Box Burners: Wayfinding in Harlem
In 2018, The Studio Museum in Harlem closed its longtime home to begin construction on a new building. In the absence of a permanent gallery, the museum launched in Harlem, a site-specific series that brings art directly to the community through displays in public spaces, libraries and parks. Conceptual artist Chloë Bass guides St. Nicholas Park on a wayfinding journey.
Bass: I'm an only child who grew up in New York City,
and, so, I have this sort of ongoing relationship
with public space as being, like, a very rich site
of feeling simultaneously activated and invisible.
Wayfinding in architecture is a method of putting signs
and codes into a building or an environment
so that people know where to go and how to move.
This idea of wayfinding that I've put into St. Nicholas Park
is the emotional version of that.
Even the idea of something being mirrored
and reflecting back a landscape
is something that we're all very familiar with,
whether we're thinking about art or not.
And so this turns that back in a different way
to ask questions through materials and through ideas.
Russell: The role of a curator or my role
in terms of my presence at the studio museum --
Really, the word "curation" comes from this idea of care.
What public art does, right,
is that it really shrinks the gap between the institution
and the people who, you know, should feel ownership over it.
You don't have to walk into a white-walled gallery space
and experience the art. The art is everywhere.
Golden: This is the neighborhood
that birthed the Harlem Renaissance
and it's a community that sees itself through culture.
I think of the museum as an institution that has deep,
deep roots in the community.
We began to think about how we would continue
the life of the museum
while we didn't have our building
and created a series of programs
under a project called "In Harlem" coming out of our name.
Russell: We've been very lucky to be expanding
during the period of time that we're building our new building.
We have had a presence in local libraries
as well as parks.
Bass: I think that having an institutional presence
in public space can have a lot of different results,
and it really depends on how you're doing it.
And my hope is that we're doing it with not too heavy of a hand
so that this remains primarily the space
for the people who are in it
and that they really feel like the answer for them.
Golden: I look forward to the moment
when we're in our new building and someone says to me,
"I saw this incredible installation
as I was walking through the park,"
and how that might lead them on a journey
into thought about themselves,
their own history, their community.
Bass: I often talk about my work as souvenirs for memories
you haven't had yet.
What I hope is that somehow later,
this anchors itself in people's lives.
Russell: Wayfinding can be as easy or as challenging
as you'd like it to be.
The artist and the visitor really become part
of that collaboration.
But in terms of its ownership,
it really does belong to the community.
So, you know, the experience itself
makes the project complete.
Bass: As the things around us changes, environments shift,
as buildings change or skylines change,
my hope is not for any particular form of memory,
but that this allows a site for a memory
and can hold a resonant place in people's minds
kind of into the future, not as my work,
but as something they might have experienced here
as a result of some of these questions
or the way that these things appeared in the landscape.
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