Studio Check In: Ariana Faye Allensworth
Studio Check In was born out of a desire to tell the stories of the people who work behind the scenes at different arts and cultural institutions. Institutions are defined by the people who work within them, but they are also defined by the community members, artists, and audiences that intersect with and support the work and mission—different audiences and participants help make the story more full, more human, and more alive.
In this Studio Check In, Ilk Yasha speaks with Ariana Faye Allensworth, an artist, researcher, and cultural strategist based in New York City. Her work builds upon interests in visual storytelling, spatial justice, and the politics of belonging. She participated in the 2019 Museum Education Practicum program at The Studio Museum in Harlem.
Ariana, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us. I always begin with a simple question to introduce our interviewee to our readers. Can you tell the readers a little about yourself?
I am an artist and cultural strategist born and raised in San Francisco and currently based in Brooklyn. My work has ranged from developing arts education experiences in school and museum settings, to working inside of institutions to help them realize their equity goals. My strong passion for building infrastructure and [improving] conditions for folks unites the many spaces and contexts I work within.
I’m also a descendant of a town called Allensworth, California, which was founded by free Black folks in the early twentieth century. That place and the Bay Area are sites where a lot of my creative and social justice commitments were formed. These revolve around an interest in hidden histories, the politics of belonging, and the relationship between place and race.
You trained early in your career as a social worker and eventually worked in a museum for many years. What made you leap into the museum field?
My first job out of undergrad was working at a public high school on the Lower East Side managing a dropout prevention program. It was an arts-based high school and I was mentored by a team of phenomenal social workers who were using art and design as tools to engage and cultivate the leadership of young people who were getting pushed out of the school system. So, even when I decided to pursue a social work degree after those five years at the school, I was committed and interested in weaving art as a healing and transformation tool into my social work practice.
Museums are such incredible sites for learning and transformation. I made the leap to run the teen program at ICP [The International Center of Photography] because it was an exciting opportunity to create spaces for youth voices to belong within museum walls and use art and photography as tools to teach and transform.
You are an artist and at the same time work in an administrative and institutional capacity. Tell me about your relationship to the word “belonging” and how it lives in your creative practice and the work you do?
Belonging is about creating the conditions for folks to feel authentic, that they're seen and heard and valued. In my work in institutional settings, I often am looking to create conditions for everyone to thrive, recognizing that folks impacted by structural oppression experience an organizational culture differently than those who haven’t, and that they have different needs than folks of the majority.
In my creative practice, I explore stories of Black homemaking and world-building and the ways that folks have, to pay homage to the popular African-American expression, "made a way out of no way." I'm interested in how folks have pursued ways of living despite structural forces working against them.
You’re doing interdisciplinary and divergent work; often it's difficult to describe and find a connection through the projects you’re working on. What excites you about being bigger than a label?
Not having a label connects to belonging, of not feeling that I have to compromise or withhold parts of myself when I describe what I do. It enables me to do work in a way that makes sense for me and draws from the many teachers and mentors I’ve had that come from such a cross-section of disciplines. I think any opportunity to democratize the disciplinary categories we've been forced to practice within is very liberating.
I spent much of my early career feeling like I had to choose. It was either I'm a social worker or I'm a museum worker. I couldn't be all of the things at the same time. It's been liberating to be able to claim all the parts of myself rather than have to choose, compromise, or withhold. Practicing that for myself has also empowered me to use my positions to provide access and opportunities for folks who might be overlooked because they haven’t been professionalized within a traditional art, design, or social work context. I landed my first gigs in the museum and design worlds because of folks that did that for me even though I wasn’t a traditional candidate on paper. Some of the folks I’m most inspired by are the ones working on the fringes of their disciplines or who are blending methods that haven’t traditionally been in conversation with one another. I’m reading Dear Science and Other Stories by Katherine McKittrick and the ways she thinks through undoing discipline and interrupting knowledge systems makes my heart sing. Social justice work requires us to imagine and model the worlds we wish to see, and cross-disciplinary exchanges can be such powerful vehicles to push and expand our thinking in service of that.
I like how you're approaching design work, thinking about learning and engagement with it from different perspectives. . To me, it seems as if you’re a social architect.
I love that. A lot of my work revolves around designing the architecture for a transformation process to happen. As administrators in infrastructure roles, we don’t often get opportunities to showcase our work because it’s the unsexy part of what goes into pulling off these big, complex projects or programs or initiatives. There’s this amazing group called Admin, I don’t think they’re active anymore, but they used to hold space for arts administrators to explore their unique roles in imagining a more just art world. I remember stumbling upon this quote on one of their promotional materials years ago that stuck with me. It said, “The goal is to think of administration not as a mundane necessity but as a tool for liberation.” I come back to that often. I love opportunities to normalize having conversations about these unglamorous, often invisible, but necessary parts of institutional life. Administrators bring so much value to collective processes, from making sure folks get paid on time to bringing clarity to complexity. Being more public about how to do that well and equitably helps maximize our impact and ensure everyone can bring their best selves to the table.
You are also a long-time member of the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project (AEMP), a data visualization and storytelling collective that reclaims technology as a means to embolden housing justice movements. What inspires you to do this work?
The project was born in the San Francisco Bay Area, my hometown. I wanted to plug into anti-gentrification efforts in the city I grew up in that were being accelerated by the impact of the tech boom. As I mentioned before, I’m passionate about resurfacing hidden histories. The project provided an exciting forum to leverage the representational power of maps and to create ones that reveal a counter-history to those employed by real estate speculators and Silicon Valley techno-utopias. It's exciting to appropriate tools born out of the tech sector toward anti-gentrification causes and toward giving folks who are most impacted by displacement pressures a voice and a platform for their organizing and their stories. Using data as a tool for accountability is an important part of what we do.
Speaking of combating the tech sector, there is a growing movement for data justice and data transparency. What made you want to be involved in reclaiming and empowering the use of data?
A lot of the mapping project’s early maps were practicing data justice by using public data to bring tangibility and visibility to the scale and amorphous nature of the eviction crisis. It was a way to quantify the scale and pervasiveness of the displacement pressures we were witnessing. Most of the data we were using was coming from public repositories. But we made the data legible and visually accessible to broader publics so they could see patterns, make meaning of it, and understand the forces at play.
Reflecting on this early work, we also grappled with the limits of visibility. While the early maps offered an important conceptual foothold on the eviction crisis, we also realized that the bigger the data gets, the more detail and nuance that gets lost. We began incorporating storytelling into our work in 2014 in order to humanize the dots made visible on our varied quantitative maps by including tenant stories that can get flattened in traditional maps or data visualizations.
All systems are built with flaws, but they can be re-designed and made better. I think it is all of our jobs to try and make these systems better. What inspires you to do this kind of systems-oriented work?
My career foundations in social work molded my interests in systems-oriented work. Social work taught me that any transformation process requires both individual and systemic-level interventions. In serving communities most impacted by injustice and structural oppression, we’re trained to look holistically at a client's conditions. It's not enough just to address someone's needs at the individual level; you also have to address the root of the harm. That’s why I’ve gravitated toward change management and organizational transformation work because it requires both individual and systemic interventions too. In her book Emergent Strategy, adrienne maree brown reminds us that “Small is good, small is all. The large is a reflection of the small.” This is such a beautiful reminder that the systemic is not an abstraction. We all hold important pieces of the whole. Any change process requires folks to confront and clarify the roles they play in the systems they’re a part of and to recognize that the patterns at the individual level reverberate throughout the wider system.
Similarly, with AEMP, we're pointing out patterns in the larger system, but also recognizing that when you look at things at the macro level it can flatten nuance and subjectivity. All these dots on a map represent individual stories, individual families, and individual migration stories. Our work tries to hold that complexity of the bigger picture patterns, larger forces, and all of the real estate speculation that creates these conditions, but also gives voice to the individual and tells stories from the margins of the data as well.
You’ve gone from working in a museum to incubating an idea in a museum at New Inc. How would you like to see museums change in the next decade?
Honestly, creating better models of care for arts and museum workers. I’d like to see the field move toward creating conditions for BIPOC, queer, and disabled museum workers to thrive, especially folks working in education programs, which are so central to so many museum’s missions but are often undervalued and undercompensated. Many of these disparities and labor practices became glaringly clear as educators were disproportionately pushed into unemployment during the pandemic. There was a Vera List Center forum from 2020 where Camilo Godoy and Michelle Millar Fisher break a lot of this down very poignantly.
At IDEO, you’re thinking about design that leads to thoughtful engagement. What is a principle you think is relevant to your current work in design that you’d like to leave our readers thinking about?
At IDEO, I manage an internal change management team that is tasked with evolving the company's culture to be more firmly rooted in equity and belonging. Two design principles I strive toward are to center the most marginalized and to practice expansive leadership. In other words, ensuring those most impacted by systems of oppression feel seen and centered in the work and creating room for many to lead. When we center the needs of those most impacted by systems of oppression, everyone benefits. This is something I learned from Black feminists. The Combahee River Collective states, “If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all systems of oppression.” And similarly, Patrisse Cullors calls in the idea of “leaderful” movements. Rather than leading from a place of scarcity and power-hoarding, it’s an invitation to explore what’s possible when we make room at the front for the many rather than the few.
Ariana, thank you so much for your time!