Studio Museum in Harlem Unveils Design for Expansion

July 6, 2015
The Studio Museum in Harlem, whose ambitions have long been checked by the limitations of its 1914 building, will construct a new $122 million home designed by the British architect David Adjaye on West 125th Street.

Plans for the new building, which will occupy the museum's current lot near Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, are to be announced Monday.

With the new space, the museum, for the first time in its nearly 47-year history, will have a physical space created expressly to meet its needs and serve its mission: fostering and displaying work by artists of African descent.

No more droning air-conditioners in the galleries. Or children sitting on the floor for educational programs. Or total shutdowns of the museum three times a year because the current process of changing exhibitions is so disruptive to its operations.

"We have outgrown the space," said Thelma Golden, the museum's director and chief curator since 2005. "Our program and our audience require us to answer those demands."

The project also signifies the Studio Museum's move from the margins to the mainstream, having started as a place that brought attention to black artists who had been largely ignored by major museums. Now black artists are better represented in many institutions.

"The museum was a radical gesture to address the exclusion of black artists from the canonical presentation of art history," Ms. Golden said.

After evaluating several architects, the museum selected the New York-based Mr. Adjaye because of what Ms. Golden described as his sensitivity to artists as well as to the neighborhood. Born in Tanzania to Ghanaian parents, Mr. Adjaye conducted a 10-year architectural study of the capital cities of Africa that resulted in a 2010 photography exhibition in London, and his building projects include the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, now under construction.

New York City is contributing $35.3 million to the Studio Museum project, $11.4 million of which was just allocated in the budget for fiscal year 2016. Tom Finkelpearl, the city's cultural affairs commissioner, called the project a "great investment."

The Ford Foundation donated $3 million. (The rest is to be raised from other sources.)

"The time has come for the Studio Museum to have a physical space that is worthy of its aspiration and ambition," said Darren Walker, the Ford Foundation president.

To be sure, the former bank building the museum has occupied since 1982 feels outdated. (The architect J. Max Bond Jr. retrofitted it after the museum moved to its current spot from its original rented loft on Fifth Avenue near 126th Street.) The gallery walls are low, the office carpeting threadbare, the lobby lacking any sense of grandeur.

There has been a hodgepodge of upgrades over the years, including renovations to the lobby and gift shop in 2001 and improvements to the lower level and sculpture court in 2007.

"Their building had been added to and changed so many times that the idea of starting fresh is critical," said Adam D. Weinberg, director of the Whitney Museum of American Art. "Its time has come."

Mr. Adjaye's conceptual design to be submitted to the city's public design commission on July 14 gives the museum more than 70,000 square feet, up from the current 60,000, including 10,000 square feet of galleries, up from about 6,000. The new building will enable the museum to showcase more of its 2,000-object permanent collection, which includes works from the 19th century to the present.

The museum has yet to project whether the new space will increase attendance, now at about 100,000 visitors a year.

The design calls for a wide, glass-fronted lobby, which will be free to the public. The entrance area will feature a bleacherlike staircase a "reverse stoop," the architect calls it to the lower level that can serve as seating for public programs. The museum hopes this more welcoming entrance will become a gathering place.

Mr. Adjaye, whose projects include the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver and the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, said he was going for a "transparency and porosity" that invited in "the lively street life of 125th Street."

He has also proposed dedicated education spaces, a cafe and a free roof area for sculpture and events.

The construction, scheduled to start in 2017 with a completion goal of 2019, is expected to increase the museum's $6 million annual operating budget to $8.2 million, though that projection may be revised as the design is solidified. The museum plans to continue activities off site during construction, but details have yet to be determined.

The new building will also allow the museum to continue its tradition of providing studio space for three artists in its yearlong residency, which has nurtured numerous now-prominent figures, including Sanford Biggers, Julie Mehretu and Kehinde Wiley.

"Without the Studio Museum, I can't imagine that these artists would have had the opportunities to soar the way they have," said Anne Pasternak, who is soon to become the new president of the Brooklyn Museum. "These are some of the greatest living artists of our time, yet the museum physically itself is not reflective of their strength."

Many accomplished artists have also had significant career milestones at the Studio Museum, including Mark Bradford and Chris Ofili. And the museum has presented important exhibitions by artists such as Romare Bearden and Kara Walker.

In creating his design, Mr. Adjaye said he was inspired by the surrounding Harlem vernacular: the detailed window framing of brownstone homes coupled with the airy volume of the neighborhood's churches. "I wanted to honor this idea of public rooms, which are soaring, celebratory and edifying uplifting," he said. "Between the residential and the civic, we learned the lessons of public realms and tried to bring those two together."

Ms. Golden said she appreciated Mr. Adjaye's capacity to capture both "the experience of the sanctuary, but also the sense of a space that stills."

The board considered moving the museum out of the neighborhood, but ultimately concluded that its location is intrinsic to its identity. "Harlem is not just the physical place," said Gordon J. Davis, co-chairman of the board's building committee. "It has to do with the identity of African-Americans in this country."

Other stalwarts of 125th Street see the museum as an essential mainstay of the changing thoroughfare. "It's important not only for the new emerging institutions but for the anchors to continue to be visible and committed," said Jonelle Procope, president and chief executive of the Apollo Theater Foundation. "It also sends the message that the Studio Museum will continue to have an impact on African-American culture for generations to come."

Ms. Golden, who lives three blocks from the museum, is herself rooted in Harlem. She worked as an intern at the Studio Museum as a college student in 1985 and her father was born on 135th Street in 1926. Though he raised the family in Queens, the connection to Harlem has remained strong.

"He would pay the toll to come over the Triborough Bridge to ride across 125th Street and go block by block, recalling different memories for my brother and I in the back seat," Ms. Golden said. "I have a deep sense of love for this neighborhood."

The New York Times
By Robin Pogrebin
Photo by Dominic Hackley