Studio Museum in Harlem Ushers in Residents of the World’s Stage

By Shantay Robinson 


The Studio Museum in Harlem has been at the forefront of promoting, supporting, and exhibiting African American art since its founding in 1968. The founders of the museum wanted to create a space that would support the development of artists. From the very beginning, the museum was a place where artists could practice their craft and exhibit their work; this establishment is known for its artist-in-residence program. Artist-in-residence programs typically invite artists, academics, or curators to spend time on the premises of an institution to develop their interests. The Studio Museum in Harlem’s artist-in-residence program might be the most notable in contemporary times. Since the residency program’s inception, African American artists have been able to hone their practices and reserve a space for themselves on the world’s stage. The residency has positively impacted the careers of many artists who have worked in the year-long program. Some of the most prominent artists who have spent time at the Studio Museum artist-in-residence program are: Kerry James Marshall 1985-86, Willie Cole 1988-89, Julie Mehretu 2000-01, Kehinde Wiley 2001-02, and Mickalene Thomas 2002-03.


The artist-in-residence program at the Studio Museum has the reputation for producing artists who have very successful and substantial careers, exhibiting art internationally and shaping the perception of black art and artists. The residency program is highly competitive, and they choose artists who can contribute uniquely to dominant conversations happening in contemporary art. While at the Studio Museum, Kerry James Marshall was honing his talent by creating paper collages during 1985 and 1986, which inform his work today. Willie Cole is known for producing work dealing with domesticated items. In 1989, he gained attention for creating artwork with clothing iron marks. Julie Mehretu was creating smaller sized works of a practice that would turn into large-scale cartographic paintings. Kehinde Wiley produced portraits based on European masterworks that set the scene for the presidential portrait he created for the 2018 unveiling. Mickalene Thomas captured portrait photographs and paintings of black women.

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Studio of Eric Mack, 2014-2015 artist-in-residence. Photo credit

These artists honed their talents within the residency program, allowing them a low stakes opportunity to work on those things they might be interested in, exploring with the freedom to make mistakes. Once out the gate, though, the artists were on the move. While the association with the Studio Museum might have offered them the opportunity to be seen by the right people, they wouldn’t have been accepted into the program without appropriate skills to establish major careers. And their resumes prove that the artists who spent time in the artist-in-residence program at the Studio Museum have what it takes to be art stars. Kerry James Marshall has gone on to fetch the highest auction price for a living African American artist. Willie Cole, who has a consistent exhibition schedule, received the David C. Driskell prize in 2006. Julie Mehretu received the Foundation for Contemporary Arts Grant to Artists in 2000, the Penny McCall Award in 2001, and the MacArthur “Genius” Grant in 2005. In addition to being an international art star producing artwork that represents the black image in Brazil, Nigeria, and the United States, Kehinde Wiley painted Barack Obama’s presidential portrait. Mickalene Thomas is the recipient of several awards including MoCADA Advocacy Award in 2015, Anonymous Was A Woman Grant in 2013 and Brooklyn Museum Asher B. Durand Award in 2012. In 2018, she received the Baltimore Museum of Art’s Robert E. Meyerhoff and Rheda Becker Biennial Public Art Commission.

While the aforementioned artists have become established in their respective practices, the notoriety of the Studio Museum in Harlem artist-in-residence program is still churning out artists who are forwarding black art within the contemporary Western art canon.

Wangechi Mutu (2003-04), is a celebrated international contemporary artist known for her work utilizing collages, sculptures, videos, and performances to address gender, identity and race. In 2013, Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University in North Carolina curated a retrospective of her work. The retrospective titled, Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey traveled to Brooklyn Museum of Art, Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami, and Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University. The Brooklyn Museum writes of Mutu’s retrospective, “Bringing her interconnected ecosystems to life for this exhibition through sculptural installations and videos, Mutu encourages audiences to consider these mythical worlds as places for cultural, psychological, and socio-political exploration and transformation.” Mutu’s work was recently on view in The World on Paper at the Deutsche Bank Collection in Berlin.

Titus Kaphar (2006-07) was awarded the MacArthur “Genius” Award in 2018. His paintings, sculptures, and installations work to find through lines across art, history and social justice. Kaphar’s work was recently on exhibit with Ken Gonzales-Day in Unseen: Our Past in a New Light at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. He is also the recipient of several grants and fellowships including, a 2015 Creative Capital Grant, a 2016 Robert Rauschenberg Artist as Activist Grant, and a 2018 Art for Justice Fund Grant. Kaphar created a painting commissioned by Time magazine in response to the protest in Ferguson, Missouri following the killing of Mike Brown. Yet Another Fight for Remembrance, the work about the Ferguson protests, is a 4ft by 5ft painting of protestors with their hands raised above their heads, white paint covering their bodies. Kaphar states about his social justice art to Time, “The act of painting itself becomes a fight to remember the names of all the young black men who were taken too soon. A fight to remember that when this issue disappears from the media, it is not permission to forget. A fight to remember that change is possible.”

Njideka Akunyili Crosby (2011-12) was awarded the MacArthur “Genius” Grant in 2017. In 2016, Akunyili Crosby was named Financial Times Woman of the Year. Born in Nigeria and living in California, she draws on these diverse experiences to create collages and photo transfer-based paintings. “I do all of these mixes so that when you are in front of it you, the viewer, are being placed in this transcultural, trans-everything space,” Akunyili Crosby told Art News. Paintings of her family, friends, and herself are captured in familiar spaces with the likenesses of Nigerian musicians and other popular images that she finds in magazines and other media transferred to them. In 2017, The Beautyful Ones fetched $3.1 million, although only three of her works had gone to auction at the time. The Beautyful Ones was created while she was at the Studio Museum’s artist-in-residence program. In 2018, Bush Babies sold for $3.4 million. The proceeds from that sale in auction, along with works by other artists who had donated, benefitted the Studio Museum in Harlem. Akunyili Crosby’s outdoor mural can be seen on the exterior of The Museum of Contemporary Art building in Los Angeles. The Beautyful Ones is currently on view at National Portrait Gallery in London.


Jordan Casteel (2015-16), who was named one of the Young Artists of 2018 by Cultured Magazine is the latest Studio Museum in Harlem breakout star. Her exhibition, Jordan Casteel: Returning the Gaze, will open at Denver Art Museum in February 2019. It will be her first major museum exhibition and will feature nearly 30 works created between 2014 and 2018. The subject matter of the works exhibited range from cityscapes to portraits. She is well-known for her portraits of black men. Casteel’s stylized portraits, although of black people don’t always depict them with brown skin. At times they are blue or green, but the fact that they’re represented in the art historical canon is what is important. Casteel told Vogue, “I was interested in the fact that people were going, ‘Oh, you’re painting black men.’ And then they would be like: ‘Oh, actually, he’s green.’ I loved witnessing the externalization of that internal process.” Two of Casteel’s paintings are also currently included in the Museum of Contemporary Art’s exhibition One Day at a Time: Manny Farber and Termite Art.


A Hollywood Reporter article from April 2018, quoted Thelma Golden, the Director and Chief Curator at Studio Museum in Harlem, who stated before an audience in California celebrating 50 years of the iconic institution, “The ‘Studio’ in our name comes from the fact that we have had a residency program since the founding of the museum and it’s a really important part of the museum’s life that artists have lived and worked in the museum space. Not just presenting their art, but making their art. That is one of the things that makes us special.” With a new building in the works, The Studio Museum in Harlem and its personnel are setting their sights on greater and equally impactful moments. As the international community looks forward to the new site, the artist-in-residence program, which has been a staple of the art world for the last 50 years, undoubtedly will supply us with more sensational artists to represent black artistry on the world’s stage.


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Shantay Robinson, BAIA resident scholar has participated in Burnaway’s Art Writers Mentorship Program, Duke University’s The New New South Editorial Fellowship, and CUE Art Foundation’s Art Critic Mentoring Program. She has written for Burnaway, ArtsATL, ARTS.BLACK, AFROPUNK, Number, Inc. and Washington City Paper. While  receiving an MFA in Writing from Savannah College of Art and Design, she served as a docent at the High Museum of Art. She is currently working on a PhD in Writing and Rhetoric at George Mason University.

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