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

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.” 

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Edward S. Spriggs, the Studio Museum’s second director, in 1969. Photo: Pictorial Enterprise.

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.

[Read a timeline charting the Studio Museum’s history.]

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.

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William T. Williams, Trane, 1969. Courtesy Studio Museum in Harlem/©William T. Williams/Courtesy Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York

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. 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.”

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.

Alums of the residency include Kerry James Marshall, David Hammons, Julie Mehretu, Kehinde Wiley, and Njideka Akunyili Crosby, to name just a few, and museums around the world have adopted similar programs. Williams considers NXTHVN, an art center in New Haven, Connecticut, cofounded by artist Titus Kaphar (a Studio Museum artist-in-residence program alum), an heir. The model, Williams believes, is an important one. “I think it works because all of the things that a young artist needs in their formative stages are provided there,” he said. “As long as you have staff that’s supportive, … a community that’s supportive, and … artists [who] are willing to invest in your studios, in their ideas, and share their ideas with the community, it begins to work.”


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Mary Schmidt Campbell. Photo: Dawoud Bey

An Interview with Mary Schmidt Campbell
Studio Museum director, 1977–1988; current president of Spelman College, Atlanta

What does the Studio Museum mean to you, and what do you think is its importance within the art world?

In the 1970s, the Studio Museum was a vibrant crossroads for working artists. They gathered in the artist-in-residence studios. They supported each other’s exhibitions and, when the museum began collecting, they were assured that their work would be preserved. The Studio Museum was also one of the rare places in the country that regularly published exhibition catalogs of the work that included serious scholarly or critical essays. Building a literature that eventually made its way into the academy and into the serious study of American art history and the art of the Black Atlantic was one of the museum’s most important contributions. For me personally, it launched my career as a curator and art historian, surrounded by and in the service of some of the most brilliant and talented artists alive.

Since its beginnings, the Studio Museum has prioritized reaching the surrounding community using its exhibitions and public programming. What do you think is the Studio Museum’s importance to its surrounding community?

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Kerry James Marshall, Silence is Golden, 1986. Courtesy Studio Museum in Harlem.

When I arrived in New York in 1977, the entire city was bleak, ruinous in some areas and Harlem was one of the most physically depleted. Vacant lots, boarded up buildings and city-owned properties that were completely derelict filled the Harlem landscape. The Studio Museum was part of a network of not-for-profits and retail outlets, restaurants and other small businesses that put down roots early on to become catalysts for change. They invested in the physical rehabilitation of the neighborhood, along with residents who moved uptown in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. I mention this because gentrification is often portrayed as strangers coming in and taking over. But a great deal of Harlem’s rebirth came from long term residents who planted trees and fixed the sidewalks and invested sweat equity. They, along with small businesses, cultural groups and other not-for-profits—the Dance Theater of Harlem, the Harlem School of the Arts, the Apollo, the Harlem Stage and others—were community allies that forged ties with local residents and businesses to rebuild.

The Studio Museum was also a place for the incubation of talent. Thelma Golden arrived from Smith College 30 years ago as I was departing to become cultural affairs commissioner for New York City. Kellie Jones, a MacArthur Fellow, worked on the “Harlem Renaissance” exhibition catalog with me. They are both renowned leaders in the arts communities as are MacArthur Fellow Dawoud Bey, a frequent exhibitor, or MacArthur Fellow Kerry James Marshall, a former Studio Museum artist in residence. Deborah Willis, a photographer, photographic historian and curator, is another MacArthur Fellow who often filled the walls of the Studio Museum with her expertise. This catalogue of the famous who worked at the museum does not include the artists who the art world had ignored until the Studio Museum presented a retrospective of their work—Faith Ringgold and Roy DeCarava among them.

We were the history catchers. We caught these artists, scholars, curators and leaders until the world was ready to see and hear them.


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