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Studio Magazine

Expanding the Walls: Past, Present, and Future

Shanta Lawson, Education Director

The twentieth year of The Studio Museum in Harlem’s venerable Expanding the Walls: Making Connections Between Photography, History, and Community brings forth reflection on the program’s legacy, its impact on the Museum, and the communities it has engaged.

It is a heartwarming, reassuring, and affirming exercise to reflect on excerpts from its early grant proposal, written by former Director of Education and Public Programs Sandra Jackson-Dumont. Remarkably, the core elements that shaped the program in its foundational years are still part of its present structure. Over the last two decades, new components, opportunities, and shifts have occurred, including new platforms and partnerships that have “expanded” the reach and impact of this unique program. 

Each core value of Expanding the Walls is celebrated and told, weaving Sandra's original grant proposal text, in italics, and the Museum's current Director of Education, Sandra Lawson's reflections together, bridging the past, present, and future. 

The Paradigm shift

Sandra’s original proposal reveals a fundamental shift in the way the Museum has approached programming, with a vision for an initiative that activated the whole Museum, redefined community engagement, and ignited a new way of carrying out the Museum’s mission.     

Expanding the Walls would become a deeply impactful program on an individual level as well, fostering personal and creative growth in young people, resonating broadly across communities, and forming new and meaningful connections through art.   

In winter 2001, the Museum launched a new initiative, Expanding the Walls.  This multifaceted intergenerational program uses the Museum’s James Van Der Zee collection and archive as the point of entry for people of all ages to share experiences and perspectives on community, identity, American history, and culture. Expanding the Walls was conceived to allow the Museum to develop vital relationships with three distinct populations—youth, families, and senior citizens, as well as the cultural institutions and community-based organizations that provide services. 

Over the past decade, museums around the nation have undertaken special initiatives to strengthen community relationships. Providing access to the arts, addressing the needs of underserved populations, and using museum collections creatively to reflect the identity and interests of community have been the driving forces behind new programs. In developing programs that best meet the needs of their varied constituencies, the museum field has made it a priority to address communities that are often marginalized within the traditional paradigm of museum education. While the field has invested a great deal of time and resources in redefining the role of the museum in communities, many of these efforts have not been sustained, or the programs were intended to function as one-time exposure activities. Therefore, it is clear that a new effort is needed to address the needs and concerns of constituencies in Harlem—not only youth, but also families and senior citizens—that up to now have not been an institutional priority at the Museum.   

Expanding the Walls is a program conceived to challenge habitual museum education practices by creating an environment where there is a clear exchange of information and an interactive pedagogical process between the community and the institution, and between different generations. 

Sandra put forth a program model that would shift from lecture-based, authoritative models, to a person-centered approach rooted in conversation and sharing.  

At the core of this new initiative is a program through which youth are trained to use photography and the visual arts in general to facilitate discussions of larger social issues in the context of exhibitions presented at The Studio Museum in Harlem. By making its collection—especially the James Van Der Zee photography collection—the centerpiece for intergenerational dialogues, the Museum seeks to become a prime destination for the target groups of the ETW program—youth, families, and senior citizens. Participants will be identified and selected through various community and school organizations. The youth will serve as exhibition guides, discussion, and workshop leaders at the Studio Museum for programs for families, senior citizens, and their peers.

In twenty years, nearly three-hundred young people have graduated the program, representing schools in and around Harlem, and across the five boroughs of New York City.

The Youth Component

The youth component will offer fifteen high school students the opportunity to meet and converse with prominent visual artists and learn the fundamentals of photography. They will receive transportation fare for their trips to and from the Museum and a five-hundred-dollar stipend upon their completion of the program. Additionally, each youth will be given a 35 mm camera upon completion of the program.

The program will include both a workshop and a seminar component. Working with visual artists, the participants will use photography to reflect their own experiences in the same manner as James Van Der Zee. Youth participants will also engage in dialogues and conduct oral history interviews with seniors who have been longtime Harlem residents to learn about the historical period captured in Van Der Zee’s photos.

Over the course of eight months (January through August), youth will also attend sessions conducted by Studio Museum curators, educators, artists in residence, and guest speakers who will reference the Museum’s permanent collection and current exhibitions to discuss major art movements and issues that have shaped American art and culture as we know it today. Through extensive and rigorous training, participants will be given the tools and the opportunity to develop their intellectual, social, and artistic abilities.

ETW leads a workshop for a youth summer camp

The Camera

Ten years ago, ETW transitioned from 35 mm film cameras to DSLR cameras. Digital cameras have made it possible to capture and review images instantly—a very different pace and process from the first decade of the program. The primary tool with which ETW participants explored Harlem and their communities evolved. Youth in the pilot program started with the Polaroid 600 OneStep, and transitioned to shooting with Black-and-white film with Canon and Nikon 35 mm cameras. Color film was introduced in the mid-2000s, and in the tenth year of ETW, students began working with Canon DSLR cameras.  

One of the biggest differences we see in our participants is the level of experiences with photography—every student with a smartphone is a photographer! As a result of the rapid pace of technological advancement over the years, more students have come to the program with an increased level of image-making experience. This is a stark difference from the early seasons, when access to cameras was more limited and the ways we engage with photographs relied on a developing and printing process.  

ETW 2005 Participants Olajuwon Phillips (right) and Danny Alba (left) shooting photographs in front of a firehouse in Harlem

The Partnerships

Our partners have increased access to resources and tools for learning photography, and focusing on composition and image-making. Partnerships with New York University and the School of Visual Arts have provided access to darkroom facilities, exposure to the college environment, and a behind-the-scenes view of art schools. This has broadened ETW students’ view of what is possible and available for the continued study of art in post-secondary education.  

Artist and educator Isaac Diggs leads a session at the School of Visual Arts

The Senior Programs

The senior programs will allow seniors from senior centers, identified with input from the CAC to share their life experiences with the high school students, using the images in the Van Der Zee collection as a point of reference. These interviews will be conducted by the high school students, who will be trained to facilitate this type of intergenerational dialogue, which will be audio-recorded for inclusion in the Van Der Zee archive at the Studio Museum. Youth and seniors will collaborate on producing a publication of images from the Van Der Zee collection paired with transcribed excerpts from conversations between seniors and youth program participants. Special visiting days will also be set aside beginning in fall 2001 to allow groups to visit the Museum on days when it is closed to the public. During the summer, the youth participants will lead these tours.  

This component places youth at the center of programmatic engagement, as learners, catalysts for change, and connectors to other audiences.

Two Black women sit side by side at a table looking at photographs together. The women on the left wears a yellow shirt and straw brimmed hat. The woman on the right wears her hair pulled back, a floral button down shirt open, and a black t-shirt underneath.
Two Black women sit side by side at a table looking at photographs together. The women on the left wears a yellow shirt and straw brimmed hat. The woman on the right wears her hair pulled back, a floral button down shirt open, and a black t-shirt underneath.
ETW 2004 participant Shaunetta Gibson and a senior center partner review photos together

The Family Programs

Family programs will be designed to nurture bonds between parents and children through art. Families will be invited to participate in hands-on art-making activities, interactive gallery tours of selected Van Der Zee photos and current Studio Museum exhibitions, and walking tours of Harlem, led by ETW youth participants and Museum educators. The Van Der Zee collection will be the centerpiece of all the activities, and all participants receive take home packets that include home art-making activities, supplies, and Van Der Zee postcards.

A culminating celebration, specifically a Senior Soiree, brought families, seniors, and teens together to enjoy the images and stories that emerged from their time together. ETW exhibition opening receptions and culminating ceremonies continue to carry the same spirit of coming together to celebrate the artwork, and the meaningful, transformative experiences throughout the year.  

The Artist Engagements

Studio visits, workshops, and excursions with contemporary artists, including the Museum’s artists in residence, have increased since the program’s inception. In addition to photo-based lessons, they engage in other art-making workshops that might inspire their thinking and introduce them to new processes that inform and prompt discussions about identity and community, while offering new ways to explore their ideas creatively. This has also become an avenue for ETW alumni, with an artistic practice to give back to the program by returning to workshops. Giving back to the program that inspired him early on in his career, artist and ETW 2008 Alumni Ivan Forde has returned to the Museum on many occasions to lead his ever-popular cyanotype workshop.

ETW participants create prints during artist and ETW alumni, Ivan Forde's cyanotype workshop

The Curriculum

A robust curriculum, dedicated program coordinators, and Museum-wide support, united with the passion and commitment from the youth participants are key elements that sustain ETW.  

The curriculum, which takes more than thirty sessions, prioritizes community-building and engagement at every stage of the creative process. The core components of the ETW curriculum are Museum History and Community, Introduction to Photography, Exhibition, Artist Engagement and Exposure, and Field Excursions. Team-building among the youth is key to laying a foundation of trust and establishing a safe space for participants to talk about important things for them and their communities, while working through ideas together as a cohort.  

Every department is involved in the implementation and success of this program, from orientation to culmination, including the Communications team, which teaches ETW artist statement writing and forms exhibition didactics; the Curatorial team, which pairs Museum curators and students for a series of studio visits in preparation for their culminating exhibition, and the Facilities and IT teams, which ensure participants and staff have the space and resources they need throughout the year.

The Exhibition

An exhibition of ETW participant work is perhaps an element that developed in the pilot year, as the Museum considered strategies for honoring and celebrating the participants’ artwork, and to illuminate the community conversations that took place throughout the year. The inaugural exhibition was a small selection of images—framed Polaroids at the time—in the Studio Museum lobby. Subsequent years of ETW saw a migration from the lobby spaces into the galleries, to its consistent “home” in the former Project Space gallery in the old building. In 2018, when the Studio Museum’s building closed in preparation for the construction of the new building, the ETW exhibition was welcomed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, rightfully in the museum where its founder, Sandra Jackson-Dumont was chairwoman of Education and Public Programs.

In the future we look forward to welcoming more audiences to see the Expanding the Walls exhibition in the new Studio Museum building. In addition, an online presence for the artwork will make this work visible to national and international communities, and accessible beyond a physical location.

Expanding the Walls exhibition culminating celebration at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Expanding the Walls Goals  

Nearly three hundred young people have graduated from ETW, representing schools in and around Harlem and across the five boroughs of New York City. These twenty years have not only reached the goals Sandra had for this program, but have evolved and augmented them. In summary, the goals of ETW: 

Build long-standing, reciprocal, and meaningful partnerships with other cultural and community-based organizations that serve families, seniors, and youth. 

Through engagement with ETW, the Museum has developed enduring relationships with neighboring community organizations, including Manhattanville Senior Center and SAGE Center Harlem.  

  • Foster meaningful intergenerational dialogues. 
  • Expand the Museum’s services to youth, families, and seniors. 
  • ETW inspired future youth programming at the museum, including Studio Works.  
  • ETW students have facilitated guided visits and art-making experiences for families, co-leading the former Family Fun tours and assisting with Target Free Sunday workshops.  
  • Offer participants an opportunity to explore African-American art, in particular, the photography of James Van Der Zee.  

Each cohort of ETW has received a private tour of the Van Der Zee archive and permanent collection with the Registrar. Prints from the Van Der Zee archive are curated alongside the ETW artists’ work in their annual exhibition, furthering the intergenerational dialogue. In addition to continued exploration of this critical body of work, future ETW exhibitions may incorporate photographic works in the Studio Museum’s permanent collection, including works by Carrie Mae Weems, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Samuel Fasso, and Lorna Simpson, as they are also foundational to discussions about community and identity.   

Toward this goal, ETW participants met with an increasing number of contemporary artists over the years for studio visits, art-making workshops, excursions, and gallery tours—each of the artists generously sharing their time and insights on art, life, and their communities. The ETW class of 2004 shared the honor of having Dawoud Bey as a guest teaching artist. He led them in a series of portrait-making workshops, and some of these photographs were curated alongside the participants’ artwork in the exhibition that year.  

Develop a meaningful exchange on the relevance of the Museum’s collection to its community and the community’s role in interpreting the collection. 

​ETW participants trained with Education staff and Museum educators to lead engaging, inquiry-based tours and workshops of the work in their annual exhibition, permanent collection, and other exhibitions.  

Offer youth an opportunity to explore careers in the visual arts and museums. ​

In the mid-2000s, “ETW Goes to Work,” was introduced—a day-long experience in which ETW teens pair with staff members in various departments across the Museum for a behind-the-scenes look at various aspects of museum work.  

Several program alumni have attended art school or pursued majors and minors in art and related fields in college. Some established careers as practicing artists, filmmakers, and producers, while many others are teachers and entrepreneurs.

Provide an in-depth learning experience for the development of communication, critical thinking, and technical skills.

The original goals and purpose of ETW remain essential today and continue to serve as the pillars for the curriculum and program structure. As the program evolved, new goals developed: 

Create new opportunities for youth to maintain connections to the Studio Museum and the arts beyond the formal end to the program. In 2011, the Museum established a Teen Programs Internship in the Education department, to which ETW alumni might apply for an in-depth job-training experience. In 2017, a new teen advisory group, the Teen Leadership Council, was formed, making space for ETW alumni and other teens to inform and create the Museum’s youth programming.  

Expanding the Walls has and will continue to allow The Studio Museum in Harlem to re-envision its concept of community and how it will interact with that constituency. What is most important about Expanding the Walls is the fact that it is not a separate program that functions in isolation from the Museum’s other programs. Expanding the Walls is at the core of the Studio Museum’s renewed commitment to community development. Studio Museum education and programming staff are determined to expand from lecture-based programming models to establish a lively, interactive relationship in which empowerment replaces tokenism, proactive education replaces passive education, and there is a shift from a majority standard to a community standard. 

What remains consistent is the spirit of this program, which sees the Museum as a space for connection and community. ETW, at its core, values and empowers young people as thinkers, creators, and forces for positive change in the institution and in their communities. This program is a source of positive, progressive change within the institution, and brings new meaning to the idea of “expanding” as we look toward an exciting future.  

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