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Studio Magazine

Ancient to the Future

Dr. Kellie Jones

The Studio Museum in Harlem came into being as a space to support artists of the African diaspora, who, throughout history, had been largely shut out of exhibition and commercial opportunities. The Museum opened during a time of unbridled protest in the world of culture, both in formal terms as traditional painting and sculpture gave way to assemblage, Pop art, Minimalism, and Conceptual art, and with young artists and artists of color demanding entry into museums, insisting that public institutions be more responsive to the diversity of contemporary cultures in the United States.1 As a result of such activism, the Studio Museum; the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists, Boston; and El Museo del Barrio, New York, among others, were founded, all around 1968. These organizations distinguished themselves as museums to showcase fine art and were different from those established earlier in the 1960s dedicated to broader representations of history and culture.2

During its first decade, the leadership of Directors Charles Inniss, Edward S. Spriggs, and Courtney Callender set the parameters of engagement for the Studio Museum. The roster of exhibitions provided a mix of significant historic and solo shows for African-American artists (Jacob Lawrence: Toussaint L’Ouverture Series, 1969) and considerations of the diaspora (Afro-Haitian Images and Sounds Today, 1969). An early commitment to multidisciplinarity supported film and filmmaking, along with art training in workshop settings.

The Museum drew its name from a third feature, what would become its signature Artist-in-Residence program. The brainchild of painter William T. Williams while he was completing his MFA at the Yale School of Art, New Haven, the idea was for artists to engage with an urban community and audience by way of the Museum, another way to put art at the reach of everyday people and to effect change in the environment and in the thoughts of neighborhood residents. Additionally, the location of artist studios at the heart of the institutional setting and the building itself also speaks to the advocacy of artists of African descent that the Studio Museum has performed.

The launch of the Studio Museum and its programs was overseen by Charles Inniss, a figure from the business world who had most recently come from Dun & Bradstreet Corporation. Interestingly, Inniss was also a member of the Army National Guard, serving in the storied Harlem-based 369th Artillery Battalion, aka the Harlem Hellfighters.3

With the Museum’s location in New York City, the epicenter of an international art world, current trends in abstract painting and sculpture of the period initially took hold. Tom Lloyd, the first artist in the Studio Program, the forerunner of the formal Artist-in-Residence program, was known for his work in new media and electronic technologies.4 Though the works are abstract, Lloyd stressed the urban elements of his projects, in particular their relationship to the city’s streetlights and its power grid. The title of another early show, X to the Fourth Power (1969), was based on an algebraic equation, demonstrating a mathematic calculation that similarly led to abstraction in the work of featured artists Melvin Edwards, Sam Gilliam, Steven Kelsey, and Williams.

This focus on abstraction and technology during the first years of the Studio Museum did not match up with what some thought of as representative of Harlem, particularly in the heady days of the Black Arts Movement. Following the one-year tenure of Inniss, the leadership of Edward Spriggs occurred near the zenith of Black nationalism. With degrees in studio art and art history from San Francisco State College, Spriggs was a founding member of Black Dialogue, a key Black Arts journal on the West Coast. A poet, painter, and filmmaker, Spriggs moved to New York City in 1965 to be a part of Harlem’s Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School and began as the Museum’s Director in 1969.

Under Spriggs’s leadership, the institution developed important profiles of master artists such as the nineteenth century’s Henry Ossawa Tanner while expanding its reach nationally and internationally. Shows highlighting art from the African diaspora took on greater prominence, such as that of Abdias do Nascimento, a painter and important intellectual force in Afro-Brazilian thought.5 Another exhibition featured the work of Skunder Boghossian, an Ethiopian painter and legendary professor at Howard University in Washington, DC, one of a handful of historically Black universities with a major art department and gallery program. Howard was also the home of painter Jeff Donaldson, founder of the group AfriCOBRA, which penned manifestos on art making within a Black-nationalist framework. Shows of Howard faculty and AfriCOBRA are significant during this time, as well as, unsurprisingly, those of West Coast artists (Eleven from California, 1972).

During this period, Elizabeth Catlett emerged as one of the significant artists of the Black Arts Movement, exhibiting in the United States after a hiatus of two decades while she had lived in Mexico. Art historian Richard J. Powell has called her exhibition at the Museum during 1971–72 an “artistic homecoming.”

Following Spriggs’s departure in 1976, Courtney Callender led the Studio Museum for one year, continuing its solid stream of programs that included a historical African-American focus (New York/Chicago: WPA and the Black Artist, 1977) and projects on Africa (Ancestral Vibrations: Stone Churches of Ethiopia, 1977). As the institution was beginning to outgrow its space at 2033 Fifth Avenue, Callender’s biggest accomplishment was fighting to keep the Museum in Harlem and close to its roots and mission of serving that community.8

During its first ten years men helmed the Museum; however, over the next four decades four amazing women—Dr. Mary Schmidt Campbell, Kinshasha Holman Conwill, Dr. Lowery Stokes Sims, and Thelma Golden—built on and advanced a Black exhibitionary complex, cast the Museum as an engine of art history, and moved this culturally specific institution into the next century.

Between 1977 and 1988, Campbell solidified the importance of the solo show, not just as a celebration of singular Black achievement but also as an apparatus to alter American art history.9 Countless groundbreaking exhibitions used this model, including those for Hale Woodruff and Barkley L. Hendricks. For Rituals: The Art of Betye Saar (1980), the Museum provided the artist with the opportunity to move into installation and greater participatory practice. As Campbell narrates, Saar shifted from the altar form as a “new type of object” to a room-size installation predicated on different kinds of engagement by both artist and viewer, creating a new “approach to experiencing that object.”10

Perhaps most importantly, Campbell oversaw the Studio Museum’s move from its home above a liquor store at 2033 Fifth Avenue to its iconic location at 144 West 125th Street in the early 1980s. Located on that storied street and business corridor, the Museum remains rooted in the center of Harlem, a key site of the Black world. Opening in summer 1982, the new building was the work of J. Max Bond Jr. and his firm Bond-Ryder Associates, which had designed the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, another significant landmark of Harlem’s intellectual power.

Bond transformed a site donated by the New York Bank for Savings into the premier museum of the Black world. From a six-story office building, Bond-Ryder created proper gallery spaces. They embedded a central location for artist-in-residence studios, making it a fulcrum of the Museum’s physical space as well as the philosophical mission. Archives and a museum shop were also new features.12

Elizabeth Catlett emerged as a significant artist of the Black Arts Movement, exhibiting in the U.S. after a hiatus of two decades while she had lived in Mexico. Richard J. Powell has called her 1971–72 exhibition at the Museum an “artistic homecoming."

The opening trifecta of exhibitions in the new location set the stage for what was to come in Campbell’s decade of leadership. Images of Dignity: A Retrospective of the Works of Charles White (1982) presented a long overdue reconsideration of one of the country’s most well-known African-American artists. The impressive overview Ritual and Myth: A Survey of African American Art (1982) highlighted the Black visual tradition in seventy works by forty-five artists through paired visions of the fantastic and the sacred. The show embraced a wide spectrum of makers from the academic to the self-taught, African, and Caribbean practitioners, with the greatest focus given to contemporary African-American artists. The James Van Der Zee archives, for which the Museum became the custodian in the mid-1970s, was celebrated in Harlem Heyday: The Photography of James Van Der Zee (1982–83). It offered the iconic beauty of the Harlem Renaissance captured in the photographer’s studio as well as through his photojournalism practice.13

In addition to insisting on a broader notion of the fine arts by making photography central to its exhibition roster, Campbell also standardized the Artist-in-Residence program, instituting an annual exhibition of the participants’ work. Under Campbell’s leadership, the generation of Black American abstractionists was reembraced through solo shows of work by Edward Clark, Melvin Edwards, Sam Gilliam, Alvin Loving, Howardena Pindell, and Jack Whitten.15

With an MBA from the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, in hand, Kinshasha Holman Conwill arrived at the Studio Museum as Deputy Director in 1980. She became Director in 1988 and continued to place importance on solo shows by master African-American artists such as Emma Amos, William T. Williams, Norman Lewis, Archibald Motley, and Romare Bearden. With an exhibition of work by Jean-Michel Basquiat, the Museum began to turn toward a legion of emerging artists.

Having come to know New York City well during her almost two decades at the institution, Conwill collaborated with many cultural partners across the city, such as the Caribbean Cultural Center and the Bronx Museum of the Arts (Transforming the Crown: African, Asian, and Caribbean Artists in Britain, 1966–1996, 1997–98) and the New Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art (The Decade Show: Frameworks of Identity in the 1980s, 1990). In 1990 the Studio Museum organized one of the first major projects of contemporary African artists at the Venice Biennale. In 1995 Conwill oversaw the inauguration of the Museum’s sculpture garden.16

Lowery Stokes Sims would serve as a guest curator for Wifredo Lam and His Contemporaries, 1938–1952 (1992–93) and Art as a Verb: The Evolving Continuum: Installations, Performance, and Videos by 13 African-American Artists (1988–89, co-curated with Leslie King Hammond), before coming to the Museum as Director in 2000. An art-world legend, she had started her career at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1972 as an Assistant in the Education Department, eventually becoming that museum’s first African-American curator. When Sims left the Met in 1999, with her vast amount of experience, she was the logical choice for Director. Sims’s focus was on both the strategic growth and scholarly profile of the institution. Her exhibition Challenge of the Modern: African American Artists, 1925–1945 (2003) argued that the struggle for Black visual expression in the early twentieth century should be seen as part of an intellectual history and that these artists’ imaginings as agents of creative transformation be placed within canonical art-historical frameworks. As Sims explained:

The greatest challenge to recognizing the contributions of Black people to modernity would, ironically, be encountered within contemporary art circles. Despite the fact that modernist genres such as abstraction were grounded in African art, and given that Black dance and music had ushered in a modern sound and sense of the body, African-American artists and artists of African descent were positioned as followers and imitators of white artists recognized as the pioneers of modernism. For the artistic mainstream, modernity in culture and art was co-existent with social, economic, and political sovereignty and power. The colonial positionings of the “civilized” and the “primitive”—a mirror of the “West’s” relationship with the rest of the world that had been in formation since the era of the Encounter and Exploration—established the vocabulary for a discourse that maintained, even supported, the power relationships of colonialism in the art world: the “center” versus the “periphery,” “intellectual” versus “emotional,” “objective” versus “subjective,” “technological” versus “manual,” “conscious” versus “unconscious,” and “individual” versus “communal.”17

In terms of programmatic focus, this academic framing of a twentieth-century past was matched by reaching out to current and more diverse generations of artists in the twenty-first century—a shift that has been the work of Thelma Golden, who arrived with Sims as Chief Curator in 2000 and has flowered as the Museum’s latest chief visionary.18

As the Studio Museum anticipates the completion of its new home, it is exciting to picture how architect Sir David Adjaye will construct something that has been imagined for centuries: a permanent site to recount the history of the African diaspora. As early activists and educators understood, the museum was an excellent place to narrate Black selfhood, whether civic, national, or international. Adjaye, an architect of global renown, has studied diasporic spaces and modern architectural ideals all over the world. In many ways, Adjaye celebrates and advances some of the ideas that Bond launched in the 1960s, during the activist era in which the Museum was born. In contemplating Bond’s redesign of the 144 West 125th Street edifice and its transformation from a chamber of finance to one for fine art, one can find what Adjaye terms the “resignification of materials,”21 whether as interventions in or changes of the use of spaces, or through repurposing materials in innovative ways. If some of Bond’s earliest buildings were created in Ghana, one of his final projects was a collaboration with Adjaye and others on the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC.

Like Bond, Adjaye believes such public buildings should be welcoming, addressing communities in a fashion that bespeaks institutional availability. These locales should offer, through the environments they create, a sense of democratic access reminding one of their openness to the “ritual of people’s lives.”22 In The Studio Museum in Harlem’s new building, we eagerly await such a “new urban room for the city.”23

—Dr. Kellie Jones


Excerpt from “The Studio Museum in Harlem: Ancient to the Future” in Black Refractions: Highlights from The Studio Museum in Harlem (New York: Rizzoli, 2018), 12–19.

This essay is dedicated to all those who made the idea of The Studio Museum in Harlem into a reality “ancient to the future,” the title of a 1987 album by the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Thanks to Madeline Weisberg for research assistance.

1. For a wonderful review of this era, see Susan Cahan, Mounting Frustration: The Art Museum in the Age of Black Power (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016).

2. Chicago’s DuSable Museum of African American History opened in 1961. See Mabel Wilson, Negro Building: Black Americans in the World of Fairs and Museums (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), and Bridget R. Cooks, Exhibiting Blackness: African Americans and the American Art Museum (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2011).

3. The Harlem Hellfighters were known for both their valor during World War I and bringing jazz culture with them around the world in the early twentieth century. Inniss would go on to run the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation and direct the Brooklyn Children’s Museum and the Staten Island Zoological Society. He would also serve on the Studio Museum board.

4. This program provided funding for the creation of new works and apprentices to assist in their making.

5. Abdias do Nascimento, “Afro- Brazilian Art: A Liberating Spirit,” Black Art: An International Quarterly 1, no. 1 (Fall 1976): 54–62.

6. Richard J. Powell, “Face to Face: Elizabeth Catlett’s Graphic Work,” in Elizabeth Catlett, Works on Paper, 1944–1992, ed. Jeanne Zeidler, exh. cat. (Hampton, VA: Hampton University Museum, 1993), 49.

8. After leaving the Studio Museum, Callender was an executive in public television at WNET in New York. Following his turn as Director, Spriggs relocated to Atlanta, where he worked for both the Southern Arts Federation and Fulton County Arts, taught at Spelman College, and founded, in 1988, Hammonds House Galleries and Resource Center, where he served as Executive Director.

9. Campbell completed her PhD at Syracuse University, New York, while serving as Executive Director.

10. Mary Schmidt Campbell, “Introduction,” Rituals: The Art of Betye Saar, exh. cat. ([New York]: [The Studio Museum in Harlem], 1980), n.p.

12. “Bond Ryder Associates, Architects for New Building,” Studio Museum in Harlem Quarterly Bulletin (Winter 1980–81): 1, 7. See also “New Building Marks Milestone in the The Studio Museum in Harlem’s Growth and in Long Tradition of Black Art” press release, c. 1982, The Studio Museum in Harlem archive, New York.

13. Ritual and Myth was organized by another significant curator and art historian, Leslie King Hammond; C. Daniel Dawson and Deborah Willis collaborated on Harlem Heyday. My own time at the Studio Museum spanned this era; from 1980 to 1983, I worked as an intern and later an Assistant Curator.

15. Campbell left to become the commissioner of New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs in 1987. In 1991 she joined New York University as dean of Tisch School of the Arts and in 2015 became the tenth president of Spelman College, a historically Black college dedicated to educating women and with a strong commitment to the arts.

16. In 2006 Conwill joined the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, DC, as Deputy Director.

18. Between 2007 and 2015 Sims served as Curator of the Museum of Arts and Design, New York, where she organized the exhibitions The Global Africa Project (2010–11) and Against the Grain: Wood in Contemporary Art, Craft and Design (2013). She retired in 2015.

21. David Adjaye, David Adjaye: Constructed Narratives; Essays and Projects, ed. Peter Allison (Zurich: Lars Müller Publishers, 2017), 91.

22. Ibid., 187.

23. Ibid., 100

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