At the Studio Museum Harlem we got the opportunity to talk at length with Community Engagement Associate
Rachell Morillo from the Studio Museum’s public programs & community engagement and fellows Anaïs Duplan, Charmaine Branch, and Nectar Knuckles. The visit on this rainy afternoon began with the group telling us that the the Studio Museum is closed since January this year due to the preparation for a brand new building designed by star architect David Adjaye on the same location as the current facility.
The museum will continue its activities in satellite locations in the neighborhood and elsewhere while the new building is in construction for the next three years, which naturally poses several challenges ahead for the curatorial team. This was also perceived as an opportunity to engage more closely with the communities and strengthen the museum’s future presence in the area.
Our conversation started around how to work with the audience and community and giving them a sense of ownership without the actual space – but still using the museum as a resource. The Studio Museum’s exhibitions, conversations, and workshops will continue at a variety of satellite locations in Harlem, including New York Public Library branches. An interesting find was that not only do the library visitors stumble upon the art, but also the art-seeking public are discovering the facilities of public libraries.
“Libraries are recognized as public spaces, while art spaces are not,” says Rachell whose job is to make sure that community engagement is part of “everything that we do – before it was superficial.” We all agreed that to engage does not necessarily mean to respond to whatever is hanging on the walls as in traditional guided tours or activities held in the museum’s spaces. We were shown the Derrick Adams exhibition guide which included questions and encouraged multiple ways of looking at exhibitions.
The Studio Museum has been working with hanging works from the permanent collections in libraries and other community spaces. In schools, for instance, the museum develops lesson plans and works closely with artists where the children are aiming to not only present the artist’s work but also to develop visual literacy in the community, a skill that is an essential but often overlooked part of general education. We also discussed the issue of formats for events and ways in which we can imagine new ways of engaging the community beyond the traditional artist-curator talk and going into more performative formats as in for instance poetry readings activated by artworks and the inclusion of different subjectivities within the museum’s discursive spaces in-house or outside.
We also had an interesting discussion around how to work within a museum or institution, which are about stabilization per se while still trying to remain flexible and listen to what the audience needs. Anaïs stated that “to program is asking people and understanding what they need – and listening closely.” What types of spaces do people appreciate? According to Rachell Morillo, “today, the establishment is being questioned by the coming generation, trust is being created through intimacy between artists and institutions,” where artists feel a sense of ownership of institutions who in turn should be quicker to react to what is happening in the communities, aiming for more connectedness.
Anaïs Duplan also runs the project The Center for Afrofuturist Studies in Iowa City. Check it out!