How does artwork created within a specific cultural and political context connect with viewers across multiple generations and disparate locations? How can an institution remain relevant to contemporary audiences while maintaining a commitment to preserving and championing artwork from past generations? Shellyne Rodriguez and Kerry Downey are two longtime teaching artists working with MoMA’s Community and Access Programs who, in addition to their work across a wide range of educational groups, both run the majority of the Museum’s Community Partnerships—a 10-year initiative that provides free in-depth arts projects for a cohort of 24 non-profit NYC organizations, all of whom have been historically underserved by traditional museum-based programming. The Jacob Lawrence exhibition has spurred a number of internal conversations between the three of us, all based around our work with our partners and within the show itself. What follows is an edited version of a multi-week e-mail correspondence that we conducted surrounding Kerry and Shellyne’s recent Jacob Lawrence-related tours, art projects, and programs.
—Calder Zwicky, Associate Educator for Teen and Community Programs
Calder Zwicky: Do you remember what your first thoughts were when you heard that we were going to be showing the Migration Series in its entirety?
Shellyne Rodriguez: I was excited about it…and curious. I wanted to see how the curators would handle it. Would they put it all in context? I definitely felt like it was an opportunity to really delve deep into not just Lawrence, but also the world he was immersed in. All of the other artists, musicians, and writers he was surrounded by. I was hopeful they would do Lawrence some justice.
Kerry Downey: My first thought was, Oh no, what hallway will they squeeze this work into? It seems that whenever MoMA shows our half of the series, we display the panels in some small corridor that feels impossible to teach in. My hope was that there would finally be room to breathe and really engage the work conversationally. During the curatorial walk-through, several of us were a little weepy. I felt relief—this is a show for everyone.
CZ: Were there other fears or trepidations? Either about the show itself or about accessing the exhibition with our Community Partner audiences?
SR: Honestly, yes. I was afraid that the show wouldn’t be thorough and would tiptoe around talking about the racial and political climate at the time Lawrence was making this work. I’m happy to say this is not the case.
I was never fearful about bringing my partners into the show, though. I’m always looking for ways to bring our different audiences closer to identifying the sociohistorical residue we live with today, through the use of modern art. The Lawrence show is poignant because it supplies this opportunity in such a way that we can have a conversation about modern American art, we can talk about American history, and we can also talk about immigration, labor rights, police violence, and a corrupt American justice system. All of these are issues that affect us intensely at this very moment. I’ve found that my partners want to talk about these things, and when those connections are made, it’s powerful.
CZ: The exhibit ostensibly “starts” with the long timeline leading towards the first gallery space. It’s a lot of information to take in, but it also really contextualizes a lot of the historical and political issues discussed within the Migration Series itself. What’s your first stop when you bring a group into the space? Does the discussion begin at Lawrence’s first painting in the series, or do you find it important to address these historical issues prior to entering?
KD: While there are themes and stories in this show that many can relate to, it feels urgent to me that people place Lawrence’s work within a specific historical context. At the least, I use the timeline to help people visualize the massive population increase in the seven major cities shown, to begin the conversation about how NYC culture would not be what it is today without the Great Migration.
SR; I always set the stage before I bring the group in. I usually stop right in the entrance and talk to them about Lawrence’s background and the environment in Harlem. Who were his peers? What were people thinking and talking about at the time? Then I stop at the timeline. What I drive home about the timeline really is the sense that this migration happens for multiple generations, and that when Lawrence paints the series, he’s dead smack in the middle of it, and so the 60th painting is really a “To Be Continued,” since the Migration continues on for an additional 30 years after he paints the series.
CZ: I really appreciate the idea of looking at the last piece as a “To Be Continued” for a number of reasons, especially given the outrage surrounding the deaths of Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Kimani Gray, and more, along with seemingly endless national tensions about immigration reform, economic imbalances, and workers’ rights. As so many of our Community Partner organizations have specific political, economic, and social goals, and work with populations who continue to fight for many of the same rights addressed by Lawrence within this series, have either of you found that the Migration Series has affected your programming and project choices, either on-site at the Museum of offsite at the Community Partner spaces?
SR: Yes. Many of my partners really latched on to the idea of telling their own stories and the idea of narration. For others, the conversation and subsequent work was immediately centered around the current miscarriages of justice. Our partners at Harlem Center for Education and I created protest signs inspired by #BlackLivesMatter. Images of Sean Bell, RaMarley Graham, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, and many others were plastered on to foam board. We looked further at political art, like David Hammons’s How Ya Like me Now? and Francisco Goya’s The Third of May 1808.
We also discussed how it felt to be making a political statement using art, given the fact that almost no one in the class had ever made a protest sign or been to a march before. During our sessions together, Walter Scott was murdered by police and then Freddie Gray shortly after in Baltimore. This fueled our project and anger even more. We concluded the performance by marching with our individually made protest signs, chanting the names of these murdered young men and woman, marching down Museum Mile into east Harlem to the George Washington Carver Houses, the housing projects where some of the students live. Here, we staged a die-in, and traced student outlines in sidewalk chalk, scrawling the names of the dead inside the drawings.
KD: One partnership that felt especially rich for me was LaGuardia Community College’s Bridge Program, which offers courses that prepare their students for college, to earn a high school diploma, and provide job training resources. Looking closely at the way Lawrence painted black bodies, we saw both his interest in both their physicality and their anonymity. Why are they slumped over into mounds or overextended into sharp angles? Why are many painted without faces? This quickly led us into talking about low-income labor and the disregard for physical safety or well being. This conversation also brought us to racial profiling—many students relayed what it’s like to be reduced to a skin color that is equated with a threat, while all other characteristics of identity disavowed and the resulting feelings of disempowerment and invisibility.
Later at LCC’s space, we talked more in depth about experiences with being uprooted: immigration, leaving home to escape abusive family situations, searching for better work or housing, and more. I’ve had similar experiences with partnerships at Housing Works and SAGE: Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders. The typical skepticism of modern art is left to the wayside. The show is disarming while also alarmingly contemporary. Which is not to be confused with any notion that the show is easy. Maybe its relevance and urgency and relatability have a way of deeply validating many of the communities we work with.
CZ: Finally, looking forward to MoMA’s exhibition schedule, are there any upcoming shows that you feel particularly excited about? Any exciting themes or specific artists that, like the Migration Series, seem perfectly suited for these collaborations?
KD: I’m really excited and curious about the Walid Raad show. I think many of the organizations we work with will be interested in a discussion about the role photographic and video documentation plays in how we construct meaning and memories of events. I wonder if talking about phone footage of police aggression will fit in? Or, for example, how much or how little we actually see of U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan? There is the question here, in part, of representation—who is documenting whom and under what conditions? How does this story get told and in what context?
SR: I’m looking forward to Pierre Huyghe’s sculpture Untilled. What an amazing thing to contend with! A collaborative work with nature. I’m wondering how my Community Partners will brush up against these ideas? What does a collaboration between communities look like? How does working together as a group strengthen the social insects colony? What can we learn from a beehive colony? What does it mean to think for yourself versus following a group? I imagine that my teenage groups will get a lot out of this work, particularly Passages Academy, and Artistic Noise. But really it’s such an idea for us all to consider…
CZ: Thank you both so much for taking the time to talk. I’m excited to see what the next year of Community Partnership programming has in store for us.