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

1980–1999: Building a Collection

With the Studio Museum having established a community and an audience, it was time to make a big move—no longer could an 8,700-square-foot loft meet the rapidly growing institution’s needs. “The little loft space was inadequate, to say the least,” director Mary Schmidt Campbell told the New York Times in 1982, the year the Studio Museum opened in new digs on West 125th Street, following the $1.4 million restoration of the five-story Kenwood Building, which formerly held bank offices, by architect J. Max Bond Jr. Now, the museum had several floors for exhibitions, as well as more storage space for what would become an expanding collection. By the early ’90s, when the museum was being led by Kinshasha Holman Conwill, the Studio Museum was referring to what it called “a decade of collecting.” At the time, almost all the works coming to the museum were gifts from artists and collectors, but in 2001, the museum formed an acquisition committee.

The galleries at the Studio Museum came alive—literally—during the ’90s, thanks to Patricia Cruz, who was deputy director for programs at the time. For an initiative called “Vital Expressions in American Art,” performers such as dancer Bill T. Jones, singer Cassandra Wilson, and musician Miles Davis were invited to perform in the presence of artworks.

View of 'The Decade Show: Frameworks of Identity in the 1980s,' 1990.
View of “The Decade Show: Frameworks of Identity in the 1980s,” 1990. Courtesy Studio Museum in Harlem

The Long ‘Decade’

These days, organizing shows around identity has become the norm, but when the Studio Museum staged “The Decade Show” in collaboration with two Downtown New York institutions—the New Museum and the now defunct Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art—it was almost unheard of. That show’s subject was how artists considered gender, race, and sexuality during the 1980s, and the array of approaches it presented was vast and multifarious. One of the most epic shows in the Studio Museum’s history, it was also the rare one at the institution that didn’t exclusively feature artists of African descent—works by Hans Haacke, Amalia Mesa-Bains, Hock E Aye Vi Edgar Heap of Birds, and others hung in the galleries as well as those by artists who had shown there previously, among them Melvin Edwards and Faith Ringgold. “It was one of the earliest major national exhibitions that pulled together artists from a number of backgrounds, and at the time, it was fairly unusual,” said Kinshasha Holman Conwill, director at the time. “It became much more usual as time went by.”

Portrait of Kinshasha Holman Conwill.
Kinshasha Holman Conwill. Photo: Jonathan Sanden/SandenWolff

An Interview with Kinshasha Holman Conwill
Studio Museum director, 1988–99; Current deputy director of National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, D.C.

The museum significantly expanded its collection during the ’90s. Why did it move in that direction?

In the larger museum world—and we were always a part of the larger museum world, even though some people didn’t know that—an attention to permanent collections became important. This was a time when, at state, city, and federal levels, funding was removed from cultural organizations, as well as from the philanthropic scene writ large. Institutions looked internally and said, “Wait a minute, we have, right before our very eyes, some work that’s really important.” It was a lifting up of treasures that were right in front of us, but were hiding in plain sight.

Cover of the Studio Museum in Harlem's '25 Years of African-American Art' exhibition catalogue.
Cover of the Studio Museum’s “25 Years” exhibition catalogue.

Starting in 1994, the museum began traveling an exhibition of works from its holdings called “25 Years of African-American Art.” How was the show received?

We were amazed at the number of national organizations that were interested in the work. We realized that a number of institutions did not know of this work and did not know of these artists. For them, because the collecting of African-American still had not reached the levels it has now, and it surely could still use reaching much higher levels, it was an anomaly for a museum to have a large number of works by African-Americans. When in the ’90s we traveled the exhibition, which had Romy Bearden, Fred Brown, Sam Gilliam, Kerry James Marshall, Betye Saar, and Bill Williams [in it], it was a revelation to some people.

[That] reminds me of something else that was important about the Studio Museum and other museums that were called “culturally specific.” There’s a biblical phrase: “The stone that the builder rejected has become the cornerstone.” Some people in America heard that for the first time when the Reverend Sharpton spoke at George Floyd’s funeral. That phrase makes sense, in that those who thought until the day before yesterday that they were arbiters of taste and culture in this country have found that there is a whole other world of people who for years have been defining issues, visual vocabulary, ideas. It is bursting on the scene in a way that is shaking American institutions.

View of the exhibition 'Freestyle,' 2001.
View of the exhibition “Freestyle,” 2001. Courtesy Studio Museum in Harlem

2000–2020: A New Generation of Curators Emerges

Over the past two decades, the Studio Museum has served as a feeder of emerging curators and educators of color for mainstream institutions, who hire them to fill top-ranking positions. When she was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, Lowery Stokes Sims was one of the few well-known Black curators in the U.S. When she took over the directorship of the Studio Museum in 2000, she made it a priority to hire people of color to fill positions they would otherwise not attain at a museum like the Met. “We began to see how important we were because we could give people jobs,” she said.

[Read an interview with current Studio Museum director Thelma Golden.]

By the time Sims became director, the artist-in-residence program had lost its edge—participants were working out of the museum offices, and they were even asked to clock in and out. Determined to revive it, she moved the residency to the building’s fourth floor, in a former legal office, and began allowing artists to use their studios 24/7.

Torkwase Dyson, The Horizon, 2016.
Torkwase Dyson, The Horizon, 2016. Courtesy Studio Museum in Harlem.

Since 2001, the Studio Museum has had an acquisition committee whose influential purchases have helped shape the practices of New York collectors. Bernard Lumpkin, a trustee at the Studio Museum, said that he began collecting Kevin Beasley, Tomashi Jackson, and other artists as a result of his serving on the committee. “Being at the Studio Museum taught me how to collect,” Lumpkin said.

Fascinating ‘Freestyle’

When Thelma Golden and Christine Y. Kim organized “Freestyle,” they had no idea that it would go on to define a mode of art-making. The show was the first of the Studio Museum’s now famous “F” shows, a series of themed exhibitions, the other four titled “Frequency,” “Flow,” “Fictions,” and “Fore,” and this one posited a sensibility known as “Post-Black,” whose promulgators fought against the label “Black artist” by creating art that wasn’t always about race. “It was about not having any parameters or any criteria, to have as open an openness as could be,” Kim said. Participants included Mark Bradford, Rashid Johnson, and Julie Mehretu.

Kim added, “The Studio Museum is a picture of equity, in that it supports at its core Black art and Black artists, but [also] allows for an inclusivity of experience and education for all people.”

A version of this article appears in the Winter 2021 issue of ARTnews, under the title “The Studio Museum Effect.”

Correction, 12/22/20, 10 a.m.: A previous version of this article stated that Kinshasha Holman Conwill is director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. She is its deputy director. Additionally, this article previously omitted mention of the exhibition “Fictions” from the museum’s “F” series.