In 1974, when I was a young student at Queensborough Community College, three artists came to campus to give a talk in conjunction with an exhibition of their work. After the talk was over, I introduced myself. One of them, LeRoy Clarke, encouraged me to visit him at The Studio Museum in Harlem, where he was an artist in residence. Being interested in art but not knowing any actual artists in the Queens, New York, community where I grew up and lived at the time, I took him up on his invitation, taking the subway to 125th Street and walking to 2033 Fifth Avenue, where the Museum was then located. It turned out to be a life-changing visit.
I came to spend countless hours at the Museum in the artists’ studios, having intense conversations first with Clarke, and then with the other artists who were in residence during those early years, including Daniel Dawson, Lloyd Stephens, and Valerie Maynard. The Museum essentially became my school. It was the place where I began to form my community—meeting and having conversations with an ever-growing number of artists who ultimately became lifelong friends: Willie Birch, David Hammons, Janet Henry, Terry Adkins, Frank Stewart, Maren Hassinger, Charles Burwell, Kerry James Marshall, and many others. At exhibitions and openings at the Studio Museum I came to know artists who became significant mentors as well as friends, such as Mel Edwards, Jack Whitten, William T. Williams, and the late Al Loving. I’ve also made a point to form community with succeeding generations of Studio Museum artists in residence to maintain an important conversation across generations.
My first solo museum exhibition, Harlem, U.S.A., was mounted at the Museum in 1979. That exhibition was the foundation of my career as an exhibiting artist and the first time my work received critical notice. I also taught for the first time at the Studio Museum: a photography class where I met another life-long friend, Carrie Mae Weems, who was my student. From the very beginning, The Studio Museum in Harlem has played a huge role in my personal and professional formation, as it has for so many other black artists, bringing us together and amplifying our presence in the world. It remains a place of possibility, where the opportunity to become the artists that we aspire to be is made viable.
That The Studio Museum in Harlem continues to be as essential today as it was when I first stepped into it some forty-six years ago is a testament to the work of many visionary and brilliant people. And that extraordinary vision continues today with the plans for a new building—designed by architect Sir David Adjaye OBE—that promises to extend the Museum’s impact into the future in still more extraordinary ways.
This next phase will require even greater levels of support. I encourage you to become a part of this significant legacy by supporting the Studio Museum Annual Fund to help assure that the brilliant vision of our Museum continues into the future.