associated] with its growth,” she said. “I feel, as the director now, as though I’m just a part of the community. I’m just filled with gratitude for the work that so many did before.” 

1968–1979: An Artist Community Grows

In the years of its founding by activists, philanthropists, and artists, members of the Harlem community had heated debates over the nascent museum’s purpose, board of trustees, and staff; people who attended some of its earliest shows even protested against them. Over the course of a decade, its mission became clear: it would be a crucial nexus in a network of Black artists, many of whom were not having their work shown in the city’s major museums and galleries. Because of the support they received early on, these artists are now considered some of the most important of their generation—though recognition has often been slow in coming and, in some cases, long overdue.

Board Games

The mood was tense during the late 1960s as the Studio Museum was coming into being. “Harlemites considered Harlem to be under attack by white institutions,” Edward S. Spriggs, the museum’s second director, once said. And so began, in the museum’s formative years, a struggle between the community and the board that oversaw the Studio Museum, which, early on, skewed white—a fact that irked Harlem residents, who deplored gentrification and the incursion of profit-seeking corporations. The Studio Museum’s first years, in 1968 and 1969, were hardly short on controversy over whether it was an “uptown” organization with a focus on Black art or a “downtown” one with an interest in the avant-garde emerging in the Village. Ultimately, when Spriggs became director, he redefined the museum so that it operated with Harlem in mind—and reorganized the board, so that it truly was a “black art museum,” as he put it.

Artists-in-Residence

When William T. Williams was getting his start as a painter during the late 1960s, he knew of few Black artists who were represented by premier New York galleries. With most galleries maintaining largely white rosters, Williams felt that he and his colleagues were unlikely to show their art in the city’s vaunted Midtown gallery district. “Leo Castelli was closed off,” Williams told ARTnews. “Pace Gallery was closed off.”

In an effort to provide a support structure to artists, Williams began undertaking work on what is now considered one of the Studio Museum’s most renowned initiatives: its artist-in-residence program. “I was creating a market,” Williams said. He was also creating a place where Black artists could network and learn from each other.

Working alone, Williams submitted a proposal to the museum for a program that would include a studio space and promote involvement with the community in Harlem, which Williams called “the capital of Black culture—the ideal place to study.” His one stipulation, if his proposal got accepted: the museum could not hire him for its staff. Ultimately, the museum accepted Williams’s proposal, and the studio space that artists were allowed to work in lent the museum its name. The museum’s trustees and curators left the artists to themselves, and the program prospered. [. . .]

For full article and interviews with Mary Schmidt Campbell and Kinshasha Holman Conwill at https://www.artnews.com/art-news/news/studio-museum-in-harlem-effect-1234578334/

[Above: Kerry James Marshall, Silence is Golden, 1986.COURTESY STUDIO MUSEUM IN HARLEM.]

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