Thelma Golden and Lisa Phillips reevaluate the function of art institutions as public spaces

For Document’s Spring/Summer 2023 issue, the museum directors meet to dissect the fast-changing cultural landscape, and the ever-evolving purpose of their line of work

In 2018, Thelma Golden, Director and Chief Curator of The Studio Museum in Harlem, shared the news that it would temporarily close to construct a new building, designed by Sir David Adjaye, with the needs of both the institution and its community in mind. Downtown, a year later, the New Museum, led by Toby Devan Lewis Director Lisa Phillips, announced that it would expand its footprint with a structure designed by OMA’s Shohei Shigematsu and Rem Koolhaas, in collaboration with Cooper Robertson. But in the years since conceiving these physical developments, the world has changed immeasurably—and concurrently, the duties and expectations of institutions writ large have shifted at an unprecedented pace. Both museums were founded on radical principles, and, alongside their architectural partners, have had to reevaluate what their purpose is in a contemporary world. Their work was not just about pushing boundaries, but also ensuring sustainability in the face of uncertainty, at the height of the pandemic and beyond. The postponement of each project gave the respective teams an opportunity to reassess their functions and how their new designs could best facilitate their efficacy.

Art institutions across the world—historically hampered by bureaucratic inertia—have been forced to evolve to remain relevant. Amidst a public health crisis, they were tasked with becoming safe havens for community members needing a respite from their homes, and in the face of civil unrest, to take accountability for their own white supremacist and historically elitist practices. Museums have been placed under a microscope—asked to not only be custodians of art history, but also to serve as sites that reflect the world around them. In reality, they have never had to be brick-and-mortar art storage, because, with the right vision, they could also serve as laboratories, theaters, restaurants, hang-out spots, and even retail spaces. There’s potential to rise to the occasion with agility and a willingness to grow—in the material sense and through a radical reimagining of the scope of their respective missions.

Here, Golden and Phillips—two of the art world’s most respected leaders—come together to discuss questions around institution-building, the function of the museum, and the most urgent barriers to evolution in the current cultural landscape.

Kimberly Drew: In the years since the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve collectively reconsidered our relationship to public space. As directors leading building projects—which reimagine your respective footprints—could you talk about why we need physical institutions?

Lisa Phillips: When we were asked to open our doors—we were among the safer spaces to visit during the height of the pandemic—it became clear that culture is essential. That’s one of the positive things to come out of this era, as well as the expanded possibilities for digital virtual programming that we all experimented and fell in love with. The virtual and the real are equally important.

Thelma Golden: We were navigating not having a space prior to the pandemic. I already had an incredible amount of nostalgia for physical space and IRL engagement from the moment we closed in 2018. The pandemic gave The Studio Museum the ability to think about space in less pragmatic ways. It felt like a way to reimagine the museum, not just because we were in this moment and this is how we had to show up, but also for the future.

Kimberly: I had an almost devastating conversation with Dr. Jacob Appel, and he shared his concern that the window for mutual aid and collective responsibility may never be this potent again. As directors, there is an expectation of omnipotence, but in the face of such uncertainty and change, how do you foster open dialogue and remain hopeful?

Thelma: [This moment has] revealed some of the real and essential code-switching that many of us had been doing forever in our cultural worlds. For me, these last couple of years represented different ways of work being valued. Many had been working in those ways for a long time, but they were devalued.

I came into the art world when the way this was talked about was [in terms of] the margin and the center, in this hierarchical sense. But those of us who existed in those margins understood the richness that could come when we saw these parallel universes in play.
I am deeply interested in the way we come out of this. Can we say that the paradigm has moved, and what leadership looks like, what it means, what values are placed as important and significant? All of that is what this moment has led us to.

“The traditional curatorial role was to preserve and conserve objects. Now we’re more concerned with supporting artists producing work and caring for communities, our audience, our staff, and our artists.”

Kimberly: In this chapter of your institutions, there is a valuable set of inquiries about moving forward and building, but I am curious about demolition. What are some of the ‘good ghosts’ being laid to rest in this moment of transition?

Lisa: That’s an interesting word, transition. The history of New York has been a history of change for 400 years. And the Bowery has an interesting history, starting as a Lenape trail that became a cow path for Dutch farms. In the ’50s, it became a very desirable place for artists because it’s a six lane-wide street with lots of light. We’ve been recording that history actively, with interviews with as many people as possible. Practically every artist you can think of had a place on the Bowery at one point.

As we build our cultural institutions, the neighborhoods change. The Bowery has had a renaissance as a result of our being here, but what does that do to the communities that get displaced? That is also part of the city’s ongoing history. Basic to our mission is that embrace of change, of that dynamic, and an awareness of what that means and the implications [of it].

Our institution was founded in 1977 by a radical activist feminist to give attention and exposure to things that had not been recognized. Marcia [Tucker] said that she always felt marginalized, even after she was director, because she had to found a museum in order to be a director. And that was true of a whole number of women and leaders of color in the ’70s [who] were forming alternative organizations which became that reinvented culture. I’m looking forward to that happening again and to the next generation of new models of institutions that will arise.

Thelma: I’m thinking about the reality that our project was made possible through the demolition of our former building. Physical space is complex, because it’s attached to our relationship to ownership, autonomy, community development, and economic equity. It was important for us to acknowledge what had happened in the building—that the space was a place. The good ghosts are all of the energy that has animated that space. It was a former office bank building—its creation as a museum came from how it was occupied and animated by activity, but really, by people.

It’s about memory, and how to hold memory; how to not always be propulsive. I steward an institution that was founded around certain ideals. Acknowledging and calling the names of those who made this possible every single day, that’s also what the good ghosts are.

Kimberly: As you look forward, what are some of the things that museums of the future need to have available, whether internally or externally?

Thelma: What we need in the making of museums is of deep concerns. I continue to be interested in not just what institutions need but what they need to be, and how they need to be. That gets to accessibility, because that’s one of those conversations we’ve had over and over again, and it feels like something people think they can just do. We have these moments, and then everyone is doing the work of answering—but it’s not change.

Somewhat to what Lisa said, I am interested in what those of this generation are thinking is needed now. I don’t necessarily think their answers are going to be the same—that ‘Let’s get a group of people with this fantastic idea, and then find a space and open that space, and grow it, and then let’s become an institution.’ For example, I am deeply moved by new pedagogical models: The Black School, Romi Crawford’s The Black Arts Movement School, and so many others. I have seen how higher education can exist in different models. I am interested in the different ways the museum, in its future manifestation, can be.

Lisa: Brick-and-mortar has been the conventional path to growth for museums because of their collecting activities and their need to house objects, which I have questions about, too—how do you do that endlessly, as important as it is? The traditional curatorial role was to preserve and conserve objects. Now we’re more concerned with supporting artists producing work and caring for communities, our audience, our staff, and our artists. I think it’s less about brick-and-mortar, and maybe even less about objects.

Thelma: I came up as a curator at a time when I had the opportunity to work alongside academics who were radically reframing the idea of the archive. African American Studies completely privileges the archive as a fundamental primary source, because it’s the only way to write new histories.

There are a lot of objects in the world devalued by our art history. When you meet people who commit themselves to keeping them together, waiting for that moment to happen… that’s where I am invested in this idea of [how] a future version might not be, as Lisa says, the traditional idea of a hierarchy of objects.

I could never not cry when Lonnie [G. Bunch III] would tell these stories of his travels around the country [during his tenure as the founding director of the Smithsonian’s

National Museum of African American History and Culture]—of meeting someone who would show him something that had been held onto for generations, things touched by many, many people who held them close, now able to be seen. I’m interested in the politics of the archive, more so in some ways than I am in curatorial practice, as it’s currently defined.

“It isn’t just about being bigger but about widening impact, and that isn’t always tied to physical space.”

Kimberly: I also get emotional when I think about the faith-based practice of archiving, that trust and belief—understanding that the places we live in and the stories we tell have value. On the note of trust, I wonder how you’re both thinking about the facade, that first physical point of entry for visitors.

Lisa: The building is set back from the Bowery, so there is a public space in front where we will have a major commission every two years. The new building, which is really a compliment to the first, is transparent—it’s got a glass facade that looks out over the city. We will have that transparency on every floor. We’re on a very tight footprint right now, so the expansion will provide a lot more public space for convening, which is very important. The museum is a community center too, and we want to be able to host that community.

Thelma: Our design came out of three distinct Harlem conditions: the street, the stage, and the sanctuary. All three live within the context of Harlem life, present and past. Bringing those conditions into the design was a way to bring the building into a relationship with the neighborhood, and by doing so, creating a sense of not just openness and accessibility, but welcome.

We were also operating with some other principles having to do with the reimagination of the street, of wanting to create an experience that was distinctive of all the ways 125th Street is transforming. So there is a bit of ceremony in entering the building that’s different from the retail entrances that flank us on either side. The building reads differently than, say, our neighbor a block west of us, the Apollo, or a block east [at the] National Black Theatre.

Being on this cultural corridor, we wanted to create what would ultimately be an experience, even to those walking by the building.

Lisa: Both of our institutions are expanding, but we’re mid-sized—still on a modest scale, with a impact. This is a new kind of model, and something that women directors have really embraced as a positive thing—you don’t have to be [physically] huge. You can be big in other ways.

Thelma: The conversations I hold with many who came before me in the culturally specific institution space [are about] understanding that it isn’t just about being bigger but about widening impact, and that isn’t always tied to physical space.

Was it more practical for [The Studio Museum] between ’77 and ’87 to have spent those years getting [physically] bigger? Or was it more impactful, as the institution did, to double, triple, quadruple the sense of institutional impact? It’s a choice about where we all feel our institutions do the best work, and maybe shifting around what we even see as the work.

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