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Women Leading the Charge: A Discussion on Social Practice in Harlem

Nico Wheadon

Meshell Ndegeocello’s Can I Get a Witness? The Gospel of James Baldwin engaged more than twenty artists in its creation and performance that celebrated the legacy of the brilliant artist and poet.

As The Studio Museum in Harlem enters the second year of inHarlem—a series of collaborative programs and public art initiatives exploring innovative ways to work in the neighborhood—I’m honored to convene five pioneering women of color that represent leadership at community partner organizations: Tina Campt, Pat Cruz, Erika Dilday and Sade Lythcott, alongside our own Thelma Golden. In our current political moment, the key philosophies, principles and pedagogies that shape our work have acquired a new sense of urgency, prompting us to explore the potential of socially engaged art to protect freedoms of expression and reinforce community. In a candid look at our collective commitment to amplifying the voices, practices and traditions that transform physical space into cultural place, we discuss how arts- and artist-driven experiences within our walls transform social relations that evolve and are sustained outside of them.

Nico Wheadon: Across our distinct institutional missions, we share a commitment to community and engaging the complex intersections of art and society. Often, when qualifying the impact and importance of an institution’s engagement with its community, somehow the nuanced, intersectional and catalytic role of the artist can become obscured. Let’s begin by affirming the roles artists play within our organizations.

Pat Cruz: Our practice and reputation at Harlem Stage is in identifying artists who are making visionary statements about who we are as a society and culture and, more importantly, who they are so that we can see the world through their lenses. Our practice is primarily curatorial; we identify artists, geniuses from within our community, whose visions match with our mission, and then work to expand that vision. So the activism and art that emerge are essentially one and the same.

Thelma Golden: The Studio Museum was founded by artists and is still deeply committed to bringing artists together with the Harlem community and beyond. Artists have truly been at the heart of the Museum since we opened in 1968, and the “Studio” in our name reflects our unwavering commitment to their ongoing professional development. More than a decade into my tenure as director, I am proud to lead an institution that has meant so much to so many artists of African descent.

Erika Dilday: At Maysles Cinema, we define what we do as the nexus of social justice and art. When you work so closely with the community, it is often difficult to identify where you draw the line around the artist. What constitutes an artist, and how do we define that in relation to our audiences while validating artists with broad levels of ability? How do we open the door for more broad types of raw, artistic expression from the community? These are questions we struggle with.

Sade Lythcott: The National Black Theatre is a training ground and laboratory for artists and arts administrators to develop themselves holistically—every administrator here identifies as an artist first. It has extreme bonuses and often long learning curves, but ultimately provides a sensitivity to the needs of the practice from the inside out. It is also a radical activism that allows artists to lead from an entrepreneurial space. Because we were founded in reaction to a patrilineal, misogynistic pedagogy around Western theater, everything we birth comes from a space of indigenous, divine, womanist, ritualistic practice led by artists.

NW: What a powerful idea—that artists expand the institutional consciousness of the world, and invite institutions and audiences alike to define notions of self, community and creativity more robustly. As social innovators, engaged citizens and critical thinkers that uniquely mediate a broad spectrum of concerns, artists exponentially advance institutional community engagement through the risks that they take—and that we support. How then do these bold curatorial and artistic insertions—into both the art historical canon and the community—ensure and protect the visibility of artists of color?

TG: In my experience, arts and culture organizations are deeply committed to engaging with the public, and offer educational opportunities at every level. That’s a basic responsibility that we all take very seriously. Most museums also exhibit work that comments on current social and political issues, from the perspective of the artists themselves and their desire to speak out. If a museum is truly committed to artists, their careers and contemporaneity, then it is the role of the curator to recognize the artist’s voice and respond to it appropriately.

Tina Campt: What I’ve learned from working with your institutions through Barnard’s Harlem Semester is the power of curation as a peda-gogical, activist and scholarly undertaking. The erasure of artists happens only if we don’t acknowledge their critical, activist power. Engaging artists who take risks, perform risk—that’s what connects us, allows us to look differently at how we deal with everyday life. I also have to emphasize that the matrilineage of our organizations in Harlem is not accidental; it really does shape the nature of the organizations themselves!

NW: So then is it our duty as women, as leaders within established cultural institutions, to expand the field and resources available to artists working through social practice, or do these artists transcend the need for institutional mediation? In other words, what can our institutions offer to their processes that isn’t already inherent, and could our role simply be to identify pioneering artists and democratize access to their work?

SL: My mom—the founder of the theater—used to welcome people to their “home away from home,” which has become the bedrock on which we have built this institution. We have always aimed to create a space where people can feel fully seen in their most vulnerable times. This home away from home invites artists to use the space, a healing space, and allows people to drop their guards and see each other in a different way, where there is no division between art and community.

PC: Art and community becoming one is different for each of us. One thing we have not paid attention to is that there has been an unspoken censorship, a racist and economic practice excluding the voices of artists of color from being held in prominent positions to get the support and investment it takes to sustain a practice. Our institutions have pushed back against “excellence” as criterion for a racist selection processes, and ensured that art by artists of color is seen and lifted up as art.

Andre M. Zachery and LaMont Hamilton’s Dapline! performed in the Studio Museum’s atrium. Photo: Nico Wheadon

The Studio Museum was founded by artists and is still deeply committed to bringing artists together with the Harlem community and beyond.

TG: The role of the Museum is to actively listen to our artists, communities and visitors in developing our offerings—and at the center of that is community engagement. A museum without a community, without people meaningfully engaging with artists and their work, does not fulfill its mission and purpose. Our ongoing project, Harlem Postcards, is a great example of how we democratize access to the arts—the series lets people see Harlem through the eyes of artists and take a work of art home with them in the form of a postcard, which they then make their own.

TC: The other thing that you as arts institutions do is give artists a platform, a singular arena or avenue of critique. Even when presenting work that some audiences might not be able to understand—such as social critiques by artists of color—you allow artists to bring work into the world as a mirror reflecting something some don’t want to see. That is the real activism, rejecting the lens of the dominant perspective and embracing those of artists of color.

ED: As an artist at Maysles, you become a member of an artist community, have a voice in what we do, and are encouraged to articulate how we can best support you. We try to treat our relationship with artists as a lifelong membership: We can be your fiscal sponsor, show your work and qualify your film. We turn filmmakers into curators who don’t just seek to show their work, but also seek to be part of discussing and programming it.

NW: So if our primary duties are to provide access to transformative art experiences, engage the community in thinking creatively and usher in new ways of working, how does social practice’s emphasis on process and participation expand our definitions of collaboration? I’m hoping we can speak to what collaboration between an institution and its community looks like, and where the accountability lies.

SL: The National Black Theatre serves as radical space for giving people permission to see themselves as worthy, as capable, as art. This is something that, in most spaces, is not reflected back to us. To be seen, sometimes for the first time in full complexity and intersectionality, gives the community permission to take those same risks within themselves. How do audiences then become transformed, walk out of the door, live differently and take risk back to the community? These are important questions.

TC: I have seen students learn not just from artists, but from your institutions, about what it means to create the infrastructure in which those individuals can thrive, and where institutions care about them thriving. As teachers we want them to understand what it means to sustain a practice on an institutional level, and that it’s about investment in a community and a risky art practice.

PC: I would add to that incredibly important point, Tina. Some of us are thriving, but only barely when we look at the kind of support needed to do this work. We are still so far under-resourced, in staff and the funding required to do the work. Additionally, institutions of color also have expectations imposed upon us that predefine what communitybuilding is, and we frequently are in a responsive position rather than a proactive one in defining those ideas for ourselves. These are obstacles that we must overcome, and often do through collaboration.


—Nico Wheadon