Featured in
Issue 243

Celebrating the Legacy of New York’s Studio Museum

Thomas J. Lax, Rodney McMillian and Zoé Whitley reflect on the exhibitions and projects that shaped the iconic institution

BY Thomas J. Lax, Rodney McMillian AND Zoé Whitley in Roundtables | 24 APR 24

Studio Lab | A former assistant curator reflects on a Studio Museum programme that ‘funded the unfundable’ | Thomas J. Lax

Lonnie Holley gathers cast-off materials from the street in Harlem, NY, 2014. Courtesy: © Lonnie Holley

Some of the most important things that I remember from my time working at the Studio Museum occurred behind closed doors. Several took place as part of the Studio Lab programme, which director and chief curator Thelma Golden conceived of as an opportunity to fund the unfundable. These included a song Lonnie Holley improvised when he visited Harlem from Atlanta, using materials he found on the street as a prompt for the 2014 exhibition I organized, ‘When the Stars Begin to Fall’. A description of a parkour course Steffani Jemison presented while on a location scout, during a trip from Houston, for one of her ‘Escaped Lunatic’ videos (2010– 11). And a summer 2011 exchange among Coco Fusco, Malik Gaines, Ralph Lemon, Tavia Nyong’o, Pope. L and Jenny Schlenzka about whether and how museums should curate performance.

Steffani Jemison, Escaped Lunatic, 2011, film still. Courtesy: the artist and Greene Naftali, New York

Studio Lab offered artists the opportunity to do what they do, which is to say, to try things out, gather with others, observe and respond to their surroundings. Under the guidance of Thelma’s seemingly infinite genius, the programme both did and did not produce any ‘outcomes’, despite the demand that results should be reported to its funders. Sure, by the time the exhibition ‘Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art’, curated by Valerie Cassel Oliver, toured from Contemporary Arts Museum Houston in 2012 to the Studio Museum and Grey Art Gallery in New York the following year, we’d already had a conversation about how to present the performances and ensure the performers were better supported. Likewise, when artists EJ Hill and Autumn Knight participated in the museum’s famous residency programme, the museum discussed what acquiring their performance-based work might look like.". But it’s what these experiments in thought – or, to put it less pretentiously, these kikis and hijinks – did not produce that made them so important. We didn’t exactly know what we were doing; people argued for ways of working that they would sometimes later abandon. Yet, the time we spent together was so important precisely because it allowed us to create a value system for ourselves.

The Black radical tradition taught us that the only way out is through. 

Thomas J. Lax

These are only a few examples of how this ethos of collective self-determination is built into the Studio Museum, which is more of a para-institution than might be implied by the enlightenment-holdover term ‘museum’. For more than half a century, Studio’s most signature and long-lasting artistic commitment – the residency programme which gives it its name – has created a space for ‘leave-taking’, as Julie Mehretu once described it in a conversation with me, so that artists can develop their practices. To borrow a phrase used by a number of Black feminist scholars, curators and artists, including Simone Leigh for the title of her 2022 US pavilion at the Venice Biennale, this ‘loophole of retreat’ is redoubled in a variety of other programmes, such as the recently launched Arts Leadership Praxis, which gives mid-career curators space to assemble and talk about something other than DEI. It also occurs in daily acts of inspiration, whether it’s chatting with Timothy Stockton at the front desk (whose likeness is conveyed in a 2017 Jordan Casteel portrait of him), gabbing with Saya Woolfalk at the copying machines or laughing with Naomi Beckwith, Lauren Haynes, Naima J. Keith and Abbe Schriber when Thelma would stop by to talk about the television shows we loved and hated.

Autumn Knight, Sanity TV, 2017-ongoing, performance view. Courtesy: the artist

Before and after the deconstructionists declared that there is no way out, the Black radical tradition taught us that the only way out is through, and that the fastest way to go is to go slow. (My teacher Fred Moten taught me the latter in one of his seminars.) The Studio Museum makes a practice of these aphorisms, crafting an art-world version of petit marronage in which artists can find a place ‘in but not of ’ the predatory art world that wishes to eat us alive. All the while, it has continuously reanimated the reason we got into this mess in the first place: to stay close to creativity’s anarchic hold on us.

In a moment of increased visibility for Black artists across the globe, the Studio Museum has and will continue to offer a place to listen, take refuge, plot and make noise with others. The notion of what a museum can hold has been altered by the Studio Museum, where ‘Black’ is not simply an adjective but synonymous with collective action – including addressing all of the problems that sociality entails. What will happen inside and beyond its new walls remains to be determined. But it is certain that the future of art will be partially constructed in its image.

Charles Ethan Porter | Over the years the Studio Museum has been a site for life-changing chance encounters | Rodney McMillian

Charles Ethan Porter, Apples on the Ground, c.1880, oil on canvas, 45 × 56 cm. Courtesy: Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT; gift of Dorothy Clark Archibald

Where would I be without the Studio Museum? Not only was it one of the first institutions to show my work but, since launching in 1968, it has consistently provided a forum for Black artists’ voices, such as mine, through a wide-reaching programme of exhibitions, residencies and collateral events that has helped launch the careers of many leading artists, curators, educators and writers.

One of my earliest experiences of the Studio Museum is linked to the artist Kira Lynn Harris, who, along with Adia Millett and Kehinde Wiley, was part of the Artists in Residence program during the early 2000s. The museum became a place I could actually grasp when I met all three in Los Angeles, where I live, at a dinner hosted by fellow artist Edgar Arceneaux at his home in Pasadena. After that encounter, my relationship to the museum became more personal and intimate – more like a relationship one might have with their church. During the mid- to late-2000s, when I travelled a great deal to New York, I’d crash at Kira’s, who lived on 125th Street just a couple of blocks east of the museum, and we’d walk there. So, writing about any of the exhibitions and work I saw there – from Kira’s The Block/Bellona (2011–12) to my first- time seeing Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s work, Any Number of Preoccupations (2010–11) – is like walking through time.

I’m struck by how Porter created worlds out of a bunch of apples or peonies.

Rodney McMillian

The show I’m walking through again, that has lived with me cellularly, is ‘Charles Ethan Porter: African American Master of Still Life’ from 2008. Encountering his work was a revelation, akin to meeting a family member for the first time and recognizing your particularly crooked nose on their face. What was so exciting about seeing it was that I’d really gone to the museum to see another exhibition, ‘Flow’. I then went downstairs and saw a room full of still-life paintings. Upstairs was a show focused on contemporary work made by Blacks from the diaspora, some by contemporary young African artists. Below was old work of an old genre painted in an old technique by a Black man who was born in 1847/49 (they don’t have the exact date), when Africans were still being shipped to North America as slaves.

The shit was deep. Here was a show of exquisitely painted images of fruit and flowers and little critters on table tops and whatnots made a century earlier by a Black man from Connecticut. All I could think – or perhaps project – onto the work was the extreme amount of concentration needed to make those paintings. Or that making those paintings was an act of escape or perhaps an act that enabled him to actually be – to be in and of himself, to be in a silence that was not one of foreboding but of possibility, to be in acute awareness of the temporality of life and how it transforms before our eyes and yet still be blind to it in real time.

Charles Ethan Porter, Peonies, 1885, oil on canvas, 66 × 91 cm. Courtesy: New Britain Museum of American Art, Howard Osborne Bristol Fund

Revisiting my memories of that encounter and images from the show, I’m struck by the will it must have taken Porter to pursue being an artist in an America as corrupted by exploitation and racism as the one he experienced. I’m struck by how he created worlds out of a bunch of apples or peonies, how the space they existed within were expansive, how the foreground, background and sometimes the actual container for the flowers were a blur, with no beginning or end, that spoke to me of a beyond. Yet, they were completely situated within the local, the known. The known, exemplified by the repetition of his subject matter, using the produce and flowers that were in season, a ‘using what you have’ reality that matched the ‘realness’ of his depictions which was important to his audience in Connecticut (as noted by P. Barr in a 2007 monograph on Porter), and I suspect also to him. The real here is in quotation marks where the word likely always belongs. Porter painted with a clarity about the context in which he lived. He once said, ‘I had rather be an honest fool than a brilliant knave.’ I relate.

Frequency | How the Studio Museum built a curatorial programme – and a community | Zoé Whitley 

Jefferson Pinder, Car Wash Meditations, 2005, video still. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Jeff Stein

 When I was starting out as a curator, I really wanted to be published. I dreamed of people being able to read something I’d written about an artist. And I don’t mean run out from the office printer at the Victoria and Albert Museum, where I had my first gig as an assistant curator. I’m talking about my words on the glossy pages of an exhibition catalogue. When Christine Kim and Thelma Golden invited me to write about Jina Valentine for the ‘Frequency’ catalogue in 2005 – the follow-up and second ‘F-show’ after the game-changing ‘Freestyle’ (2001) – I was so excited, and more than a little daunted.

What I appreciated most about the commission was the first-hand insight I gained into the Studio Museum’s process, equally evident in all the collaborations I’ve witnessed since then, from the way they champion artists of the African Diaspora, to the role curators play in shaping exhibitions. For the ‘Frequency’ catalogue, Thelma oversaw a painstaking match-making process between curator, aspiring writer and artist, based on their shared sensibilities.

Jina Valentine, Appetite for Destruction: Top 40 Highest Grossing Albums, 2005, manipulated board with wallpaper, 2.1 × 1.2 m. Courtesy: the artist

The curatorial thrust of ‘Frequency’ was to highlight 35 emerging Black artists who captured the American zeitgeist by bringing together the personal and the political, the sonic and the conceptual, bodies and souls. Jina’s inscribed kitchen linoleum panel, Appetite for Destruction: Top 40 Highest Grossing Albums (2005) – created using a technique where cut paperwork meets scrimshaw – was something Thelma and Christine knew I’d take seriously, and they also understood we’d hit it off as people as well. For me, that’s what endures about the Studio Museum’s programs, ethos and way of being in the world: its curatorial excellence and rigour are grounded in a deep love for our community. ‘Frequency’ was the first exhibition around which I met artists and arts workers as my peers, part of a new generation who wanted to change institutions for the better.

Hank Willis Thomas and Kambui Olujimi, Winter in America, 2006, video still. Courtesy: © Hank Willis Thomas and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Jina, now teaching the next generation at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, was one of 35 artists included in ‘Frequency’. So many works from the show still stand out in my mind as exemplary of that moment. Shinique Smith presented her vivid and virtuosic textile bales, such as Bale Variant No. 0006 (2005). I was mesmerised by Zoë Charlton’s delicately drawn pin-ups on vellum from 2005, seductively posing with slave ship sails as headdresses. Mickalene Thomas showed a canvas of red rhinestone-wearing wrestlers from the ‘Brawling Spitfire’ series. And I was moved to tears by Hank Willis Thomas and Kambui Olujimi’s stop motion animation Winter in America (2005), a tribute to Thomas’s late cousin Songha.

My experience wasn’t a one-off. It was shared by 34 other pairs of artists and curators who have grown up together over the past 20 years. The Studio Museum in Harlem, under Thelma Golden’s leadership, represents what institution-building can be and should be: inclusive, canon-expanding, community-minded.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 243 with the headline ‘Take Refuge Make Noise’

Main image: Hank Willis Thomas, Branded Head (detail), 2003, Lambda photograph, 76 × 51 cm. Courtesy: © Hank Willis Thomas and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Thomas J. Lax is a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, USA, and a writer specializing in black art, queer study and performance. In 2022, they organized the exhibition ‘Just Above Midtown: Changing Spaces’.

Rodney McMillian is an artist. His recent solo exhibition The Land: Not Without a Politic opened at the Marta Herford Museum for Art in Herford, Germany, in 2023, and closes June 16.

Zoé Whitley is director of the Chisenhale Gallery, London, UK, and the author of Solid!, a forthcoming monograph on Barkley L. Hendricks.