The Center for Art, Research, and Alliances (CARA) opened this past weekend in a burst of song from South African artist and composer Neo Muyanga, who staged multiple performances of his new piece Hymn to the Strange. A collaboration between Muyanga and the Unsung, a collective of Black singers, the innovative choral work brought together Muyaunga’s interest in the African diaspora, the slave trade, cyborgs, and the song Amazing Grace in one stunning, constantly evolving musical performance.
Hymn to the Strange embodies the kind of work that CARA hopes to feature in the future: collaborative, boundary pushing, and political. Manuela Moscoso, the executive director and chief curator of CARA and former senior curator at Museo Tamayo in Mexico City, described the non-profit’s mission as one of “rewilding.”
“We want to reforest that which has been displaced,” Moscoso told ARTnews at CARA’s new home in the West Village alongside Jane Hait, CARA’s founder. The neighborhood is rich in radical histories that Moscoso and Hait hope to revive. Across the street is the LGBTQ Community Center with its Keith Haring painted bathroom on the second floor. The Integral Yoga Institute and Ashram, which once housed Swami Satchidananda, the guru who led Woodstock in a prayer of love and peace, is next door.
“It’s a very beautiful history to be part of and to contribute to. Cultural institutes are often called out for gentrifying [their neighborhoods] whereas we are hoping to do the opposite,” said Moscoso.
CARA first came into conception five years ago. Hait had closed her gallery Wallspace in 2015 and had begun thinking about what it would mean to create a different kind of cultural institution. Not a gallery, or a museum, but something holistic and effective that could simultaneously support cutting-edge exhibitions and act as a publishing house as well.
“I felt that there was a need for a space that would center voices, not to extract something from them, but as a way to expand cultural history through scholarship and exhibitions,” Hait told ARTnews. Hait was envisioning a place that wouldn’t be beholden to the usual demands of the market or a broader public.
“We’re not a museum, we don’t need to cover everything,” Hait said. “We can really say, ‘Hey, is showing this work going to expand the conversation, is it going to increase representation?’ We want to tell stories of art that really need to be told, but haven’t been resourced in the past.”
One such story is that of Marilyn Nance. Nance is a black photographer whose massive archive of images of the African diaspora and her documentation of the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture in Lagos in 1977 have been heavily circulated, but mostly without credit or compensation. To make a first step in rectifying this erasure, CARA put together Last Day in Lagos, a book of her photographs and critical essays on Nance’s work.
“She is a super important elder practitioner and this is her first publication,” Hait said, as she gripped a copy of the book. “It’s difficult to understate how important her influence has been. This is a reclamation of her legacy.”
Hait and Moscoso’s vision for CARA extends far beyond programming.
“We have been very busy in the last years thinking how to have an organization that is not reproducing or reenacting exactly what we all complain about and hate,” said Moscoso. That means providing their staff with 12-week parental leave, the best healthcare “that we know of”, professional development budgets, and of course, competitive pay, according to Moscoso. Those benefits don’t come cheap.
“I really grappled with myself about my proximity to resources and how I could use them to benefit not myself but other people,” said Hait, who is the step-daughter of billionaire investor Howard Marks. Hait decided to invest what she could into making CARA happen, which included purchasing the building that CARA now resides in and renting it out to the organization free of charge. Hait notes that they have been fortunate to galvanize other philanthropists and foundations to support CARA.
“This is systems change work and I invite everyone to be a part of it,” said Hait.