STUDIO MUSEUM_PRESS

 

FOR THE FIRST TIME in its nearly 50-year history, the Studio Museum in Harlem plans to construct a new building designed expressly to meet the needs of its ambitious programming. The news came last month, coupled with the announcement that architect David Adjaye is designing the $122 million public-private project made possible by partial funding from the City of New York.

The development marks a pivotal milestone in the historic institution’s narrative and comes at a time when the role of museums, and measures for their success, are shifting. At the same time, the structures that house museums are increasingly influencing how audiences experience them.

“This project is about pushing the museum typology to a new place and thinking about the display and reception of art in innovative ways,” Adjaye said in a museum release.

“It is also about a powerful urban resonance—drawing on the architectural tropes of Harlem and celebrating the history and culture of this extraordinary neighborhood with a building that will be a beacon for a growing local, national and international audience.”

A ‘Radical Gesture’
The Studio Museum was founded in 1968 to provide a venue for artists of African descent to exhibit their work when opportunities to do so at mainstream institutions were few. In the ensuing decades, the museum established a formidable track record for nurturing next-generation artists who have gone on to critically recognized, commercial successful careers, exhibiting around the world. Incredibly, nearly every major contemporary African American artist working today has a connection to the Studio Museum.

The design for the state-of-the-art building responds to the museum’s accomplishments and aspirations—matching its reputation for cultivating highly regarded artists and curators, fortifying its intellectual and curatorial leadership in the national and international art sector, and cementing its identity with and longstanding commitment to Harlem.

“The museum was a radical gesture to address the exclusion of black artists from the canonical presentation of art history,” Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, told the New York Times.

“The museum was a radical gesture to address the exclusion of black artists from the canonical presentation of art history.”
— Thelma Golden, director and chief curator, Studio Museum in Harlem, New York Times

A neighborhood stalwart, the Studio Museum first opened in a rented loft at 2055 Fifth Avenue just north of 125th Street. In 1979, the museum moved to its current location, a former bank building, on 125th Street between Adam Clayton Powell and Malcolm X boulevards. Over the years, to keep pace with the institution’s growing demands, the 1914 structure has been retrofitted and adapted, including a 1982 renovation by architect J. Max Bond Jr., and the 1985 addition of a neighboring property to its footprint.

The new building will be constructed from the ground up at the current site. A planned five-story, 71,000-square-foot space, the museum’s new home was envisioned to better serve the exhibition requirements of the foremost visual art institution for artists of African descent and enhance its ability to welcome the Harlem community and visitors from throughout the world.

“The world of the arts and Harlem have both changed dramatically over the half century since our institution was founded, and we’re proud that the Studio Museum has been a catalyst in those developments. Now, as a standard-bearer for contemporary artists of African descent, we’re poised to begin a new era,” Golden said in the press release.

“As a standard-bearer for contemporary artists of African descent, we’re poised to begin a new era.”
— Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem

davidadjaye_team_portraitAn Art-Minded Architect
According to the Studio Museum, its board conducted an international search and, in January 2014, unanimously selected Adjaye to design the new building.

 

The British architect comes to the Studio Museum project with a soaring reputation for innovation and a laundry list of cultural institutions in his international portfolio. Completed in 2007, the Museum of Contemporary Art/Denver was his first U.S. project. His hallmark is the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) currently under construction on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and slated to open in 2016.

Born in Tanzania to Ghanaian parents, Adjaye earned a master’s in architecture from the Royal College of Art in London, where his family had lived since he was a teenager. After starting out in 1994, he founded Adjaye Associates in 2000.

With offices in New York, London and Accra, recent architectural commissions have included Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African & African American Art at Harvard University; Sugar Hill Development, a subsidized housing complex in Harlem that includes a preschool and children’s art museum; Alara Concept Store in Lagos, Nigeria, a luxury retailer offering art, fashion and design from global brands; and a 100-bed cancer treatment center for children in Rwanda, announced on July 23.

Often described as an architect with an artist’s sensibility, Adjaye earned the label honestly. Seeking to hone his talent for drawing, he initially pursued art in college. As an architect, he has engaged in projects directly with artists, designing their homes and temporary exhibition spaces for presenting their art. Commissioned by curator and artistic director Okwui Enwezor, Adjaye designed venues for the 2015 Venice Biennale, which is currently underway.

Often described as an architect with an artist’s sensibility, Adjaye earned the label honestly. He has engaged in projects directly with artists, designing their homes and temporary exhibition spaces for presenting their art.

adjaye - form heft materialAdjaye’s own work has been the subject of museum exhibitions. On Sept. 19, the most comprehensive, “Making Place: The Architecture of David Adajaye,” opens at the Art Institute of Chicago. Organized by Haus der Kunst museum in Munich, where Enwezor serves as director, the exhibition documents 50 built projects. The exhibition catalog, “David Adjaye: Form, Heft, Material,” was published in April. In addition, his architectural curiosity has yielded multiple projects beyond construction—books, furniture and textile design, among them.

Designing a 21st Century Museum
Given Adjaye’s experience and unique perspective, what is his vision for next-generation museum design?

He shared his views at the inaugural Arts & Museums Summit held at the Asia Society in Hong Kong. His conversation with Melissa Chui, who at the time headed the Asia Society in New York and is now director of the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum, was recently published in “Making a Museum in the 21st Century.” In addition, to insights from Adjaye, the book features other summit panels and discussions with museum directors, curators, scholars and artists from around the world.

Adjaye tells Chiu that his architecture is about “making projects that track social changes and missions, different mobilities within society, about trying to use architecture to empower, enable, and make visible these things that are emerging.”

He goes on to say that his firm often gets involved “when institutions want to reinvent themselves and move forward,” a situation that aptly applies to the Studio Museum. It’s mission remains unchanged. However, after shoe horning itself into an existing buildings for nearly five decades, it needs to reconstitute its space in order to pursue its mission full throttle. As Golden noted, the museum is “poised to begin a new era.”

Today, in this new era, audience engagement is a prime consideration for museums. “Thinking about how a museum should work with its audience is something that is still being worked through, and I don’t know any institution that has fully cracked it,” Adjaye says. “It’s an issue that is an ongoing experiment, and I think, thankfully, will never be solved, because the parameters keep shifting.”

“Thinking about how a museum should work with its audience is something that is still being worked through, and I don’t know any institution that has fully cracked it.” — David Adjaye, Making a Museum in the 21st Century

Nonetheless engagement is paramount: “What is needed are museums that are about an engagement with people, an engagement with dialogue, with a discussion of art, and an engagement with different ways of collecting and different ways of seeing the world.”

He says minimalist, white-walled galleries are a late 20th-century phenomenon. Referencing the installations he has collaborated on with artists, he says one way for museums to reconsider the way they present art in the 21st century is to take into account the way in which the artists envision their work being presented—which happens, but not all the time.

“The white cube creates a kind of commodification of the work that I question more and more. I’m always interested in the way an artist wants the work to be received, more than the way in which the architects want to frame the work,” Adjaye says.

Finally, he emphasizes that the quality of a museum’s collection is not enough to draw visitors to a museum. Technology has made access to archives and collections readily available online. If audiences can view the art on their phones, why trek to the museum?

Adjaye says the key ingredient is a valuable museum experience that relies on exceptional curation.

“The collections are only relevant if they are dynamic and constantly presented with new interpretations. That’s what brings a new audience back. The curatorial aspect is what makes things interesting, not the work. It’s how the work is being juxtaposed within new contexts and to impart new meaning. Ultimately, it will be the new experiences, impossible outside of a museum, that create the opportunity for that engagement,” he says.

“The collections are only relevant if they are dynamic and constantly presented with new interpretations. That’s what brings a new audience back.” — David Adjaye, Making a Museum in the 21st Century

making a museum in the 21st centInterestingly, while technology plays a key role in reducing the necessity to visit a museum, it also provides a foundation for amplifying the museum experience, providing vital curatorial context and encouraging people to travel to see exhibitions.

Films, audio tours, multimedia presentations and iPads loaded with background material help to explain the art, as well as the artist’s biography, perspective, influences and intentions, all of which Adjaye views as essential.

“The idea that an audience is supposed to look at an object and gain meaning is unfair. Because as people in the art world we study meaning. We spend all of our time studying the meaning and understanding the rigor of the meaning before we even look at the work. We don’t just look at the work and say, ‘Oh, it’s giving me resonance.’ So why do we think the public is going to get some kind of revelatory reference just from standing in front of the work?, Adjaye asks. “They want engagement and meaning and knowledge as to why that thing is.”

A Vision for Harlem
How is his vision expressed in forthcoming projects?

For NMAAHC, the African American museum on the National Mall, he says “we made every effort to make the architecture consistent with the information and the contents.” Drawing on Yoruban architectural themes, the structure is composed of a trio of coronas clad in intricately carved bronze panels. The museum of history and culture, as opposed to one devoted entirely to art, is designed as an immersive experience, in which the narrative is communicated through objects and artifacts, but also via the environment itself.

“Everything from the way in which you come in—the entrance experience—to the way in which you dive into the museum by going underground where the history galleries are, it’s all designed to give physical cues to the viewer. The underground galleries are like old hallowed ground connected to the burial of slaves and slave grounds. History is that layer underneath, and it’s presented to you like a story, then you go above ground and you engage with the content actively—a more complex interaction.”

At the Studio Museum, Adjaye’s concept is defined by innovative design features and improved space planning, including: a light-filled core that soars upward for four stories intended to echo the volume of a church sanctuary; a 199-seat “inverted stoop” that invites the public into a lively multi-use space for lectures, performances and other public programs; and a variety of graciously proportioned spaces for presenting featured exhibitions as well as works from the museum’s permanent collection.

A light-filled core soars upward for four stories intended to echo the volume of a church sanctuary and a 199-seat “inverted stoop” invites the public into a lively multi-use space.

The new building is scheduled to be under construction by 2017. The design calls for nearly 60 percent more space for educational activities and public programs and more than 50 percent more for exhibition galleries and the museum’s renowned artist-in-residence program. The increased square footage for displaying art means the museum won’t shut down during the transition between exhibitions when new works are installed, which is the current situation. It is hard to engage audiences when the museum is closed.

“There are architects who see architecture’s role as simply responding to issues that are already easily understood. I think we are makers who define the built environment. Even when we are responding, or pretending to be responding, we are making some huge decisions about how people are affected by space,” Adjaye adds in “Making a Museum in the 21st Century.”

“I’m interested in the potential affect that the making of environments has on the making of ideas—an under-recognized part of what our civilization is about.” CT

 

IMAGES: Courtesy Adjaye Associates

 

BOOKSHELF
David Adjaye’s architecture practice places a great emphasis on research, and as a result has published a number of volumes reflecting its work. In addition to “African Metropolitan Architecture” and “David Adjaye: Making Public Buildings,” consider “David Adjaye: A House for an Art Collector” and “David Adjaye: Form, Heft, Material,” the catalog that accompanies Adjaye’s exhibition. Meanwhile, “Making a Museum in the 21st Century”offers invaluable insight about the future of museum design.