As an artist and educator, Kerry Downey has been running programming for MoMA’s Community Partnership program for the past three years–offering free art making experiences across a number of non-profit and community-based audiences. For this blog post, she explores her work with our long-term partners at Abyssinian Development Corporation’s YouthBuild program, a group young adults (ages 16–24) who are working towards obtaining their GEDs and/or receiving job training in fields such as construction or other vocational areas. In the process, she found herself investigating notions of value, education, power, identity, and privilege.
—Calder Zwicky, Associate Educator of Teen and Community Programs
I went into my first session of my YouthBuild partnership with what every teacher needs, a bag of tricks—in my case, it’s literally a black canvas bag with leather straps that I was given when hired some six years back, with “MoMA” delicately embossed on the leather midsection. I sometimes think of this tasteful tote as my “Bag of Privilege,” a double-edged sword that can both open doors and create opportunities for connection, while at the same time can intimidate potential new participants. My art supply bag doubles as a symbol for what I carry into every program—the MoMA name and all of its institutional weight, my slight frame, my complex and often hard to read gender identity, my quick-to-blush Irish complexion, my masters degree, my middle class suburban upbringing, the list goes on. Some of these things are apparent at first glance while others come out more slowly as a group gets to know me. Alternately, parts of my life as an artist and activist remain entirely hidden. There are many unknowns that can exist between a new group and myself.
It’s important for me to acknowledge this MoMA tote bag and its veritable weight. With the name The Museum of Modern Art comes any number of connotations: greatness, prestige, inspiration, aspiration, confusion, inaccessible or hard to grasp artwork, highly valued and/or valuable objects, and, of course, the Museum’s oftentimes prohibitive ticket price. (Thankfully, due to generous support from a number of funders, we are able to offer free programming to all 30 of our MoMA Community Partners.) But what MoMA really means to me is adaptability. One of the greatest assets of doing educational work within the context of a museum like MoMA is the flexibility of our approaches to teaching and the diversity of ways in which we can interpret the role of the museum within the NYC community at large. I always want to let each particular community we work with decide what art might mean to them and, by extension, what I might mean to them as a representative of one of the nation’s premiere institutions.
In recently discussing my YouthBuild work with Calder, who has taught and overseen these partnerships since 2009, he said to me “we’re always trying to answer the question of ‘What is the value (personally, emotionally, professionally, etc.) of this artwork, institution, and experience?’” As much as we might take the value of looking at and experiencing art as a matter of fact, these things are never a given. Each of our 30 Community Partnerships is unique, and it’s important to assess each on its own terms. I must meet every program half-way, with honesty about who I am and what I, and MoMA, have to offer. Our differences must be acknowledged as well as our commonalities.
“The wheels on the stool go round and round but I can’t go nowhere,” sang YouthBuild teacher Timothy White when looking at Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel. The jingle came out spontaneously during one of the first workshops, and set off a spark of ideas. We talked about how this piece might speak to the group of being stuck in place and wanting change; desiring progress but getting trapped in the past, or wanting to move your life forward but also believing that you are good enough as you are—right here, right now. Out of this conversation and out of our mutual interest in the theme of transformation, we made a video titled “Do U Ever.” It highlights the YouthBuild community’s professional transformations, struggles, and many talents: beat-boxing, rapping, singing, mask and mold-making, drawing, and painting. It also shows the program’s tremendous educational resources: wood and metal shops, workout yards, classrooms, counseling, and mentorship.
Currently our partnership is exploring the complexities of identity via collage. The content of this project requires that we address our differences more directly. In our last class we made a large “mind map” of all the various aspects of who we are, using Kara Walker, Wangechi Mutu, and Jean-Michel Basquiat for inspiration. Our “map” included the following categories: race, class, gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, taste in food and music, hobbies, family background, neighborhoods, etc. The group also recently visited MoMA where we discussed artists who deal with identity through material exploration, like Bruce Nauman, Joseph Cornell, and Robert Rauschenberg.
As we move forward with this year’s art project, I hope MoMA and I can be seen as an extension of the support system that YouthBuild is creating. The truth is, I only have so much control over this. Regardless of how I am perceived or what role modern and contemporary art plays in the lives of young people, I want to believe that honestly addressing our individualities will resonate with participants and their communities. What is the true value of an artwork or an arts institution? I believe the value lies in the spaces we share together, where meaning is made through collaboration, recognition of difference, and willingness to listen to one another’s points of view. I consider this work to be a form of civic engagement, in line with the artists from our collection who have come before us.
With all of this deep looking, sharing, and listening comes a healthy dose of skepticism and criticality. Or maybe a few tablespoons. YouthBuild keeps me on my toes, reminding me that art is as much about humor and absurdity as it is about the politics of expression. If you don’t have the time to watch our music video, you’ll sadly miss out on its finale statement to Mr. Duchamp—like much of our discussion leading up to it, it’s off-the-cuff and honest. Maybe even a bit crude and dismissive. But it’s also completely in-line with Duchamp’s finest provocations (Fountain, anyone?) and, like the best output from these programs, comes directly from the unique viewpoints of the participants themselves. It’s not MoMA’s viewpoint, but it’s not just YouthBuilds either. Rather, it’s a mixture of the two—a discussion in progress, if you will. A conversation between art, an institution, and an ever expanding audience.
More information on MoMA Community Partnerships can be found in previous blog postings here, here, and here. Special thanks to Felicia Garvin, Timothy White, and all of the amazing YouthBuild participants.