Interviews

Meet the NYC Art Community: Dyeemah Simmons Wants to Stretch the Idea of What Museums Can Do

An interview series spotlighting New York’s creative community. Hear directly from artists, curators, and art workers about their current projects and personal quirks.

Arts educator Dyeemah Simmons (all images courtesy Dyeemah Simmons; photo by Joaquim Cuscó Prats)

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about education. How will we teach current and future generations about the nuances of this moment, and specifically, what role will art play in that important work? For this sixth edition of Meet the NYC Art Community, I had a chance to chat with Dyeemah Simmons — a committed arts educator, photographer, and born and raised Harlemite who serves as Director of Access and Community Programs at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

In her official role, Simmons is responsible for creating policies, programs, and outreach initiatives to make the Whitney a welcoming, accessible, and inclusive environment for disabled and non-disabled visitors. She joined the museum’s education department as the Assistant to Teen Programs in 2015 and became the Coordinator of Teen Programs in 2016. Prior to her work at the Whitney, she received a year-long art teaching fellowship at Anatolia College in Thessaloniki, Greece where she worked with grades K through 12. She has also interned at the Studio Museum in Harlem’s Education department and worked as a student docent at the Allen Memorial Art Museum in Oberlin, Ohio. She holds an MA in Art Education from CUNY City College and a BA in Studio Art and English from Oberlin College.

We chatted about her long-held love of photography, the importance of maintaining and strengthening relationships with marginalized communities, and the preciousness of time.

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A reading of Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals with Carolyn Lazard at the Whitney Museum, October 2019 (photo by Filip Wolak)

Where do you consider home?

Harlem is home. I’ve called a few other places home for short amounts of time, but Harlem is always where I come back to. It’s where I was born and raised, and luckily still live today.

What brought you to New York/what has made you stay?

I never thought I’d live in New York as an adult — I dreamed of moving somewhere warmer like California or somewhere abroad. After college in Ohio and a year teaching abroad in Greece, I made my way back here for work opportunities in the arts, and to be close to my family. I didn’t always have an appreciation of Harlem, but I’ve come to cherish my family’s long history of living and owning businesses here. Considering the increasing gentrification of Harlem and other Black neighborhoods, it feels like a miracle that my family hasn’t been pushed out.

Tell me about your first memory of art.

It might be strange, but my first memory of being intensely obsessed with art was discovering Flickr. I didn’t really go to museums as a young person, but the Internet was always available for exploration. I would spend hours looking at photographs on Flickr, curating mini exhibitions of my favorites in digital albums. Flickr inspired me to join my high school’s photography club and learn about creating photos in the dark room. My love of photography has only grown since those days.

Teens at the Whitney Museum create t-shirts inspired by Cauleen Smith’s protest banner in 2017 Biennial (photo by Filip Wolak)

How would you describe your practice?

I am most interested in collaborating with artists to develop spaces for marginalized communities to create, commune, and gain access to critical resources. I have worked at the Whitney Museum for almost five years doing this work — first in Teen Programs, and now as the Director of Access and Community Programs. The Museum’s connection to a wide array of artists has allowed me and my colleagues to design meaningful programs and experiences for our various audiences.

Some examples include a private sound experience for visitors who are blind or low-vision, with artist Kevin Beasley manipulating the sounds from the cotton gin motor in his exhibition A view of a landscape; a week of art-making and storytelling with Pacha, Llaqta, Wasichay artist Jorge González for participants from Youth Insights (YI) Introductions; a program specifically for teens who identify as English Language Learners (ELLs); a protest t-shirt making workshop with 2017 Biennial artist Cauleen Smith, inspired by her powerful banners that hung in the Museum’s lobby; and an intimate reading of Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals, led by artist Carolyn Lazard near their 2019 Biennial piece. I am very interested in how these programs and interactions stretch the idea of what museums can do, and who they are for.

What are you working on currently?

Like many other museum workers, I am in the continuous process of reimagining our programs for this new COVID-19 world. One of the main parts of my job at the Whitney is sustaining relationships with our amazing community partners like the Door, the LGBT Community Center, and Hudson Guild. My team and I have tried to be responsive to their needs and develop virtual opportunities for creation and discussion about art.

For the past three years, the Whitney has invited an artist/collective to perform on the occasion of the anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This year, we will be screening Rodney Evans’ film Vision Portraits and hosting a discussion with him, Kayla Hamilton, and Judy Heumann about filmic representations of disabled folks. I am really excited for that discussion!

I am also trying to get back into my own photographic practice. My love of museum work started with my love for creating my own art.

From Jerron Herman: Many Ways to Raise a Fist, ADA Anniversary Performance at the Whitney Museum, July 2019 (photo by Filip Wolak)

Creatively speaking, what keeps you up at night and what makes you get out of bed in the morning?

I am always reevaluating how I can best do my work, especially in this moment where my community and communities I hold dear are suffering exponentially. Time is precious and I want to make sure I’m using mine in ways that feel purposeful. The gravity of this task can be daunting, but I wake up everyday grateful and excited that I have another chance to try.

What are you reading currently?

In addition to the handful of articles and social media posts I engage with daily, I have been reading Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair by Sarah Schulman with a virtual book club. Schulman turns a critical lens on the culture of blame and cruelty we all live within, making readers confront the ways their own trauma or supremacy mindset prohibits them from taking accountability for their actions. It’s a complicated, intense read — I’m glad I’m working through it with a thoughtful group of peers.

I also just finished Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin, which had been on my “To Read” list for a very long time. It was beautiful and devastating.

What is your favorite way of experiencing art?

There are times when I like to experience art with friends – going to a performance, or a big museum with lots of people. But when I’m really looking forward to experiencing a specific work, I like to be alone. I remember the first time I saw Arthur Jafa’s video Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise in the middle of the afternoon on a weekday. I was in the space alone, free to cry and be fully immersed in the visual and sonic experience.

Artist Kevin Beasley performs for a group of blind and low vision visitors at the Whitney Museum, January 2019 (photo by Filip Wolak)

Favorite exhibition you’ve seen in the last year?

I’ve been lucky to see a lot of incredible art this past year, it’s hard to choose a favorite!

I was blown away by the beautiful portraits in Jordan Casteel’s solo exhibition at the Denver Art Museum last August. Right before the pandemic, I got the chance to see Solo Con La Cabeza No Se Puede Recordar, an exhibition that my former colleague and friend Elena Ketelsen González organized as a part of her gallery project La Salita. During this time of social distancing, I’m really missing physical spaces like the one Elena has created for artists and communities to come together.

In the creative circles you’re part of, what questions do you want to see more people asking?

I think many people are asking this question, but how can we continue doing the work while being so intensely exhausted? What are the strategies for consistently practicing radical self-care while also caring for our communities?

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