Studio Check In With Alexsandra Mitchell
Studio Check In was born from a desire to tell the stories of the different staff members who help make the Studio Museum the institution it is today. Institutions are defined by the people who work within them, but they are equally defined by the community members and audiences that intersect and support the work and mission—different audiences and participants help make the story more full, more human, and more alive. As we look ahead, I will continue to bring my colleagues' stories to the fore as well as shed light on the various external actors whose journeys are embedded and emboldened by the energy of our institution.
In this Studio Check In, Ilk Yasha speaks with Alexsandra Mitchell, who participated in the Museum Education Practicum at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. She participated remotely in a program that explores the intersection of art and education through the lens of the Studio Museum. Over this ten-week program participants were able to gather as a group to ruminate on the state of the arts and culture sector, the work of artists of African descent, and the museum as a site for learning.
Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us. Let’s start off with a little introduction, Alexsandra, can you begin by telling the readers about yourself please?
I'm originally from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I now live and work in the City of Angels: Los Angeles, California. I'm the Manager of Education and Public Programs at The California African American Museum (CAAM). Before moving to Los Angeles for this position I was in New York City living in Brooklyn for about ten years.
What was it that drew you to work at CAAM specifically?
There were a few things, some professional things and the chance for a greater career opportunity. At the time I was looking, I was completing coursework in my doctoral program at Cornell and, in my former life as I like to say now, I had been working at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture as a librarian and archivist. My work is really centered around contemporary Black art and Black archives and I wanted to take the next step in terms of moving my career forward to merge together some of my professional experience in different ways.
I had taught before. I taught in Dakar, Senegal, for a year after undergrad. I've taught everything from K–12, Clyde Taylor’s former NYU course, Narratives of African Civilizations, as well as a course I developed for Pratt’s grad LIS program, so the education component was big for me. I had also done a ton of public programming at Schomburg for my division, which was the Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Books Division. I was leading up a project that was looking at the intersection between contemporary Black art in the archives and working with people in that sphere be they artists or scholars. I collaborated with Studio Museum for a project with Derrick Adams in 2017 which was really incredible. The project was about Patrick Kelly and ended up being the exhibition Derrick Adams: Patrick Kelly, The Journey. I love Derrick and his work, and I had the chance to do some really cool projects with some people like Derrick and Firelei Báez, whose work I also really admire.
And this opportunity at CAAM just presented itself. Honestly, I was looking at job postings because I haven't necessarily beaten the pavement in the past. I didn’t know anyone personally as I was across the country. I was looking at new cities where I had a great sense of community and great weather, and as you know, the New York winters are long and strong, and I couldn’t make it through another one. The rest is history!
You have a really dynamic background with experience in archives, libraries, in programming, and education more broadly. Is there a formative moment that inspired you to pick the career path you’re on now?
There were some formative moments, I wouldn't say there was one moment, per se. When I was in graduate school at NYU for my master's program I took a course with Deb Willis—anybody who is at NYU while she is still there and teaching, do yourself a favor and take a class! It’s called Black Body and the Lens, and it's a really incredible course. It introduced me to a whole breadth of scholarship that I hadn’t thought about before, and Deb took us on a number of incredible gallery and museum visits, studio visits, and had really incredible guest speakers. Of course she is friends with everybody and also happens to be a very generous person and so if any of us had an interest in something she would CC the biggest person that was related to that, she still does this. In taking the class it opened me up to the opportunity to attend the Black Portraitures conference which at that time was going to be in Paris and subsequently in Italy and South Africa. She gave us the opportunity to present our work and think through projects in a different way and to present them to the best of the best in our field.
After I finished the program I had started doing this book project called The Artist’s Way with Julia Cameron and I was taking time for a lot of self-exploration. I was working a job that sounds a lot more glamorous than it was, for the archives at Madison Square Garden. Madison Square Garden owns MSG networks, all the teams, and the intellectual property for the sporting teams that play at the Garden.
I was really working at a warehouse in Maspeth, Queens, which if anybody is familiar with Maspeth you know this is just like a real warehouse grungy area that was an un-cute archives job. I wasn’t loving my life at that point but The Artist’s Way was helping me through it. I did a lot of selfie art dates because of the book and one of the shows I saw at that time was Radical Presence at NYU, which looked at performance and contemporary Black art. There was really incredible public programming that opened me up again to a number of different artists and there was this incredible talk with Loraine O’Grady—she is just fierce and incredible so hearing her speak was just great. I remember another incredible program with Deb Willis, Derrick Adams, Xavierra Simmons, Daniel Tisdale, Holli Bass, and Clifford Owens. I remember going to all these incredible shows and thinking through what ended up becoming my dissertation project. It informed what I wanted to explore in my doctoral studies longer term, in terms of contemporary art, the Black body, and the archive, and how these different tangential elements come together.
It was a formative thing for me, my work, but I just knew it wasn't the end game and I also wanted to make sure to get myself in a place of career flexibility. You know the big end game is a different type of leadership, a long-term path, ultimately to directorial leadership. I wanted to form myself as a leader that has the best of the best in all of these areas and to be able to support across these different disciplines and areas.
Amazing, I see it for you. As someone primed to be a leader, is there a practice, quality, or philosophy that you hold near to you in your work that you think is important to share? Something you feel that you bring or feel especially proud of right now?
So many things come to mind! My top two takeaways here in terms of leadership would be building and maintaining relationships, and giving grace! 2020 required a lot of grace, to say the least. So many pivots, changes, and growing moments. The practice of giving grace really allowed me the space to apply a higher level of patience and understanding for what we all were going through personally and professionally, while still trying to maintain a high level of integrity and excellence in my work. It’s something I try to apply to all areas of my life, but I needed to really apply it to my work life more recently. Now, relationships also require grace! Relationships are so important when it comes to leadership. Your relationships say so much about you, your leadership style, and your strengths and your weaknesses. Cultivating strong, dependable, and trustworthy relationships have really been pivotal to my career. Letting people know you appreciate them, that you see them and their hard work, that you enjoy working with them, it’s all part of relationship building and it’s something I really work hard to do on a regular basis. I’m very proud of that!
You worked at the storied Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture before moving to Los Angeles for this exciting position. Is there something specific that you miss about New York City since you left Harlem?
For a long time I did not miss New York City. Even last summer when I did the Museum Education Practicum program I wasn’t missing the city. It wasn’t the best before I left so it took a while for me to settle and have the space to visit. I miss my friends and I miss the food. In terms of Harlem, I really miss the serendipitous encounters of being in the neighborhood. Whether I was sitting outside and having dinner or having a cocktail at Red Rooster or Babbalucci or Lidos, or wherever I was just sitting around in those days, I miss being able to see friends I hadn’t seen in some time or unexpectedly seeing scholars or researchers you don’t expect to come across. I miss running into people and the hugs and embraces, the warmth.
I also really miss the little French West Africa of Harlem. I really miss it. When I first moved back from Senegal I brought back all the stuff that I thought I would never get to buy again unless I did like the import-export thing. Then, I met a friend for lunch in Harlem and ended up walking into this boutique—a Senegalise bodega. All of these things that I had packed my bag with and paid extra fees for were right there. I loved it!
I miss the language, the geles, the fashion. LA is a lot more relaxed in terms of aesthetic and I miss that New York middle-of-the-day-fur-coat thing. There's just something inspiring about New York and there's an energy in the city.
I also miss the work I was able to do with NYPL’s Mobile Library Service at Rikers Island. I worked with a really incredible librarian, Louise Stamp, to create a black history collection there, and would do monthly visits. I really do miss that work.
I know that there are always rules that you have to follow when you are in a library. Since you have been a librarian, what is a rule that you like to bend? Or a rule that you could do without?
I hated the rules when working at the New York Public Library more broadly: the whole “pencil only, no pen” and clear bags only, like you’re going to Rikers. I didn’t want to be the cop while people were trying to do their work and focus. That's not what I was there for, but I understand the reasons for these rules. We have these super rare documents you won’t see anywhere else on this planet that we want to preserve and also make sure don’t get stolen—that is a very real thing and people still do it is a lucrative business — so I understood the rules but I also really hated enforcing them.
As soon as somebody came in I'd welcome them and really tried to counter it with a high level of warmth and patience. I'm so glad I don't have to deal with these rules now, the only rule I have to enforce is to ask people to wear a mask when you're entering the gallery, which I don't mind.
As an LA resident and you have to drive everywhere, but not long ago you were swiping your MTA card. If you could design your very own MTA card, what mantra would you put on the back of it?
There would have to be artwork on it. It would have to be some great piece and then maybe it would just say, “take a minute.” In New York, you feel guilty when you're not always doing something or you're not producing work or doing a talk or your name’s not on something. There is something about New York that makes you feel like you're not doing enough and you're not doing well if you're not doing all those things, and that's not true.
I think that COVID has given me, and hopefully a lot of people, a chance to feel like producing work doesn’t make you more credible or important or valuable, but you just need a minute. The minute to not feel FOMO or not go to every opening or be on the scene. I think my MTA card could say “take a minute” to enjoy the city, go for a walk.
We recently had a public program that featured Saidiya Hartman and Cauleen Smith. Near the end of their conversation someone asked Saidiya Hartman if there was something in her archives now that would be a surprise to a Black femmes in the future? How would you answer that question for yourself?
I’m such a big fan of Cauleen Smith and Sadiya Hartman! That reminds me that I am still procrastinating on Wayward Lives and I’m embarrassed to admit it. I love Sadiya’s work and what an incredible archive for whoever gets it eventually.
I do have a personal archive and I process it like a geek at home by myself. It is a fun process to put your own papers together and it really helps me. One of the great things about my apartment in Brooklyn was that I had an office, most people never have enough space living in New York, but it was a gift and a curse. It became a space where I would just throw stuff, my thesis writing process was really traumatic and after that, I never wrote in my office again—it became clutter. But it made me want to process the materials to get out of the chaos.
Because I’ve always had this experience of working in archives, looking at other people's papers and seeing things that I don't necessarily know that they would have wanted others to see, it has always made me weirdly specific and intentional about what I do or do not save. I love cards and do save them. My nana, Rev. Dr. Sadie S. Mitchell, has given me a ton of notes and scribbles, and never missed a card on any occasion. She passed in 2020 so having those things to look back to has been really great. I also have old family photos, I save cards, I love greeting cards, I process everything. For somebody to look in and see my journals, it probably would be very cringey. This is another thing that came out of the book The Artist Way, writing morning pages and getting into a really great habit of journaling every single day. That was something I had the time to do on the train every single day. Luckily, I have really terrible handwriting so if for some reason somebody finds me important enough to really try to read my deepest personal moments then they're going to have to really work for it.
I hope my family gets to look back on my archive and see these different parts of me because you live one life with your family and your friends, and they don’t cross paths and sometimes they don’t get to see you as your whole person. While I'm very uncomfortable with certain things, I hope someone looks back and is inspired or comforted by something I went through that wasn’t the most savory or prideful moment, but that’s just life.
Is there something you’re working on at the moment that you’re really excited about, either professionally or personally?
Getting people back in person at CAAM, that's probably the biggest thing I'm working on right now. Wrapping my head around the fact that we're going to see people in person for public programs! Of course, we’re open to the public for visitors and we recently just got rid of the capacity limit, with the state and county guidances ending on June 15, 2021, and so now we're going to have people back for celebratory moments, for talks. We were able to pivot to virtual public programs and we really cultivated a strong audience, but it's not the same as getting people together and feeling the energy and spontaneity in physical space.
It’ll be great to interact with everybody and I'm trying to make sure we're doing it as safely as possible and making it as comfortable as possible. Not everyone is ready to jump out there and get back in the mix. Especially being a part of the Black community here in Los Angeles, I still want us to be COVID safe and COVID friendly, even with the numbers looking great. I still want to be very responsible with what we're doing. We have some really incredible shows opening in July. Sanford Biggers: Codeswitch just traveled from the Bronx Museum and something really exciting is coming up because Sanford is an L.A. native! He'll be one of our first public programs. I’m very excited that we will come back in a big and fun way.
Thank you so much Alexsandra!