Stirring the Mind into Thought

My Site Review

When it comes to arts from African people and people of African descent from all over the world in mainstream museums, especially contemporary and modern art, their artwork often is underrepresented. Most of the time, the museums only include a few, more well-known artists, for example, Kerry James Marshall and Jacob Lawrence’s art at the MOMA. So, to find about a museum that showcases mostly contemporary and modern African art and art influenced by black culture was a great revelation.  Looking at the website for the first time, its plainness and lack of impressive visuals did not pull audiences into wanting to go. Although the website was not a well-developed introduction for potential visitors, the significance of the Studio Museum’s mission to show black art already makes it stand out from the other more established museums and the actual personal experience of being there felt much more rewarding than viewing the website.

Stepping out from the 2 and 3 subway station, and walking down 125th street towards the Apollo, it can be easy to miss the museum. The building is not overwhelming in its design like Brooklyn Museum and Metropolitan Museum of Art; it is not what one man said a “temple on the hill.” Glancing up at the entire building, it looks like an office building. Right below, the first floor resembles more like the façade of a bank, which it was before the organization relocated there. All of this helps the museum to blend well with the rest of the neighborhood and feel as if it is embedded within the community. At the same time, it hurts the museum a little by making it hard to notice. Several people walking around 125th street either had no idea what the museum was or where it was located.  If the organizers could somehow renovate the front of the museum to attract people, like the famous marquee of the Apollo, it would it to be more known around the neighborhood.

Walking in, the museum’s down-to-earth appearance was matched by its very hospitable and helpful greeters. Before going into the gallery on the first floor, the first two unique feature of the museum is the Harlem is the “Me We” sign inspired by a Muhammad Ali line and the “Harlem Postcards” section. A neon installation created by Glenn Ligon, the “Me We” sign is a great introduction to the rest of the museum because it symbolizes the balance between individual artist and their work and a sense of community within Harlem. The “Harlem Postcards” section has photographs taken in Harlem and next to it are postcards of each. This section works as a gallery preview and the postcards are free souvenirs.

Inside the gallery, the initial thought is how small it actually is. With only three floors (basement, first and second), there is only so much artwork that will fit. Not only do the artistic director, Thelma Goodman, and the curators have to change the exhibitions after a shorter amount of time, but they also have to figure out ways to creatively put in the exhibitions. Some of the exhibitions were not separated by rooms, but only separated by the area or a single wall. Even though it was small, the gallery had a sense of fluidity and left the viewers wanting more as well as a diversity of exhibitions. The exhibitions included the main one called, 30 Seconds Off an Inch, which was mostly experimental, avant-garde and socially conscious art, on the first floor, Color Consciousness: Black/Blue (art using those two colors) in the basement, Wardell Milan: Drawings of Harlem on the second floor, and A Delicate Touch: Water Colors from the Permanent Collection. Some familiar names were on the walls, such as Chris Ofili. Would former Mayor Giuliani have made a big deal if Ofili’s painting was here instead of the Brooklyn museum? The museum does allow a lot more controversial and socio-political artwork in its exhibitions.  Just as controversial are the films shown on the second floor in a small theatre, such as Astro Black: History of Hip-Hop and The Conductor. The only problem with the theatre was that it was too dark for anyone to see where they were going when coming in and not enough seats were placed for people to stay long enough to watch. Many people would come, stay for a few seconds and then leave. Other than that, the films were thought-provoking and meshed well with the rest of the exhibitions.

One part of the second floor that served a better introductory than the website was the reading room. Besides the art books in there, it also had a video section that had an hour-long episode of This Week in Black Culture about the history and present activities and events at the Studio Museum. While the episode was interesting, it was too long for a visit at a museum and was distracting from the rest of the exhibitions. Instead, the video would have been better suited for the website to create more of an interest for visitors.

Whether one is entering into or coming out of the gallery, the restrooms are easily accessible, especially because the sign is next to the doors. The inside of the bathrooms was extremely clean and shiny. They had toilets with automatic flush and hand-triggered paper dispensers. Looking at the restrooms and then the rest of the museum, visitors can see that everyone who works there takes pride in it and wants to make a great presentation.

Next to the front desk was the Studio museum’s shop. In the shop were art books, notebooks, “Black is Beautiful” t-shirts, onesies and mugs, bags, postcards, posters, umbrellas, jewelry, etc. Some of the art books included were Posing Beauty, Chris Olifi: Afro Muses 1995-2005 and The World Stage: Africa Lagos-Dakar Kehinde Wiley. Besides the products, one thing that was compelling was the music used in the store. One would probably expect no music or “elevator” type of music in the store, but instead it was playing recent popular music, such as TLC’s “Creep.”

Another special feature of the museum is the Artists in Residence studio on the third floor. This year, the artists in residence were Mequitta Ahuja, Lauren Kelley, and Valerie Piraino. On Target Sunday, the studio was open for the public to come see. Before going up to the studio in the elevator, an elevator guide was also available to direct visitors to the studio, something that other museums often do not have. Entering the studio, some snacks (chips and water) were put out, but if a visitor was hungry, this would not have been enough to fill him or her. Beyond that, hearing the artists talk about their works while you are looking at them and also knowing that this is where they created their art gave a personal touch to a museum experience. Usually in other museums, visitors only appreciate the art, but in the studio, visitors can also appreciate the artists as an individual and human being, and hear about their work from their own mouths.

Attending Target Sunday on November 22 at around one in the afternoon was not as grand as attending Target Saturday at the Brooklyn Museum. Target Saturday at the Brooklyn museum had a nightlife atmosphere; however, Target Sunday at the Studio museum was the opposite. Since it was one of the days paid off by target, one would expect that the museum would do something special to bring people into building. Moreover, it was the weekend before Thanksgiving and visitors might want to come in for a pre-holiday treat. However, it was mostly like any ordinary day in which people just walk in to look at the exhibitions. The only events happening that day was that the Artists in Residence studio were open and there were a few educational programs to sign up for guests to create their own art. Also, on Fridays, the museum has “Uptown Fridays,” which it is comparable to Brooklyn Museum’s Target Saturday. This might have explain why turnout was not very high.

On the other hand, the audience attending the day was very diverse. Not only were African-Americans attending, but also other races, generally Caucasian and Asian. Most of the audience was from older teenagers to middle-aged adults. Very few children were there and the children that were there were around pre-teen age. Furthermore, the audience looked as if they were mostly middle to upper middle class.

Overall, the Studio Museum was worth the trip and seeing how it develops in the future will be worth it. The fact that the museum exists in the first place is a huge accomplishment; especially during the time it was first opened in 1968. Forty years later, the museum shows great potential to be even better and should get more media attention. For now, the museum’s size is both a blessing and a curse. Since it is a non-profit organization, the museum’s duty as a server to the public is being carried out. Providing art programs and activities, offering studio space and financial support for up and coming artists, displaying artists who have a hard time being shown at more mainstream museums, allowing visitors to see the studio where the artists work demonstrates how the museum gives much to the community.

Also, the smallness of museum allows for more personal contacts and more freedom of expression. In the museum, the employees were welcoming and some of the visitors seemed to have formed relationships with them after coming several times. With the artists actually working in the studio located in the museum, visitors can come face to face with the people who actually created the art and get to know them.  Last, the museum is not as prominent as other museums and that slight level of anonymity lets it be less troubled with censorship problems and controversial topics, such as in Willie Cole: Art (in the new world order). These factors help the museum to be more intimate, non-traditional and innovative by connecting the artist to the public, collectors and galleries.

Still, the disadvantages of having a small space and probably not enough wealthy donors create problems for amenities and marketing. It is not obvious if the entire building belongs to the museum’s organization, but if it is, they do not use most of it for the public. While it does have a retail shop, the museum does not have food services within the building. On 125th street, a few restaurants surround the street, but if visitors do not want to leave the building (ex. Cold weather) and are hungry, they might want to enjoy a nice meal on the premises. Additionally, a restaurant or dining hall in the museum could serve special food, such as traditional African, Caribbean and Southern-styled foods. It would be a good marketing strategy to bring visitors in to try different types of food.

Other renovations for the building might include using more floors for more exhibitions, a larger performance and theatre room and changing the front of the building, so the first floor and the rest of the building match along with being eye-catching. The banner on the outside is too petite and plain to spot from far away, so the least they could do for now is create a bigger sign. However, all of this will take a lot financial backing, so hopefully the organizations connections with the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum and the New Museum might help bring it more donors and members to fund projects like this or even a new building. For now, word of mouth might be one of the best ways to convince people to invest. At the same time, the museum will have to worry about keeping its mission and integrity alive while getting more financial support. However, just looking at its version of the American flag in green, red and black, the colors associated with Africa, on the outside of the building suggest that they will focus much on the former.

March 8th, 2010 at 7:00 PM

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