With a vested interest in both artists and the sociocultural conditions that shape art, the Public Programs & Community Engagement Department is rearticulating its collective impact model to center art, community, and participation in equal measure. Looking ahead to The Studio Museum in Harlem’s fiftieth anniversary—and the construction of our new, purpose-built home on 125th Street—we have entered into a liberal and de-spatialized moment of self-reflection, anchored by a desire to listen and learn from our neighbors as we continue to grow.
We began this transition by reflecting on our journey as an institution. What is the Studio Museum without the physical structure that has supported our work for most of our history? How can a museum without walls deliver its mission and work beyond preexisting platforms and into a whole new realm of possibility? What does it mean to be an institution in flux, rooted in a place that is also undergoing a radical transformation? And how does a museum that is building capacity for its institutional growth remain responsive on personal and local levels?
In 2016, the Museum piloted inHarlem, series of public art initiatives and collaborative programs that bring the Museum’s programs into the community and partner institutions in dynamic ways. Large-scale artist projects in historic Harlem parks and arts-driven programs in public libraries have served as grounds for innovation where, together with our partners, we aligned institutional missions, melded audiences, and emboldened artists to dream and work on scales previously unimaginable. Our desire to understand the impact of this expanded way of working served as the basis for a newly articulated community of practice at the Museum—the Community Advisory Network (CAN).
Established in 2017, CAN’s primary goals are to support open and transparent dialogue among neighbors, evaluate the depth and potential of the inHarlem program, and provide a structured platform for local voices to both inform and champion the Museum's future work. An esteemed cohort of roughly twenty local artists, residents, cultural leaders, educators, parents, program alumni, and representatives from nonprofits and community-based organizations throughout the neighborhood, CAN has empowered the Museum to understand issues affecting Harlem more comprehensively.
In articulating the importance of this local focus, one advisor who works through local churches asserts, “It's the community that drives the institution. You must continue to inject yourselves into the community...it's the community members and institutions that should be overwhelmingly supporting who you are, now and in your future.”
For the Studio Museum, community has always been at the heart of how we self-identify. The art, people, and ideas that have flourished within these walls radiate the vibrancy and history of our birthplace; they coalesce around a shared pride in all that has been “inspired and influenced by black culture.” Additionally, the Museum grows its family by incubating creative talent and professional development on all levels, from our growing line of artist-in-residence alumni, to the countless cohorts of interns, fellows, educators, and arts administrators that have gone on to impact and expand the field. Our community is ever-growing and ever-evolving. Equally important, we have found community in our home of Harlem, which—in all its concrete realities and mythical projections—has remained the rich well from which the Museum draws. Despite our ongoing commitment to expanding the resources available to contemporary black art and its practitioners, it is clear that more needs to be done to meet new audiences where they are.
CAN’s quarterly meetings serve as a unique opportunity to listen, learn, and draw inspiration from individuals and organizations already conducting amazing work in our neighborhood. Each session is centered on a special topic or framework upon which to build group discussion, and begins with staff presentations that lay bare select material and conceptual processes. This transparency and trust are the basis upon which CAN’s communication is built, encouraging the candid exchange of challenges and best practices across fields, audiences, and silos of work. As such, this network—with the distinct experiences it brings together—is uniquely poised to enact systemic and institutional change that keeps pace with the transformations taking place around us every day. The cohort’s diverse expertise and commitment to making Harlem a powerful place to live and work help shape our approach as we continue to have conversations throughout the neighborhood.
Another advisor with a background in education stresses the importance of a shift in professional attention during this historical moment: “For those departments that have not taken a program’s approach, that's essentially what they’re going to be doing during inHarlem. They’re not going to be able to do the work as it’s been done, through the Internet, Museum space, foot traffic, or brand recognition. Everyone is going to have to create and communicate through relationships--we learn by listening!”
“Relationship Building” was the theme of our kick-off meeting last August. We opened with introductions and first-hand accounts of how we each see, experience, and understand our neighborhood. Many in the group have called Harlem home for their entire lives, and were proud to share fascinating stories from the radical decade in which this institution was founded. Celia Scott-Wickham—a founding member of CAN and cherished member of the Museum’s Arts & Minds program, who has sadly since passed—motivated the group to shed poetics in discussing Harlem’s past and future. A devout Harlem resident whose social justice work spanned institutions such as St. Mark’s United Methodist Church, Minisink Townhouse, the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, Community Planning Board 9, the Central Harlem Partnership, and multiple community empowerment organizations, Celia’s life of public service and arts advocacy continues to serve as a beacon for our work.
In our second meeting, the breakout groups responded to the prompt, “How can the Museum reconsider its visibility—both on 125th Street and throughout the neighborhood—during this exciting and transformative moment?” One group discussed how to mobilize new audiences in the immediate areas surrounding the Museum’s satellite programming and site-specific exhibition spaces. Another group explored how new marketing strategies could help raise awareness among underserved audiences. The last group discussed ways to make the building construction processes transparent and legible for the public.
Supported by advisors representing more than twenty organizations and interest groups throughout Harlem, our department is confident in its growing ability to ensure local voices are reflected in all that we do. With more ears to the ground, we are able to support our neighbors in their work and learn from their triumphs and toils, while translating this knowledge to augment the numerous ways we support artists navigating this shared terrain.
At the midpoint of our first year together, it is clear that there is much work to be done in our neighborhood, on every level. With local issues ranging from gentrification and cultural displacement to illiteracy and ageism, the group has worked hard to acknowledge, give voice to, and share tools with those often overlooked in these conversations. As we step out more boldly in directions not yet traveled, Public Programs & Community Engagement values the community of people who may not yet know that the Museum exists just as much as the communities that do. The message resounds now more than ever—museums must be clear in how they define, engage, and serve their communities. And in continuing to support artists and their ideas to the best of our ability, we too must come to embody an active citizen, a neighbor and collaborator willing to work with, for and through our community.