Studio Check In With Daonne Huff
Daonne, can you please tell us about your position at The Studio Museum, and what your experience has been at the institution?
I am the Director of Public Programs and Community Engagement, and I am relatively new to the position, having started in December 2019. Our department creates adult programs that enhance our curatorial exhibitions, permanent collection, and other institutional initiatives. We work with organizations and collaborators based in Harlem, throughout New York City, and beyond. Our department views itself as a bridge and a translator providing additional entry points to experience and engage with art and artists. We hope that by creating new paths, the intimidations or doubts about the relevancy and accessibility of art will dissipate and be replaced with feelings of inspiration, empowerment, and connection.
If your feelings were a color right now, what would it be?
Blue, but the blue of cyanotype, because it isn't a solid shade — it's about the gradient, the time of day or night. This blue encompasses a full spectrum — from blue skies to "Little Girl Blue," from hope to questions of what's to come.
I believe that the Studio Museum plays an important role in preserving and uplifting black humanity through the arts. How do you think the rest of our arts & cultural community should evolve or adapt in this moment of systemic reanalysis and reckoning around the worth and importance of black lives?
"If you don't like it here, leave" and "Let's go slow"— these are two phrases that make my skin crawl. I could be referring to white supremacy statements, but I could also be referring to segments of the arts and cultural community. I think it's important to recognize that if you destroyed us or you'd function fine without us here, your rhythm, style, and taste wouldn't exist with the richness and depth that it does. This country would not exist without black people. The US grew because of black labor, cultural production, and new immigration. If modernist artists didn't look at African sculptures? If Elvis Presley hadn't studied Sister Rosetta Tharpe or Little Richard? We are fundamental to this country. The perpetuation of exploitation needs to be addressed. We should be compensated for the full scope of our worth. We're inherent, but you're creating institutions that perpetuate utter erasure.
This is all about unlearning a lot and establishing shared values that acknowledge equity. We are currently in the midst of a tidal wave, and I'm hyper-aware of the continual cycle of repairing, patching and adding on. But honestly, as long as the foundation remains, you'll never have a fresh start. People in power have short term memories, but people oppressed have long ones. We've been through these cycles, but we can only do so much. Every generation of activists, radicals, and progressives, has told you what to do, come up with tangible plans and tenants, but you chose not to do them, fully, wholly, and sustainably. This can't just be lip service. Actions speak louder than words, and we are a wordy country. Compromise requires sacrifice.
There are different modes and models for what activism and protest look like, but regardless of the actions we take, it is as exhausting as inspiring. What are your thoughts on care? How do you replenish and rejuvenate?
I advocate for others to care for themselves, but I am not as good when it comes to myself. I might be perpetuating the woes of self-sacrifice, but the older I get, the more I see the importance of care — burn out is so real. You can't continue to do what you want if you don't have the energy, spirit, and strength to carry on. You risk resenting the causes you believe in.
Care is necessary if you want to make progress. Since going into isolation, I've returned to my yoga practice. It's grounding, and it also reminds me to breathe — to hold breath, to reserve it. In light of COVID-19, and the devastating ways that black folks have died from not being able to breathe, I know that as long as I can take a deep inhale, I'm OK, and I'm still alive.
Is there a specific work of art that you are currently drawn to at this moment? Something that inspires or anchors you?
I have a hard time picking favorites, but I am currently inspired by the trifecta of black grandmas in Aretha Franklin, Mahalia Jackson, and Nina Simone.
The term "radical" is used in many different contexts and circumstances. I view the term to imply an extreme departure from a mainstream social, economic, political, or cultural way of being. It looks and feels like we are in a moment of radical change. What is a radical intention that you hold near your heart — something you embody (or hope to) in the way you go through the world?
It's interesting because I don't know if everyone views their life as radical, but I've acknowledged that it is my duty to support artists, art, and creative expression. I firmly believe in the necessity of those three things to sustain existence. I am not trying to move mountains, but I acknowledge that all of the little actions and gestures go into a giant movement. I believe that the radical ones might be all of the unnamed that play a huge part that we don't know about.
The year 2020 has brought so many things into a sharp focus — from the health crisis to the human rights crisis that is currently being played out, fitting that the year is called 20—20. So what is something that you are crystal clear about in this moment that we are living in right now?
I'm going to quote Baldwin for this one — "the challenge is in the moment; the time is always now." No one is untouched by this moment. All of us have had the ultimate shake-up. But for those who are fortunate enough to live through this, if you leave the same as you entered, you've wasted the moment. If the majority waste this moment, it is concerning as to what comes next. What is the future? We just have today.