For five decades, the Studio Museum in Harlem has supported artists of African descent, but it has also been at the centre of its vibrant community. “We are a place of gathering,” says Studio Museum director Thelma Golden. To better serve that community, the institution is building a new home. Designed by Adjaye Associates in collaboration with Cooper Robertson, the purpose-built structure, scheduled to open in 2021, will amplify and continue the Studio Museum’s mission and position it for the future. To benefit the campaign, prominent artists will donate works to be offered in Creating Space: Artists for The Studio Museum in Harlem, taking place during Sotheby’s New York 16–17 May Contemporary Art sales. Ahead of Creating Space, we spoke with Golden about the museum’s evolving role, the significance of Adjaye’s design and more.

STUDIO MUSEUM IN HARLEM DIRECTOR THELMA GOLDEN. PHOTOGRAPH BY JULIE SKARRATT.

The Studio Museum in Harlem was founded in 1968, a moment of paradigm shift. How has the museum’s mission changed 50 years on?
In the late 1960s, the visionary founders of the Studio Museum conceived of a new kind of museum – a museum that both supported artists who had not been afforded the recognition they deserved, and sought to provide opportunities for a new generation.

Fifty years on, the art world has become more inclusive and attuned to issues of representation – many artists, curators, educators and leaders who have come before me at the Studio Museum were a huge part of that change. But there is still more work to do. Our founding mission still resonates with the work we are doing today to support artists of African descent broadly and deeply, and to bring profound experiences with works of art to the Harlem community and visitors from around the world. To better serve our community, our artists and our visitors, we have committed ourselves to constructing a new, purpose-built home on our current site, with a design by Adjaye Associates in collaboration with Cooper Robertson.

CROSS SECTION OF THE NEW BUILDING PROJECT, AS SEEN FROM LENOX AVENUE. COURTESY ADJAYE ASSOCIATES.

How will Sir David Adjaye’s design for your new building reflect the Studio Museum’s mission? 
David Adjaye has said that the design is inspired by three characteristic spaces in Harlem: the soaring, light-filled sanctuaries of the churches, the solidity and communal intimacy of the brownstones, and the bustling theatricality of the streets. Adjaye’s design concept fits perfectly with the Studio Museum’s mission. We are a place of inspiration, which is expressed in the state-of-the-art galleries and the sky-lit atrium. We are a place of gathering, which is conveyed though features such as the public hall. Evoking the iconic Harlem stoop, its tiers of benches double as a site for relaxed conversation and as an amphitheater for public programs. And we are a part of the vivid everyday life of our neighborhood, as expressed by the transparency of Adjaye’s design, which both invites everyone in and makes artworks visible right on the street.

Most importantly, the building is a place where our mission will be put into action, building on the amazing activity that has taken place in our current space since the great architect J. Max Bond, Jr. created it for us in 1982: families will engage with art and each other, artists will make work, and works of art will provoke profound conversations about art and society.

INTERIOR VIEW OF THE PUBLIC HALL IN THE STUDIO MUSEUM IN HARLEM'S NEW BUILDING PROJECT. COURTESY ADJAYE ASSOCIATES.

The Studio Museum has always been deeply invested in the Harlem community. What impact will the new building have on the neighborhood?
Like all vibrant communities, Harlem is constantly changing. I’ve met a number of people, including many artists, who were involved in the early years of this museum. They say that they saw themselves as creating not only a museum that would collect and present art but an institution that would have a singular role in a community. In fact, in one of our early documents, the museum's founders cite the neighborhood’s sense of “newness, strength and change.” We have had the great privilege of serving as a cultural anchor in a changing community for a half-century. The new home that David has designed will help us continue to be that anchor in a world-class building that will also serve as an architectural landmark right here on 125th Street.

STREET LEVEL VIEW OF THE NEW MAIN ENTRANCE ON 125TH STREET. COURTESY ADJAYE ASSOCIATES.

The Studio Museum has always been an artist-centered institution, so it’s not surprising that they would want to help the museum flourish. Can you talk about which artists you asked to donate works to this auction, and what their response was?
We’re deeply grateful to the artists who have agreed to participate in this sale. The most remarkable aspect of this process, for me, was how quickly everyone said yes, and how they did it with such generosity. The Studio Museum has been a home to artists of African descent for 50 years. Now, by supporting our campaign, many of these artists are stepping forward to contribute to building a new home for their artistic community, and for generations of artists to come.

THE LOBBY DESIGN FOR THE NEW STUDIO MUSEUM IN HARLEM BUILDING PROJECT. COURTESY ADJAYE ASSOCIATES.

What role can collectors play in the success of this auction – and of the museum in general?
A number of pioneering collectors have played an incredibly important role in supporting the careers of artists of African descent, and in supporting the work of the Studio Museum. By supporting this auction, collectors are affirming not only the significance these artists and their work, but also the scholarship, the educational activities, and the communities that are at the heart of The Studio Museum in Harlem – now, and for the next half century.

To learn more about the auctions to benefit the Studio Museum in Harlem’s new building project, click here.