Read Archive: “The Studio Museum in Harlem, a home for the evolving black esthetic”


Studio Museum Harlem

A rendering of the Studio Museum in Harlem’s redesigned space. Image: COURTESY STUDIO MUSEUM IN HARLEM

“The Studio Museum in Harlem, a home for the evolving black esthetic”
By Jean Bergantino Grillo
October 1973

Paralleling the growth of black identity in the arts throughout the late 1960s, the Studio Museum in Harlem was established in September, 1968, pledged to give the newly discovered—and in some cases rediscovered—poets, painters and filmmakers badly needed public exposure. Amid struggles of its own, it has emerged as the embodiment of he evolving black esthetic.

During the last five years, as its audience has grown from a relative handful of curious neighbors to over 100,000 visitors annually, the museum has developed a program of 15 to 20 exhibitions a year. From “Harlem Artists ’69”—100 works selected and hung by the artists themselves—the museum moved into a more international commitment with “Impact Africa,” a major exhibition showing the debt that white Western artists and musicians like Picasso, Matisse and Stravinsky owe to African culture; and “Afro-Haitian Images and Sounds,” a visual and vocal tribute to Harlem’s ties with Haiti.

Filling in between the shows of New York black artists, such as Benny Andrews and Stephanie Weaver, and shows by artists from other countries, such as LeRoy Clark of Trinidad, Skunder Boghossian of Ethiopia and Philip Moore of Ghana, were exhibitions of Afro-American art from Washington, Chicago, Boston, Tennessee and California. Three large retrospectives recently honored the painter Romare Bearden, the sculptor Elizabeth Catlett and the entire current art faculty of Howard University.

From this schedule, three or four shows were selected to travel throughout the country, primarily to black colleges and to black-oriented museums like the National Center of Afro-American Art in Boston.

One of the Studio Museum’s unusual programs offers a year’s free work space in the museum to visiting artists who can, if they like, work there 24 hours a day. Spectators are encouraged to drop in and watch them at work. Other ongoing programs include a free printmaking workshop that provides artists and amateurs 10 weeks of instruction in basic printmaking techniques; an educational services program offering tours and discussions, led by local work-study students, for school, college and community groups visiting the museum; and poetry readings, film programs, music, dance and dramatic presentations, lectures, workshops and slide discussions on Afro-American art. Work has begun on developing a major library and resource center on African and Afro-American art, which will be available to schools and scholars. It is hoped that well-trained black art historians and critics will also emerge.

All this takes place in a ramshackle loft at 2033 Fifth Avenue, near 125th Street—9,500 square feet of rented, partially renovated space rising two floors above the central Harlem landscape of laundromats, fast-food chains, storefront churches and boarded-up buildings. Flanked by a vacant store on one side and a string of small businesses on the other, the Studio Museum stands, a solidly welcomed addition to black America’s cultural and spiritual homestead. Even the area’s hang-arounds loiter across the street rather than clutter the museum’s tiny, unprepossessing entryway.

The museum serves the Harlem community (and, as the museum sees it, by extension, all of black America). But even with a sizable amount of its annual budget of over $200,000 coming from the New York State Council on the Arts, little of the institution’s significance spills over to the outside, white art world.

It certainly was not intended that way at the start.

When the new museum first opened its doors and introduced its first director, Charles Inniss, the comments of the 33-year-old former Dunn & Bradstreet executive disclosed what the museum then saw as its purpose:

“We hope to provide a space for good black artists to exhibit where black people can see them work. But, more than that, we want to be a ground where the black and white art worlds can really meet.”

Despite Inniss’ interest in the new venture, he was by his own admission “organizing-oriented, not art-oriented.” And he was not familiar with the work of local black artists.

When Tom Lloyd, a black sculptor whose geometric, programmed-light constructions had been well exhibited elsewhere, was chosen to inaugurate the museum’s opening, the selection confirmed the feeling of some local blacks who feared the Studio Museum would be nothing more than “downtown art brought uptown,” a tiny satellite of the white world.

Harlem residents now affiliated with the Studio Museum recall that few people in the community had any idea of what was to take place at this new art center. Some said that the Cadillacs and other fancy cars pulling up in front of 2033 Fifth Avenue on Lloyd’s opening night were the only indication for many people in Harlem that something “cultural” was happening. Community reaction to Lloyd’s show was hostile. One of the works was mysteriously broken and the episode was explained by some as an indication of the failure of such “mainstream” art to relate to the black experience. A month after the opening Inniss resigned.

In July, 1969, Edward Spriggs, a young Californian, replaced Inniss and has remained director ever since. Poet, painter, filmmaker and East Coast editor of Black Dialogue magazine, Spriggs came to the job a well-known advocate of the black artist. Spriggs is generally credited with the pro-black emphasis the museum now has. Inniss concedes that Spriggs’ stature in the black world made it possible for him to bring about changes in the museum that Inniss himself could not.

“It was unnatural to separate the art work from the background of the people,” Spriggs says of those early, difficult days. “Art is a middle-class, leisure-time activity in the West, but blacks are neither middle-class nor leisure-class. Yet a lot of black artists then didn’t accept the relevance of their own background. But some of us who had been involved with black artists’ groups on the West Coast just knew the museum was going in a direction it shouldn’t.”

That opening show, according to Spriggs, was too avant-garde, too experimental, too far removed from life in Harlem.

“People in Harlem stayed away,” he says, “because they felt the museum’s administration didn’t have respect for the community it was in. What some of the first trustees didn’t realize was that the community knew that that kind of mainstream art, black or white, can be shown in museums all over the world. But work reflecting the Afro-American heritage had little chance of being seen. And to me it was apparent that art in the black community should be inseparable from the reality of the black community. From the beginning I wanted the Studio Museum to concern itself as much with the people of its community as with contemporary art.”

First, Spriggs set up an exchange of mailing lists among the several hundred church and civic groups in the Harlem area. The Studio Museum continually feeds program information to these groups while advertising also in local papers and magazines.

Next, Spriggs worked with the city’s Board of Education, first to get Harlem children to attend museum workshops regularly during the school day, then toward expanding to include other area schools. The museum continues to work with teachers in forming Afro-American heritage programs that use the Studio Museum as a primary resource.

The Harlem-area Model Cities program regularly finances neighborhood educational programs that incorporate Studio museum programs. Several other community groups, under Spriggs’ initiative, have worked Studio Museum programs into their own activities, including several local narcotic-rehabilitation programs, day-care centers, the Harlem Hospital for Joint Diseases and many religious groups.

Such involvement with his Harlem neighbors has led Spriggs to develop an approach to arranging exhibitions that, he admits, virtually excludes abstraction, Conceptual art, earth works, or whatever else seems in vogue. As Spriggs sees it, the people are always right; their reactions are always honest and if they react negatively to mainstream or modernist art (as he insists they have done), then the Studio Museum will not show such art—even if it is done by blacks. Sharing this view, according to Spriggs, are both the wealthy members of the black community, who have been collecting black artists since the ’20s, and young black people.

Every introduction written by Spriggs for Studio Museum catalogues reiterates his feelings about the significance of “community.” His manner, in fact, is much like that of a teacher-coach alternately instructing and cheering. His efforts appear to be effective. People of every class and age group prowl the galleries and hang around the upstairs studios where seven black artists are currently working.

Unofficial white participation is rare, despite numerous lectures to white community groups, an intern program for curators from the Great Lakes College Association and a black-studies curriculum presented jointly with City College.

“Whites telephone us,” a museum staff member declared, “asking for us to guarantee their safety in and out of Harlem. That’s ridiculous, of course, but in any event, we are not a comfortable trip for many whites.” Such discomfort is, apparently, not of major concern to the people most closely associated with the Studio Museum. Again and again, Spriggs and his assistant director, Fred Lewis, reiterate that the museum’s first obligation is to Harlem and the spiritual and cultural values it represents. “The National Endowment people insist that that minorities get first preference in our programs, and they do,” said Spriggs. Both men seem indifferent to media criticism that has labeled the museum as “overly inner-directed,” “not relevant to whites” and “often exhibiting work of poor quality.”

“We’re not reacting against white America,” Lewis said. “We’re more positive than that. Black tradition and white each have their own meanings and justifications. But why try for the Met, when black artists can show here?”

Studio Museum activities are frequently covered by The New York Times, but Spriggs is unhappy with what he calls the lack of critical and scholarly pieces in the major art magazines.

As might be expected, the exclusively black emphasis of the museum under Spriggs’ direction made some of the original white board members uncomfortable, and the board is now 80 per cent black. Those whites who have remained, such as Carter Burden and Charles Cowles, are sympathetic but focus their attention mainly on raising money, and leave esthetic policies to others.

Recently revised bylaws have ended terms for some Studio Museum board members, who may now serve no longer than three years—unless asked to do so by dint of spectacular service. Larger lights like Carter Burden are still on the board but admittedly less active. Much greater roles are played by lesser known blacks such as Ray Hulen, operations manager of First Harlem Securities, Janet Carter of the New York School Council for the Studio Museum and James Hinton, filmmaker and co-director of the Hinton and Garrett Film Company.

Finances are a major concern. Despite the substantial aid from the New York State Council on the Arts, the Studio Museum in struggling. Here the involvement of influential black and white board members is crucial.

Cowles said recently: “Beyond keeping our doors open, we’ve got to begin thinking about a permanent home for the museum.”

Betty Blanton Tyler, executive director of the Children’s Art Carnival, helped last year to form the New York Council for the Studio Museum, which is made up of prominent black people active mostly in raising funds and increasing the membership (now up to 700 during the group’s first year of organizing). Like Spriggs, Lewis and Cowles, Betty Taylor reiterates the need for a more adequate building and more personnel.

Fred Lewis summed up the hopes for the Studio Museum when he said: “We’d like to see the day when black artists show down there because they can’t show up here.”

Read more about Studio Museum in Harlem’s new space:

Studio Museum in Harlem reveals its new David Adjaye-designed building




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