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It’s a long subway ride from Manhattan’s Upper East Side — where some of the world’s most ornate apartment buildings stand amid a gulch of world-class cultural institutions — to the Brooklyn neighborhood of Flatbush, where the Philip Howard Apartments loom over the patchwork of new commercial real estate that has blanketed the neighborhood in the past decade. This is where the Valentine Museum of Art (VMoA) is located. The 5,000-square-foot museum is the product of three decades of art collecting by one man, Michael Valentine, who lived in the building during his youth. He has devoted his collection, resources, and time to turning a small corner in the co-op’s basement into one of New York’s most intriguing new museums.
The first thing one notices when visiting the VMoA is the presence and day-to-day activities of the building’s tenants. With a “built-in audience” of 643 households, the Philip Howard Apartments — a towering post-war luxury building designed by the oft-overlooked architect Philip Birnbaum — offers museumgoers the unique experience of entering as residents buzz through the lobby doors or gather their laundry down the basement hall from where Valentine has put together a spare but very polished space.
A native of Belize City, Belize, Valentine came to the United States with his family at age 15, where they settled into a 10th floor apartment at Philip Howard. In the late 1980s, Valentine began collecting antique furniture and, by the early ‘90s, had expanded to painting and photography. It wasn’t until 1997, when Valentine, Don Roberts (the president of the board of directors at Philip Howard), and two resident shareholders collaborated to hang a show of works from his collection, that the idea of using the building as an exhibition space for the benefit of its live-in audience became a reality. That first show was so well-received that, according to Valentine, the building’s residents “harassed” him to make the museum a more permanent entity.
Valentine kept acquiring work after the success of the initial shows and was invited back several times to hang exhibitions from his collection and others’. In 2006, through the museum, he published an impressive monograph on the jazz photographer Hugh Bell. According to Valentine, Bell was so enraptured when he first saw the book that he offered to kiss his feet.
Valentine’s friendship with Bell, by whom he owns more than 80 pieces, drove him to become even more dedicated to collecting. His goal is for the museum to become a venue for showcasing the artists of whose legacies he says he sees himself as the “responsible custodian.” “There are millions of creative people,” he says. “However, there are only a few who will ever be celebrated in the way their friends and family know they deserve.”
Valentine’s ambitions were validated the day he received an invitation from the photographer Gordon Parks, who had asked him to his apartment in order to thank him personally for the monograph on Bell. “He said, ‘Everyone knows about me and they know [Roy] DeCarava, but Bell was just as important, and now people will know [Bell], too’,” Valentine recalls. “It certified for me that I was on the right track.”
Since then the museum has played host to a steady stream of exhibitions, including its current show, Coney Island. Valentine helped put it together with Larry Racioppo, its de-facto curator, after Racioppo and a group of eight other Brooklyn-based artists who felt their work belonged in Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861–2008 (currently on view at the Brooklyn Museum) approached Valentine looking for an alternative venue to display their images of Coney Island.
“The Valentine Museum show is adding significantly to the cultural conversation,” says photographer Hazel Hankin, one of the artists featured in Coney Island. “Alternative spaces for art such as the VMoA become more and more valuable as our city becomes increasingly ruled by powerful real estate interests and those who serve them.”
Valentine, however, is by no means contented only making an impact in Brooklyn. He says he has enough works in his personal collection now to fill the museums he envisions opening in six of the Caribbean’s most populous cities between 2018 and 2023. Nevertheless, he also hopes other collectors will come forward to contribute works and exhibitions to this ambitious expansion plan.
But institution building takes time. For each new museum — which he wants to be double the size of Jamaica’s National Gallery — he plans to work with local governments to cultivate a generation of young staff that will train in “mature settings” in the United States. “It’s important that we — from the ground up — introduce the field of museum professionals to those islands,” he says.
For now, Valentine has begun looking for land. His intention is for these to all be private museums, citing an anticipated lack of state funds and limited local resources. But that isn’t stopping him from dreaming big in terms of the museums’ potential draw and impact. “I want to see Picasso in the Caribbean,” he says, adding that the region’s popularity among cruise ship operators could bolster museum attendance with a steady influx of tourists.
For the moment, however, he can only improve on what he and the residents at Philip Howard have built together. A project to digitize the entire VMoA collection by the end of 2016 are underway, and he is currently reaching out to other art institutions around the city for suggestions on everything from the type of paint used on the gallery walls to the proper HVAC system for the needs of a such a unique space — though he won’t necessarily use other museums as models. “This space has to become its own,” he says. “It can’t be something that replicates MoMA.”
Art has never been a business venture for Valentine, who works in publishing, and he expressed more than anything his desire to use his life’s work, his collecting, and his energy to turn the VMoA into a representative body for the mosaic of cultures which so characterizes the borough he calls home. “Brooklyn is an international city,” he says. “I feel the opportunity with a young space is to make it what Brooklyn is now, and what it will be in the future.”