The Studio Museum in Harlem’s fifty year history has been made possible by innumerable staff, board members, supporters, artists, neighbors, and collaborators. As we celebrate their many accomplishments, we also salute the leaders who have guided the Museum to this exciting moment.
Kinshasha Holman Conwill, Deputy Director 1980–88 and Director 1988–99, generously agreed to be interviewed and to share her personal perspectives and stories about her time at the helm of the Museum. Her comments are edited and condensed here.
How would you characterize the Studio Museum during your time there?
That’s a big question! I came to the Museum when we were on Fifth Avenue and 125th Street, and I was there through the renovation and expansion in the new building. The Museum was everything. It was a community center, an artists’ circle, a forum for amazing conversations and intellectual discussions, a meeting ground, a vibrant place that had a lot of owners. I think this has stayed true for the Museum. I saw it as a center of life not just in Harlem, but also of New York, and, in some ways, the center of a much larger black world and art world.
Being at the loft was an exercise in great imagination and creativity. The space itself, when animated bythe artists in residence, our wonderful education program for kids, or the annual book fair, was this bustling place full of a lot of people and great intellects. It was a place where everything seemed possible, but it was leap-of-faith possible, because in that little loft the promise was very much in our minds and in our hearts.
How did the institution change when you moved to 144 West 125th Street?
I felt that we were literally in a spotlight. We were across the street from the State Office Building, so the elected officials were right there. The Apollo Theater was down the street, the Schomburg was ten blocks north. We had been kind of on the edges of some of the most important African-American cultural organizations around. And then, we were right in the middle of it. So there was increased attention, there was a lot more visibility, a lot more visitation. The expectations of what we would be for a variety of audiences really grew exponentially.
Who were your visitors?
Our visitors were a terrific mix. We always had a lot of schoolchildren. We had tourists, not like Harlem has now, but there was always someone who found their way up to Harlem because we were in a community that was vaunted, that was known. People came to find what really existed—and also what existed in their minds. They knew that Langston Hughes had a home up here. They knew this was the neighborhood of James Baldwin. Some of them knew that Faith Ringgold was from Harlem. So they came to find that mystical Harlem.
One of the things that I always loved was that every opening was full of artists. To have Romare Bearden hanging out at an opening was just beautiful. Every time there was an exhibition, the artists in Harlem and in New York would come. It was almost like a homecoming every time that happened. And we had supporters, corporate supporters, foundation supporters, but always a core of the community and a core of people who loved art.
— Elizabeth Gwinn
I saw it as a center of life not just in Harlem, but also of New York, and, in some ways, the center of a much larger black world and art world.
What were some of your challenges?
It was a challenging time, a very ideologically stratified time. The so-called culture wars were going on. There were people railing against certain artists. We did an exhibition with the New Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art, The Decade Show: Frameworks of Identity in the 1980s. We exhibited Andres Serrano, who had been so excoriated by the right. We had David Wojnarowicz do a performance in our galleries. We had James Luna and Luis Jimenez. Marcia Tucker and Nilda Peraza and I, with our brilliant curators, decided to shake it up, to have certain artists uptown who people thought would be downtown. Every time we did a program that was a kind of downtown program, some uptown people would say, “Why are you doing that? You’re supposed to be showing black artists; these aren’t black artists.” It was a time of great contestation, but it was also a time when I think the Studio Museum really broke open the canon and expanded the consciousness of people around what art was, and where the role of black artists stood in that discussion.
How would you describe the Museum’s relationship to Harlem?
I think that the Studio Museum, from the earliest days, was a place that Harlem owned. Surely by the time I arrived, in 1980, there was a sense that “This is our museum.” And we opened our doors to community; we wanted to be a meeting ground. We always commemorated World AIDS Day. We brought our programs right out into the street. We actually had information about safe sex. There were some people who thought, “You’re a museum, why are you doing this?” But we often did it with artists. One year Glenn Ligon did a program with us. Maren Hassinger did a great program on Dr. King’s birthday and it drew a huge crowd. The thought was that this is for everyone, but it starts first with being for Harlem.
The Museum was a place where one day you could have Miles Davis, and then you could have James VanDerZee and Adrian Piper and Elizabeth Catlett. And every year, there were brilliant young artists who have continued to make their mark. In the years that I was there we had artists in residence such as Alison Saar, Kerry James Marshall, Colin Chase, Leonardo Drew, Nari Ward, Candida Alvarez, and we had artists who were not in the program like the wonderful Dawoud Bey—artists who are part of Harlem, who changed Harlem, who drew from Harlem, who breathed Harlem. While it was a challenge to be as audacious as the Museum was—as it still is—at the core of Harlem is a beating heart of, an embrace of, culture.
Harlem was then, and I think is now, a place where the past is never the past, as Faulkner says. The past is never over—it’s not even the past. The past and the present and the future existed together. It was a figurative, mythic place, and it was also, day to day, a working community, a place where people struggled, a place where people suffered, and a place where, ultimately, people believed.