The New Vision for New York's Former Museum for African Art

A Recent Board Appointment Prompts a Review of Old and New Plans for the Facility

Juliette Harris

Rendering, The Africa Center.  Courtesy The Africa CenterOn May 19, 2015 The Africa Center announced that Dana Reed, CEO of Pan African Investment Co., has been elected to its Board of Trustees. With her impressive experience in capital management and investing banking, Reed is well-positioned to help the Center meet its capital campaign goals and finally open. This and other recent announcements by the Center prompt reflection on the original plan for the arresting, Robert A.M. Stern-designed building at 110th Street and Fifth Avenue in East Harlem. 

The building was intended to be the new home of the Museum for African Art. Now it’s The Africa Center with a three-pronged mission to promote African business development, policy initiatives linking research and action in areas like African literacy, and "culture" (in quotation marks because culture is a broad statement of its original purpose: to be an art museum). 

In spite of the extraordinary efforts of the Museum’s former president, Elsie McCabe Thompson (1997-2012), the opening of the Museum for African Art was postponed numerous times from (2007-12) and ultimately succumbed to the twin perils of having no endowment and not enough support for a projected $8 million per year operating budget. Final construction work on the building has been suspended. 

The Africa Center Board is led by Hadeel Ibrahim, the business-and-politically-savvy daughter of Sudanese billionaire philanthropist Mo Ibrahim and director of his foundation. The perpetually globe-trotting, Hadeel Ibrahim envisions the center as a business and policy as well as cultural nexus between Africa, New York and Harlem, and the rest of the world. And at age 31 (or soon to be 31), she also envisions The Center as the site of rockin', good times with deejayed
African dance parties and an African restaurant. Passionate about her vision of pan-African development and globalism, she easily sold it to Chelsea Clinton who joined the board. And now Dana Reed becomes the sixth member of The Africa Center’s Board of Trustees. In March 2015 the Africa Center announced the appointment of former United States Ambassador Michelle Gavin as managing director.

Rendering, The Africa Center. Courtesy: The Africa CenterWhile the new hybrid vision to make the Africa Center economically viable is laudably pragmatic, it is difficult not to lament the passing of the earlier vision of a Museum for African Art. A strategy to make the Museum itself economically viable, based on new approaches to exhibiting African art, may have been more successful at igniting the imaginations of large potential funders.  

A funder wants to know how the institution will sustain itself after that particular funding has been expended. Museums which attract, absorb and give back the best ideas in art curation develop the ambiance and cachet to hold sucessful fund-raising galas that also become major social events. They have well-connected docents who not only assist staff and visitors but are a continuous connection to people with influence and wealth. Multi-purpose centers don't have that kind of cachet. Other sources of revenue for museums are image licensing, publications, museum shops, commodities based on items in the collection, space rentals for events like wedding receptions, as well as government and foundation grants, endowments and other donations. With the right leadership and vision, museums can be revenue-generating institutions as well as edifying ones.

Rendering, The Africa Center. Courtesy: The Africa CenterA primary focus on art also could support African business development because business negotiations will not require much of the building's space. And (as the Ron Eglash example below shows) art can be key to the literacy and youth empowerment goals set by The Africa Center.

Another consideration is a red hot international art phenomenon: contemporary African art professionals are attracting major attention in the international art world as they electrify that scene with new energy. These luminaries include Simon Njami, whose Divine Comedy exhibition is noted below; Lagos-based Bisi Silva who co-curated the traveling The Progress of Love exhibition, a transcontinental collaboration with the Menil Collection and the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts; Awam Amkpa whose most recent international exhibition is Re-Significations currently on view in Florence, Italy; Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi curator of the 2014 Dak'art Biennial in Senegal and curator of African art at Dartmouth College’s Hood Museum of Art; Nigerian-born designer and curator Duro Olowu (and spouse of Thelma Golden) and of course, Okwui Enwezor who directed the art exhibition of the 2015 Venice Biennial, and architect David Adjaye who criss-crosses back and forth between the design and art worlds. These commanding figures and others represent the ascendancy of contemporary African art which should have an strong outlet in New York City.  The Africa Center could be that outlet if it retains the museum as the centerpiece of its operations.

Rendering, The Africa Center. Courtesy of The Africa CenterMany of the Museum for African Art’s exhibitions were on traditional African art. It did show some contemporary art, organizing a solo show for El Anatsui, a contemporary art group show, and hosting traveling Ibrahim El-Salahi and Jane Alexander shows.  And it really stretched with a very-well visited show on hair — yes, sculptural human hair styling in African art and culture.  

However its main focus remained on traditional art and (with the exception of the hair show), its contemporary offerings tended to be reflexive — reacting to the biggest, already-existing headliners in African art — rather than trail-blazing. A strategic plan for the new building based on trend-setting approaches to exhibiting African art, one that would have excited the art cognoscenti and whipped up tourism, conceivably would have resulted in a more successful fundraising campaign.   

In our vision of such a plan, we imagine McCabe Thompson conferring with innovating curators, art historians and ethnographers such as Simon Njami, Ron Eglash and Petrine Archer-Straw (before her untimely death in 2012).

2014 exhibition in Paris, When Art Deco Dazzled The World, revisited the 1925 decorative arts fair There she is! Petrine-Shaw's working the room at some posh affair with McCabe Thompson. Both are schmoozing with deep-pocketed, art-collecting entrepreneurs, cultural commissioners and patrons. Setting fires under their imaginations, the Jamaican art historian tells them more about the history that they thought they knew. Not only did art figures like Leger, Brancusi, Man Ray, Giacometti, Sonia Delaunay collect African sculpture, adopt Africanisms in their work and French African pavillion at 1925 Paris decorative arts fairwear tribal jewelry and clothes, their styles influenced mass Parisian culture. Designers made Africanesque furniture. Interior designs looked like a cross between a safari lodge and the lobby of the the Art Deco Louxor Cinema. Theatrical set design became modern looking with lively African motifs.

 Pierre Legrain-designed table for Jacques Doucet residence, Paris, ca. 1923 “It was called  — the passion for black culture that swept through Paris and shaped the commercially successful, French Art Deco style,” she's telling them.  “Negrophila all over — not just with Picasso and Josephine Baker — but in a lot of painting, sculpture, photography, furniture design, fashion, and advertising!”

African influence on Art Deco style shown in a reconstruction for fashion designer Jeanne Lanvin’s apartmentAnd then to the pitch:  “It would be a big draw — a show, not only documenting Negrophila — there are lots of photos and objects from this period — but also pairing Parisian objects with comparable African objects. That exhibition would be quite a draw, don't you think?”   

Aida Muluneh photograph for Njami’s The Divine Comedy exhibitionSimon Njami is pitching his novel concept for a show that he's been floating to museum directors for a number of years. The show, The Divine Comedy, Heaven, Hell, Purgatory revisited by Contemporary African Artists, based on Dante's classic, finally opened to great acclaim at the Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt/Main in Germany in 2014 and is currently traveling. 

Ron Eglash's software helps students learn math principles based on designs and artifacts from their own culturesRon Eglash’s revolutionary work is in ethnomathematics and indigenous computing. Interest in STEM education was rapidly rising in the U.S. during McCabe Thompson's tenure. Combined with art it comes STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, math). So Eglash is explaining the computational aspects of the intricate designs woven, beaded, drawn and carved into African textiles, baskets, hair sculpture and other forms of material culture. “There’s never been an African art museum show devoted to STEM!," he tells them. "Such a show would make math, computer technology, and African art and design come alive in new ways for the visitors and for all of the students served by the museum. It would be a big ace in proposals for govermental funding too.” 

Dogon Kanaga mask. The upper part of the cross symbolizes the supernatural world; the lower part symbolizes the terrestrial world. The line between the two parts is the union between the two worldsSurprisingly making an appearance in the vision is another scientist: Jim Tucker, a professor and researcher at the University of Virginia’s Department of Psychiatric Medicine. Tucker is at the center of rapt attention because he’s describing the startling results of his research into the afterlife and reincarnation.

“Objects like the Dogon Kanaga mask used by Africans to connect with what they conceived as the spirit world could be exhibited and interpreted in a whole new way,” Tucker tells the group. "These practices got a bad rap when they were derided as 'ancestor worship’ and superstition. But what did we learn from Einstein? Matter is energy and energy can not be destroyed.” A woman in the group says that she knows people who've witnessed what they believe to be signals from persons close to them who are now departed. "We can use these intriguing experiences as an entry point to learn about African art, Tucker says. 

If radical but authoritatively-validated, new approaches to the interpretation and exhibition of African art had been considered, the new Museum would also have been well poised to present an on-going program of exhibitions and programming exploring the rich trove of themes such as the visual arts-literature connection that extends well beyond Dante, STEM and other fecund areas such as architecture, contemporary photography, and visual pop culture (as exemplified by The Studio Museum in Harlem's 2006-07 African comics exhibition)Architect Kunlé Adeyemi’s Makoko (Nigeria) floating school. Noted architect David Adjaye visited 53 capitols in Africa which resulted in the 2010 Urban Africa exhibit at London’s Design Museum and he is the subject of a major exhibition upcoming at The Art Institute of Chicago. Partnering with this brilliant, African-European art star when he was emerging might have proven a successful donor strategy as well. 

The new Museum for African Art also could have taken a leading role in engagement with the longer standing and contentious dialogue between "tribal" art and western Modernism provoked by MOMA's controversial Primitivism in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern (1984) exhibition. The Museum for African Art could have done this by employing a more searing art historical, sociological and populist lens to extant debates, using open-minded approaches that institutions with more formal concerns for art cannot or will not do for people who are far removed from purist interpretations — the people who comprise their general audiences.

Admittedly, it is difficult to predict how many untapped donor sources would have agreed to endowing museum operations, foregoing the much higher status of brick and mortar recognition. But a feasibility study linking revolutionary approaches to the presentation of African art to the potential for bringing national and international tourism to the area could have been the basis of predictions for the proposed museum. 

As is common among non-profits, successful fundraising for naming opportunities on new buildings, wings and other spaces or high profile exhibitions are more readily accomplished than finding support for the essentials of on-going operations like HVAC systems, electricity and rank-and-file salaries. 

Rendering for the Education Bar. Courtesy of The African CenterElsie McCabe Thompson said her quest for the new Museum for African Art was to “bring Africa, long misunderstood as a ‘dark, distant place’, out of the shadows.”  The current rise of contemporary African art in the international art world and the aesthetic influences and dialogues between the West and the African continent, due to diaspora, could have informed the new Museum’s exhibition and programmatic philosophy. Done well this posture could have provided the institution with a leadership and appeal that would have attracted visitation easily surpassed the 250,000 annual visitor targets initially sought for the Museum.

Rendering of grand seating staircase.  Courtesy of The Africa CenterThat dream fades.  And now the abandoned stand-alone vision of the nation’s second museum dedicated exclusively to African art — anchoring the northern end of New York’s famous Museum Mile while serving as a gateway for engagement with the Harlem community — must now exist in the context of a broader mission. It's a worthy broader mission — and even an exiting one with Hadeel Ibrahim’s vision of African haute cuisine and Afro-beat parties in the mix, along with business and policy. But as it stands now, much of the plan for the cultural component is generalized. Specific cultural component plans could, for example, include interpretating traditonal African objects and practices involving beliefs about the natural world to show their connection to contemporary ecological concerns such as climate change. The makers of these objects were friends of the earth. 

With art as its undiluted focus and imaginative exhibition concepts with learned points of access to the traditional African art in its collection, the cultural component of The Africa Center might be like the Brooklyn Museum of Art in its institutional embrace of community, its reputation for recognizing leading-edge talents early in their careers, and its strongly diverse visitation. Maybe this can still come to pass for The Africa Center in the fold of Manhattan’s museum row where international visitation can also be easily accessed.

The Brooklyn Museum is an integral part of a community culture that does not elevate non-African physical attributes in black women's beauty over African physical attributes. The broad varieties of black feminine beauty have strong parity in this community culture. The Africa Center's cultural offerings could be a beacon of black feminine aesthetic equity and pluralism as a popular culture with an anti-African bias regarding feminine beauty continues to be exported from America to the world.

Rendering, digital media box. Courtesy of The Africa CenterMany of the original Museum for African Art possibilities could be realized within the guise of The Africa Center, whose big idea, like McCabe Thompson’s, is "helping America better understand and engage with contemporary Africa" according to its new managing director, Michelle Gavin. And there’s promise in Hadeel Ibrahim’s brief remark about the Center's art component in a Vogue magazine profile. She said that there will be art at the Africa Center “and more than the masks and baskets people always expect from Africa.” But she did not elaborate. How will the new museum disrupt expectations of the usual mask and basket exhibitions? A detailed answer to this question based on a bold vision, well-informed by forward-thinking curatorial concepts, can still be key to successful fund-raising. However, there have been no announcements of visual arts professionals or scholars with vision and clout joining the board or staff.  

At present, alliances with art institutions that have appropriate collections and professional staff seem key to The Africa Center’s quest to realize a significant portion of the original Museum for African Art vision and to advance it.