A rendering of the Studio Museum in Harlem’s expansion (image courtesy Adjaye Associates)

Visitors to the Studio Museum in Harlem have long been struck by its small size. Much of its 2,000-object permanent collection — which includes works by Romare Bearden, Julie Mehretu, and Kehinde Wiley — is kept in storage, causing some Yelp users to complain that it’s really “more of a gallery than a museum.”

But that will soon be a thing of the past. The museum announced today that it is planning a $122-million expansion that will enlarge its current footprint from 60,000 square feet to more than 70,000 square feet. The galleries themselves, currently limited to 6,000 square feet, will nearly double to 10,000 square feet, and the amount of indoor public spaces — the cafe, gift shop, and educational spaces — will increase by almost 60%.

Though dubbed an expansion project, it’s actually a complete overhaul. The museum’s current home on West 125th Street — a bank building it has occupied since 1982 — will be replaced with a series of boxy gray volumes punctuated by panoramic rows of glazing.

The new museum building’s architect, David Adjaye, told the New York Times that he wants it to reflect and synthesize the local Harlem archetypes of outwardly closed-off brownstones — with their delicate window framing — and spacious church interiors. “I wanted to honor this idea of public rooms, which are soaring, celebratory, and edifying — uplifting,” he said. “Between the residential and the civic, we learned the lessons of public realms and tried to bring those two together.” To enhance the feeling that the museum belongs to the community, Adjaye included a lobby space with a “reverse stoop” staircase that will double as seating and an open rooftop garden that will house sculptures. Both spaces will be free to access.

The project’s organizers couldn’t have selected a more culturally appropriate architect. Adjaye was born in Tanzania to Ghanian parents and spent his childhood living in countries including Egypt and Yemen. Though he’s previously designed institutions including the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver and the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, he’s also focused his talents on his native continent, conducting a 10-year architectural study of African capitals. Most recently, he designed the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, currently under construction on the National Mall in Washington, DC.

Adjaye will submit his designs for the Studio Museum to New York’s public design commission on July 14. The city has already contributed $35.3 million to the project, the Ford Foundation has donated $3 million, and the museum hopes to raise the rest from other sources. If all goes well, the two-year construction project will break ground in 2017.

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Laura C. Mallonee

Laura C. Mallonee is a Brooklyn-based writer. She holds an M.A. in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU and a B.F.A. in painting from Missouri State University. She enjoys exploring new cities and...

2 replies on “Harlem’s Studio Museum Taps David Adjaye to Design $122M Expansion”

  1. This is exciting news! I visit the Studio Museum often, and although they make the very best use of the existing space, and upgrade is welcome.

  2. Great choice to use David Adjaye. His design for the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver is fantastic, and this new project sounds just as unique and inspired.

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