Opinion

What Will the Studio Museum in Harlem’s Expansion Achieve?

Visitors at the Studio Museum in Harlem (all images courtesy Studio Museum in Harlem)
Visitors at the Studio Museum in Harlem (all images courtesy Studio Museum in Harlem unless otherwise noted)

We’ve already reported the announcement made by the Studio Museum in Harlem of plans for an estimated  $122 million expansion that is more aptly described as a complete overhaul. The plans include dramatic increases in the gallery space, nearly doubling it, and increases to the indoor public spaces — the cafe, gift shop, and educational spaces — of about 60%. The space for the Artist-in-Residence program should also expand by 50%. Our previous reporting and the Studio Museum’s press release takes great and justified pride in having selected the culturally appropriate architect David Adjaye who was born in Tanzania to Ghanian parents and has designed several buildings for art institutions including the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver and most significantly, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Given the Studio Museum’s unique position in the city’s arts and culture landscape, this rebuild, the first since the museum took up residence in its current space in 1982, seems to indeed be a cause to celebrate. Mayor De Blasio, whose comments are featured in the official press release attest to the unique significance of the museum in contributing to a multifaceted American identity.

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

However the museum reportedly attracts only 100,000 visitors per year. I say “only” because comparing the Studio Museum to other New York institutions of roughly similar size shows considerable contrasts: the Whitney Museum in its old building saw about 350,000 visitors yearly; the Frick Collection welcomes about 300,000 visitors; and the Morgan Library and Museum has an average of 160,000 visitors each year. The question that occurs to me as I consider the Studio Museum’s expansion is whether it is undertaken to expand the number and range of visitors and more actively engage the Harlem community, or whether priorities lie elsewhere.

Last week, I posed the question to Elizabeth Gwinn, the Studio Museum’s communications manager, whether the museum engaged in the expansion partly to increase its audience. I received a very cagey answer, making reference to vague hopes to grow audiences and better serve their communities. I tried a different tact and mentioned the consultancy the Studio Museum had undertaken with Lord Cultural Resources last year (in which I took part as a temporary hire for Lord) that sought to address questions of how the museum engages in audience development. Gwinn related that the museum did not have specific goals, though those may come about in the future. Unsatisfied with these rather pre-fabricated public-relations responses I quoted Thelma Golden’s words from the press release, stating that the resulting post-expansion building will be “the first designed expressly for our needs.”

Visitors in the main gallery of the Studio Museum in Harlem
Visitors in the main gallery of the Studio Museum in Harlem

I asked Gwinn, what these needs are. She responded that she was unsure that she was the best person to answer that query, and offered to send me a statement by email. The statement I received mentions the same bromides given in the press release: “an enriched experience for visitors,” “state-of-the-art spaces for educational activities,” “increased and flexible studio space,” and ultimately “to better fulfill our mission.” From what I understand, this mission is to display art from and support the production of art by artists of African descent.

These are commendable goals — despite their generic rhetorical rendering, and a lack of specificity with regard to how their achievement will be indicated. However, it appears the museum has not prioritized visitors in its plans, nor developed a concrete strategy for increasing its audience, or nurturing deep connections with its surrounding communities. While working with Lord Cultural Resources I observed the museum having trouble answering questions around audience development.

It may be that the Studio Museum really intends to prioritize its Artist-in-Residence program, which is known as one of the best in the country for contemporary artists of color. It may also be as Elizabeth Gwinn subtly indicated in her email that the expansion will provide “an architectural presence that’s appropriate to the stature of our museum.”  The confirmation and regulation of status is a typical institutional concern. It doesn’t need to be cloaked in rhetoric of service, because it is a kind of service to the public, in providing a cultural experience that confirms a certain regard for the visitor’s status.

We can expect a surge in visitors to the Studio Museum once the overhaul is complete. In 2006, the Morgan saw a surge in visitorship the first year following a massive renovation that cost $106 million, but then their numbers settled back to their current level. The question remains what we may realistically expect from the expansion of the Studio Museum in Harlem. As with the other museum expansion projects that have recently taken place in the city, are we really celebrating an advancement in institutional status?

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