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Harlem Museum Draws Attention to African-American Culture, Budding Artists - 2002-07-18

The Studio Museum in New York's Harlem neighborhood is the premier venue in the United States for the work of African-American artists. It is also a leading showcase for the talent of emerging artists of color.

Many U.S. museums explore the history and culture of African-Americans. But director Lowery Stokes Sims said the Studio Museum in Harlem is the only major institution devoted exclusively to African-American visual arts.

"That can go anywhere from more traditional things, painting, sculpture and drawing, to video, performance and even Internet art," Mr. Sims said.

The museum's location in the heart of Harlem draws audiences from around the world, exposing many to the art work of African-Americans for the first time. Curator Thelma Golden said it also draws artists who want their work shown in Harlem, the long-time center of African-American culture.

"I think for many of the artists, the idea of Harlem, perhaps not its actuality even, but the idea of Harlem is still an important way to understand African-American culture, particularly in the modern moment," she said.

A recent exhibition introduced mainstream audiences to a neglected genre known as Black Romantic, figurative painting by contemporary African-American artists. Thelma Golden says most of the artists in the show seek to create positive images of the African-American community that often do not exist in popular culture. In one painting, "The Drum Lesson," an older man teaches a boy how to play a bongo drum, conveying several messages.

"It talks about this idea of knowing and learning history, the way in which within the community there is an importance of passing on this idea of African heritage. It also, in showing a man and a boy, it speaks to the great dialogue in the African-American community about the need for boys to know men, to have men as role models," she said.

The museum began in 1967 as a place for experimental work, hence, the name Studio Museum. Over the years, its exhibition schedule grew and became more traditional. Now a revitalized artist-in-residence program, AIR, is calling attention to the Studio Museum's experimental roots. Each year, three emerging artists receive a stipend and studio space in the museum to work without interruption for a full year. The AIR program allows artists like Kira Harris to experiment and develop a body of work.

"It has given me a space where I can come in and do that and have it up on the walls. To me, it is important just being a part of the history of the Studio Museum," Ms. Harris said.

The annual show of the work of the artists-in-residence is now one of the highlights of the museum's exhibition schedule. Kira Harris, who is primarily an installation artist, has begun to experiment with photography and is showing a multi-media work in the exhibition.

"These here are photographs of the subway coming around a particular corner. What I was interested in was the way that the light sort of comes around the corner and paints the wall. There is a video that I am shooting that will accompany these still photographs," she said.

Kehinde Wiley is a very different kind of artist. He paints colorful, intricately detailed portraits to challenge the way African-Americans are often depicted in American culture. "In one painting, I have the image of a young black man with a puffy coat. However, the coat is a very bright royal blue and it is encrusted with baroque detailing, gold leaf. What I am trying to do is flatten out any sense of stylistic consistency historically, trying to create a space where period style had no time," he explained.

Arts institutions in the United States are experiencing difficult times due to the faltering U.S. economy. This is especially true in New York where the September 11 attacks have led to a drop in tourism and budget constraints. But director Lowery Stokes Sims said the Studio Museum is benefiting from a new recognition and a surge in Black philanthropy.

"There is so much awareness now on the role of arts and culture in building self-esteem and working in tandem with education, with awareness about disease, literacy so that there is an awareness of the place of museums," Mr. Sims said.

The Studio Museum is also profiting from new interest in developing Harlem's economic base and its cultural institutions by politicians, the business community and tourists.