Lonely Planet review
This small, cultural gem has been exhibiting the works of African American artists for more than four decades. While it contains a notable permanent collection, and its exhibition program is always challenging, the museum is not just another art display center. It is an important point of connection for Harlem cultural figures of all stripes, who arrive to check out a rotating selection of shows, attend film screenings or sign up for gallery talks.
Founded in 1968, the museum originally came to life in a small loft space off 125th St that was sandwiched between a couple of garment factories and a supermarket. But it quickly became known for its thoughtful, contemporary-minded exhibits and vibrant event programming, which included concerts, poetry readings and lectures. Roughly a dozen years after its establishment, it moved to its present location, a renovated bank building that offered more room for exhibits, archives and the growing permanent collection. You'll also find the Harlem Visitor Information Kiosk located here.
The permanent collection is small (roughly 1700 objects), but it is rich. The Studio Museum has been an important patron to African American artists and the collection features work by more than 400 of them. This includes important pieces by painter Jacob Lawrence, photographer Gordon Parks and collagist Romare Bearden – all of whom are represented in major museum collections in the US.
In addition, its photography holdings include an extensive archive of work by James VanDerZee (1886–1983), an unparalleled chronicler of early 20th century Harlem life. He shot portraits of prominent entertainers and black nationalists, and continued to take pictures well into his nineties. One well-known snap shows Jean-Michel Basquiat, the '80s graffiti artist and painter, sitting pensively with a Siamese cat on his lap.
Look up on your way in. One of the museum’s most iconic works hangs right outside the front door: Hammons’ 1990 piece ‘African-American Flag’ replaces the traditional red, white and blue of the Stars and Stripes with the red, green and black of the pan-African flag. It is a sly comment on the African American presence in the US.
The museum’s long-running artist-in-residence program has provided crucial support to a long list of well-known artists, including conceptualist David Hammons, figurative painter Mickalene Thomas and portraitist Kehinde Wiley. There are regular open studio sessions (check the website) and residents’ works can often be found on display in the out-of-the-way basement gallery or in one of the small display areas upstairs.