Harlem: A New Renaissance

Harlem: A New Renaissance. A New Renaissance

When I first moved here in 1999, people were surprised,” says Kira Lynn Harris, a painter from Los Angeles who holds a residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem. “I got that ‘Do you feel safe there?’ question. I don’t get that question anymore.”

Gerald Griffin’s Black Venus, 1997, is included in the exhibition “Black Romantic” at the Studio Museum in Harlem this month.
Courtesy the Studio Museum in Harlem

After more than three decades as a reigning symbol of urban crime, racial conflict, poverty, and despair, Harlem has emerged as a vibrant, mixed-race community of nations. Thanks to the Studio Museum on West 125th Street; The Project, an international gallery on west 126th Street; Columbia University in nearby Morningside Heights; and a growing concentration of artists, the area is poised for a major cultural rebirth.

“Harlem has a different cachet now than it might have had in the past,” says Bruce Ferguson, dean of Columbia’s School of the Arts, which maintains three studio buildings in west Harlem. “Some of our students would rather tell their parents they study in Harlem than Morningside Heights.”

Headlines about Harlem are now less harbingers of fear than heralds of new deals, as city and state agencies combine with private interests to attract new business and rebuild residential blocks. Artists and arts institutions are playing an essential role in this development.

Sculptor nari Ward, for one, recently bought the West 141st Street firehouse, where he organized a temporary exhibition for himself, Janine Antoni, and Marcel Odenbach in 1998. Back then, he says, it was difficult to get people uptown to see it. He expects to have an easier time this summer, when he plans to turn the empty lot next door into a public sculpture garden. “People feel more safe to move in and to visit now,” he notes, and other members of the Harlem art community agree.

Lowery Sims, director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, reports a big jump in applications to its artist-in-residence program, which she attributes to “the energy of the neighborhood, people’s sense of adventure, and the search for affordable space,” as well as a new sense of security. Columbia’s School of the Arts is now exploring the possibility of basing its ten divisions in a single building, at 632 West 125th Street, which would serve the public much in the way the Brooklyn Academy of Music does, and the Apollo Theater has new owners who are turning it into a high-profile performing-arts center.

This activity is not limited to the west side of Harlem. The Museum for African Art in SoHo is planning to move, in late 2004, to a new six-story, 60,000-square-foot building on Duke Ellington Circle, at 110th Street and Fifth Avenue. Bernard Tschumi, dean of Columbia’s School of Architecture, Planning, and Historic Preservation, has designed the new building, which will be close to the Museo del Barrio, at 106th Street, whose exhibitions bring a steady stream of visitors to the north end of Museum Mile. The nonprofit Taller Boricua Gallery on Lexington Avenue at 106th Street and the artist-run G Spot Colab on 112th Street near Third Avenue are also drawing notice amid the heavily Latino population of East Harlem, where for many years the only noticeable art consisted of the many murals painted on the walls of surrounding buildings.

“The addition of a major new museum to the community will not go unnoticed,” says Anne Stark, deputy director of the Museum for African Art. “And perhaps that is the event that will underscore the long-term progress that is currently in motion in Harlem but that might not be so visible.”

What is visible, at least along 125th Street, are new chain stores, the Magic johnson movie-theater complex, and, of course, the high-rise building that houses the offices of former president Bill Clinton. As Ferguson notes, “He made Harlem respectable in one fell swoop.” His presence also made it more expensive, as landlords seized the moment to raise their rents. Quotes of $40-per-square-foot annual rent for commercial space, a rate similar to Chelsea’s, are not unusual.

Triple Candie, a 4,700-square-foot nonprofit organization that opened last december in a former brewery on West 126th Street, is actively courting organizations seeking satellite space in Harlem. initiated by Shelly Bancroft, who came from the Boston Center for the Arts, it premiered with an emerging-artists show sponsored by the Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation—another newcomer to Harlem seeking space of its own—and curated by independent curator and critic Franklin Sirmans. This month at Triple Candie, PaceWildenstein is sponsoring a Kiki Smith exhibition, to run concurrently with her show in the gallery’s Chelsea location.

Market rents haven’t kept artists from finding affordable studios or apartments in Harlem. Nari Ward, David Hammons, and Chakaia Booker had already been around for awhile when Deborah Grant and Sanford Biggers arrived from art schools in Philadelphia and Chicago, respectively. Cathleen Lewis recently moved uptown after many years in a TriBeCa loft, and Brett Cook-Dizney has studio space near the Metro-North tracks on Park Avenue. Ellen Gallagher joined a school chum, Tommy White, and a few other friends to build studios on one 5,000-square-foot floor of an industrial brick building on Harlem’s far west side. “It’s not dirt cheap,” says White, “but it’s reasonable.”

Lewis, a sculptor, is passionate about her new neighborhood. “Harlem has a sense of community you never feel downtown,” she says, “except maybe in the East Village. It feels like a working environment rather than a corporate structure. It just feels really doable.”

Ward, who shows at Deitch Projects in SoHo, also sees his distance from the downtown scene as a positive. “There’s a kind of freshness and bare-bones perspective up here that you don’t get down there,” he says. “You can’t get distracted by luxuries.”

They all make a point of Harlem’s accessibility: an express subway, on the east or west side of Manhattan, can go from 125th to 14th Street in under 15 minutes. For most people, that puts Harlem in much easier reach than Chelsea or DUMBO. Other attractions include plenty of light and air and some of the most distinctive architecture in New York; the Lenox Lounge, a favored hangout; and The Project, which poet and critic Christian Haye opened in 1998. Most important, it has the Studio Museum.

Over the last two years, under Sims and deputy director Thelma Golden, this 33-year-old institution has completely reinvented itself. As provocative exhibitions, like last year’s “Freestyle,” have introduced what Golden has called the “post-black” generation of African American artists to a receptive mainstream market, the museum has metamorphosed from a homespun sanctuary for modernist black art into a beacon of the avant-garde. Along with The Project, the museum is now widely regarded as the single most important magnet drawing art audiences to Harlem and encouraging emerging artists to set down roots there.

One of the newcomers is Julie Mehretu, who shows with The Project and was included in “Freestyle.” She moved into a large loft on West 127th Street last fall. “I’ve spent almost every day up here for the last year and a half,” she says, “and the energy is fantastic. The history and the narrative of the neighborhood is what I’ve been into. That’s what’s so sexy about it.”

Her feelings are echoed by many other artists in the neighborhood. “I always had a pretty romantic vision of Harlem,” says installation artist Sanford Biggers, who was also in “Freestyle” and appears in this year’s
Whitney Biennial. “Some things are depressing,” he says, “like the disparity between the people who live up here and those who come from downtown. You don’t always see it, but you can feel the change is there. And I’m part of it.”

So is Sirmans, who has returned to the very block of West 135th Street where he was born. “There are definitely a lot more artists working here,” he says, and Sims agrees. Though she credits her institution’s education program for drawing in young people, who, she says, “learn what it is to have an artistic career,” she is acutely aware that the museum has been drawing more eyes from the downtown art world than from the greater population of Harlem. “It’s been an uphill battle,” she admits, “to increase awareness of our presence in Harlem to people who live here.”

An exhibition Golden curated that directly addresses aspects of black culture generally ignored by the art world goes up the 28th of this month. “Black Romantic” features artists whose work Golden solicited on the Internet—”people who sell their work outside the art world, at expo fairs and black galleries.” These include artists like Ernie Barnes, a cult figure whose paintings appeared on the 1970s television show Good Times representing the work of the character J.J. “A lot of this work is about positive images and community uplift,” Golden says. “They are images that don’t exist in the world, and they’re almost all collected by celebrities. I had to think about why people want these images.”

The museum used to hold its openings on Sunday afternoons. Now they take place on weekday evenings and draw an enthusiastic crush of people. Sculptor Jon Kessler, who chairs Columbia’s M.F.A. program, reports that last year the school coordinated its thesis show with an opening at The Project and packed them in. According to Haye’s partner in The Project, Jenny Liu, their Sunday-afternoon openings have also become better attended—and not just by art connoisseurs. Local policemen and firemen like to drop by, too. All the same, Haye insists, “I still see more Europeans up here than I do New Yorkers.”

Nevertheless, The Project is no longer the outpost it once was. That position now belongs to the Sugar Hill Art Center, which fills six former storefronts farther north on Broadway between 151st and 152nd Street. In that predominately Dominican neighborhood, says gallery director Marilyn Rosenberg, it “stands out like a sore thumb,” especially with the imposing male nude marble sculpture by French artist Polles in its center window. Sugar Hill opened last October to showcase mostly African American artists who Rosenberg feels deserve wider attention. Next month, she will reprise “Ten American Masters,” a group that includes such artists as Ed Clark, Al Loving, and Howardina Pindell, who first showed together 20 years ago at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in Long Island City.

Gallery M, at 123 West 135th Street, a pretty block near the Harlem YMCA and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, is closely tied to the local community. The gallery is a project of Weston United Community Renewal, a church-sponsored social-services organization that provides shelter and treatment to people who are homeless, addicted to drugs, or mentally ill. Its director, Tod Roulette, exhibits neighborhood artists and work by established artists borrowed from Chelsea galleries, but his staff consists of Weston clients.

“A large number of black professionals are coming in,” Roulette says, “as well as whites who are buying in Harlem. To be a gallery that not only shows major artists but also has a social agenda has proved attractive. The new residents are very glad to see a gallery showing work they can afford and that has something to give back to the community.”

East Village transplant Christine Louisy-Daniel’s Fire Patrol No. 5, at 307 West 121st Street, is sponsoring programs that also reach out to the neighborhood, as is Gallery X, at 23 West 129th. Taller Boricua, in East Harlem, shows artists from around the country in its four exhibition spaces at the Julia Burgos Cultural Center, which runs an art-education program in local schools and provides housing and studios for artists in a building across the street. Though it remains predominantly Spanish-speaking, the neighborhood now includes artists from every ethnic group, many of whom moved in before rents shot up, as well as new restaurants and galleries.

As Golden says, “Harlem is not finished and may never be, and that’s part of what is interesting about it. It’s never over.”

Linda Yablonsky is the author of The Story of Junk, a novel, and often writes about artists and art. She lives in New York, where she teaches at the School of Visual Arts.

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