Pieces of Tomorrow

Princeton Cangé, Nhadya Lawes, Nhadya Lawes, et al

Five people on Zoom

L to R: Kalkidan Teshome, Nhadya Lawes, Julissa Nuñez, Christian Reeder, and Princeton Cangé on Zoom

By Princeton Cangé, Nhadya Lawes, Julissa Nuñez, Christian Reeder, and Kalkidan Teshome

I am in the search of something new / (a beautiful world I'm trying to find)  / Searchin' me,  / Searching inside of you  / And that's fo' real / … With shiny lights and little  / Pieces of tomorrow  / I stay woke – Erykah Badu, “Master Teacher”1 



Inspired by the versatile manner in which libraries nurture their communities, we propose  abundant methods of engagement, as well as the creation of spaces that can support these methods in collaboration with their populations. Libraries provide safe refuge to homeless populations across the United States. There, they can take advantage of free internet job searches or read texts on educational training. They also assist ESL learners in language acquisition and  help visitors not only to find health insurance resources but also make limited health screenings available free of charge. At base, it may seem like museums and cultural institutions are simply sites under which art and historical and material objects can be stored and observed. Museums, science centers, art galleries, and similar institutes are entirely capable of acting as a shelter, open research space, archive, professional development center, healthcare hubs, and infinitely more. 

We see several pathways forward: abolition, reformation, and, as this paper proposes, the launch of alternative spaces. The phrase “what if” is useful in thinking about new possibilities for arts and culture institutions. Here are a few: 

  1. What if institutions allocated funds to free ASL and foreign language lessons for the general public inside its doors as a way to combat issues regarding access and equitable shared space?  

  1. What if school children received guided tours of a museum’s artworks to supplement their education, or learned chemistry through the techniques of painting and conservation?  

  1. What if institutions shifted from the exorbitant prices of a museum cafe to hosting communal dinners? 

What if these scenarios could each be true at once? 

Some argue it is not the responsibility of the institution to deaccession artwork and otherwise reallocate resources to its surrounding neighborhoods. We fundamentally disagree and want to push for new possibilities. The museum model as it exists now has a long way to go before it changes. Perhaps it is time for a new kind of institution: one by and for the people in their specific local geography, their community. Much like solving an equation, each institution must figure out exactly how they can best fill the gaps in their unique community, and in essence, solve for “X.” 

On Solving for “X” and Local Ownership 

As we iteratively design and imagine, it is important to us that “X” institution2 is a space committed to serving both the tangible and the intangible, the practical and the poetic,3 the body and the soul.4 We start this process by first mapping out the core ideals, even before we devise an actual name for the design.  

One such ideal is an emphasis on the local; with a basic structure, the physical manifestation of these sites could be infinitely malleable, uniquely attuned and specific to the local community, not just of which it is surrounded and serves, but of which it is run, led, and strategized. It could build upon neighborhood libraries as a model and implement operations such as artwork loans5 or take-home programs,6 community (defined as local residents) acquisition and curation groups, and honor new constituencies outside of monetary contributions. Ultimately, “X” institution would shift from approaches of local community partnership relationships to one of ownership and active agency: “only master teachers now.”7  

We would want to find a means for it to start with local community ownership and stay that way, namely, to prevent gentrification and co-opting, which has historically had an exploitative relationship to art districts and community redevelopment. This could include connecting with local community land trusts and local/municipality government agreements, such as preventing surrounding rents from rising and ensuring affordable housing security. 

As these pieces unfold and develop, “X” institution should be a local coalition that uses art and culture—whether in celebration, production, programming, etc.—as mechanisms that enrich both the necessary (ex., access to clean drinking water) and unexpected (ex., the discovery of a new painter) in our lives.  

On Education 

The purpose of “X” Institution is to be at the service of art, ideas, and the people of their specific local community. It is well known that physical and intellectual health are linked, and cultural institutions cannot ignore that fact.8 As necessary as physical well-being is to a community, so is its communities’ ability to participate in idea-driven discourse. “X” Institution is uniquely positioned to foster cultural, intellectual, and physical health in its community. This can only be enacted if an expansive and holistic idea of education and learning rests at the core of the mission and structure of the institution. 

A comprehensive idea of education starts with research and listening: understanding and forging friendships with people in the community is paramount. This place where the community and institution are thoroughly integrated will blur the line between the two seemingly separate entities. The information derived from this endeavor will color how the institution does its work. Now the institution knows how to best allocate its resources. 

Together, those working inside “X” institution and those in the community can shape the institution into a form that is most acutely relevant to its geographical area. That could mean organizing world-class art exhibitions and growing a community garden.9 It could mean hosting school programs—whether after school or remote—that focus on art education, but also have tutors in math, literature, history, and science.10 Whatever the case, with education, learning, and love at its core, “X” Institution can fulfill its role as the intermediary between the ideas held in art and the daily life of the community. 

On Accessibility of Curation 

It is impossible to discuss the state of the museum and its future possibilities without acknowledging the history of organizing by artists, cultural workers, and various residents from the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC) of 1969 up to Decolonize This Place starting in 2016.11 The Studio Museum’s Museum Professionals Seminar encouraged a nuanced perspective of how to recognize, address, and challenge the inequities present in museum history, display, and operations. Unsurprisingly, there are both commonly shared and uniquely divergent opinions among culturally specific institutions and their constituents. In the labyrinth of discourses of abolition and decolonization, what is the relationship between reform, repurpose, and revolution in arts and culture?  

It is not enough to have representation on the walls. As the value of curatorial work shifts from stewardship of collections toward considering relationships, an expansive curatorial vision should acknowledge the potential visitor as more than a passive spectator and extend the invitation to participate. 

If we’re taught, encouraged, and disciplined to not go where we aren’t invited, then museum workers should take on the imperative to extend an invitation to people who have been historically excluded from these spaces. 

There is power in recognizing what we can leverage. At the smallest level, a museum staff ID can offer free entrance and admission to many cultural institutions. Offering a friend or neighbor a ticket to a museum can relieve the stress associated with cost-prohibitive admission fees. This investment in human resources can be extended to the institutional staff and exemplifies the work that keeps the cultural arts in communities thriving.  

In 2019, ICA Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania invited artist Matthew Angelo Harrison to rethink the archives of objects from Africa in the University’s collection, challenging a display and interpretation methodology rooted in colonialism.12 In 2020, the Brooklyn Museum offered its lobby and restrooms as a space of respite for organizers during the protests following the murder of George Floyd.13 These examples serve as a helpful frame of reference for expanding our imagination, or as Legacy Russell so deftly put it during a seminar discussion, “expand the historical viewfinder” to see what new connections can be made in our ongoing work. 

On Tomorrow 

Our solutions for the art ecosystem guide institutions to focus their impact on their local community. Our future requires sustainability; as socio-political spheres experience turbulence, the local community remains a constant. We ideate toward a more inclusive tomorrow by looking to community-based education and local involvement for answers on what change is essential for cultural institutions. We center the availability of resources, (i.e., free admission, grade-school tutors, community gardens) as we understand audiences in their fullness and acknowledge the barriers to access and opportunity. 

As emerging professionals in this complex and ever-changing social landscape, we position ourselves as the ones we’ve always been waiting for.14 We take our responsibility as the forbearers and representatives of art and culture seriously as we form this document and put words to the future we wish to exist within. We too acknowledge our role to enact change and implement our cohort discussions in our quotidian interactions with institutions in our own neighborhood, as well as the ones on our resumes.  

Through our shared space of imagination, we envision a future responsive to its surrounding culture and community needs. The museum we want might not even be a museum at all; perhaps the museum was just a starting point. And with this foundation, we’ve used our collective experiences in and outside of art and academic institutions, core values, and radical precedents15 to reimagine these “pieces of tomorrow.”16 

(A beautiful world, a beautiful world) (Dreams, dreams) 

1. Erykah Badu, “Master Teacher,” New Amerykah Part One (4th World War), Universal Motown, 2008, CD, https://genius.com/Erykah-badu-master-teacher-lyrics

2. As we solve for “X”, X institution is a placeholder that remains nameless. X represents the opportunity for these value-based solutions to be adapted by any community entity in local-specific ways.  

3. “David Adjaye and Rick Lowe, Moderated by Thelma Golden | in Conversation | Gagosian,” YouTube, Gagosian Gallery, June 23, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hfZSeHZrKpc&t=5s

4. Alondra Nelson, “Body and Soul: Introduction: Serving the People Body and Soul,” Manifold, University of Minnesota Press Open Access Library, https://manifold.umn.edu/read/body-and-soul/section/1dd88f84-3ebe-4ccb-8982-1da0655ac443 

5.  “Museum Lends Art to Students.” Williams College, arts.williams.edu, accessed November 16, 2021. https://arts.williams.edu/feature-stories/museum-lends-art-to-students/.  

6. Claire Selvin, “8 US Colleges Lending Their Art Collections to Students,” Hyperallergic, November 30, 2017, hyperallergic.com/413897/college-art-collections-student-loans/.  

7. Badu, “Master Teacher.” 

8. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "Nutrition linked to brain health and intelligence in older adults." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/12/161213113142.htm (accessed November 14, 2021). 

9. “Colton Community Garden.” musnaz.org. Museum of Northern Arizona. Accessed November 16, 2021. https://musnaz.org/about/campus/gardens/colton-community-garden/

10. Ashlie D. Stevens, “Museums Are Combining Childcare and Education That's More Affordable than Private Tutoring,” Salon, October 17, 2020. https://www.salon.com/2020/10/16/museum-programs-childcare-homeschooling-nti/.  

11. “Movement Space,” Decolonize This Place, accessed November 16, 2021, https://decolonizethisplace.org/movement-space.  

12. Meg Onli and Amber Rose Johnson, Colored People Time (Philadelphia, PA: Institute of Contemporary Art, 2020)   

13. Artnet News, “Art Industry News: The Brooklyn Museum Has Opened up Its Lobby to Protesters as a Place for Rest and Relief + Other Stories,” Artnet News, June 5, 2020. https://news.artnet.com/art-world/art-industry-news-june-5-2020-stories-1880010.  

14. Alice Walker, Alice, We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting for: Inner Light in a Time of Darkness, New York: New Press, 2021. 

15. The following list includes select initiatives that connect our core value of the local and rethink community relationships in imaginative ways: 

Jasmine Mahmoud, “Touring Project Row Houses: Lessons on Arts as Anti-Gentrification Urbanism in Houston’s Historically Black Third Ward,” urbanculturalstudies, September 2018, https://urbanculturalstudies.wordpress.com/2018/09/06/touring-project-row-houses-lessons-on-arts-as-anti-gentrification-urbanism-in-houstons-historically-black-third-ward/

John Byrne, Elinor Morgan, November Paynter, Aida Sánchez de Serdio, and Adela Železnik, The Constituent Museum (Amsterdam: Valiz, L’Internationale, 2018), https://d2tv32fgpo1xal.cloudfront.net/files/the-constituent-museum-lio.pdf 

“Expanding the Walls: Making Connections Between Photography, History and Community,” The Studio Museum in Harlem, https://studiomuseum.org/expanding-walls

Connie H. Choi, “Educate to Liberate: Black Panther Liberation Schools,” Studio Magazine, The Studio Museum in Harlem, https://www.studiomuseum.org/article/educate-liberate-black-panther-liberation-schools

Diane Pien, “Black Panther Party’s Free Breakfast Program (1969-1980),” BlackPast.org, February 2010, https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/black-panther-partys-free-breakfast-program-1969-1980/

“About Us,” The Colored Girls Museum, http://thecoloredgirlsmuseum.com/about-2/

“About Us, Our Mission, Our Story,” The Underground Museum, https://theunderground-museum.org/about/#history

16. Badu, “Master Teacher.”