The term “community” has pulsed through the art world in recent years. Museums seek to cultivate it; dealers traffic in it; artists, perhaps, create it. After spending the past decade working in museums, “community” has bubbled up in my thinking as well. Can art actually catalyze a meaningful form of togetherness? Can institutions genuinely support curative social bonds? Part of the issue at stake is that the idea of “community” is elastic in and of itself. It can be almost anything: a decentralized conspiracy theory is just as much a community as a decades-old quilting guild in Queens or a country club of billionaires. As much as I value their mission and their collections and the people who work there, the battleship-class art museums in New York (MoMA, the Whitney), if not the United States, operate, in many ways, as communities of wealth. “In our time,” David Joselit writes, “museums have become palaces again.” [1]1
David Joselit, “Toxic Philanthropy,” October, no. 170 (Fall 2019): 3.

A confession: in the earlier hours of my professional career I was idealistic about art’s community-building potential. Visions of Nordic social democracy, replete with modest but, by American standards, lavish state-sponsored cultural funding coursed through my curatorial psyche. In 2016, I spent a month in South Korea for the Gwangju Biennale’s International Curator Course; Tensta Konsthall’s former director, Maria Lind, curated that year’s edition. I was—and still am—deeply impressed with her approach to institution building and the way it foregrounds a sense of community produced in, around, and by contemporary art. Under Lind’s tenure, social-practice projects flourished, like Ahmet Öğüt’s The Silent University, which extends education access and knowledge exchange to refugees and asylum seekers whose professional accreditations are not (yet) recognized in their new countries. Lind’s social practice–oriented exhibitions coexisted alongside adventurous projects like Abstract Possible, which explored formalism’s double life as a vehicle for social progress and a financial instrument. Provocatively, this exhibition used as a satellite venue Bukowskis Auction House, which sold the art on view, just before “Zombie Formalism” seized the New York art market. The idea of the beneficial, community-oriented institution brushes up against the real contexts it operates in. This contradiction is the crux of Ruben Östlund’s 2017 film The Square, which satirizes, with pointed teeth, the utopian drive of the Swedish konsthall. This may sound grim, but if a contemporary art institution in an actual welfare state is worthy of parody, what hope do we have as arts workers in the land of rugged individualism?

How then does community work in the absence of a caring state? After working as both a fundraiser and a curator, my preoccupation with this question led me to organize Azikiwe Mohammed’s recent exhibition “11439 – 39202” at the Yeh Art Gallery at St. John’s University in Queens, New York. Mohammed’s practice centers the idea of community and, in turn, points to the United States’ failure to support those it has exploited for economic gain. Mohammed makes art with people, though not in the overtly collaborative sense; rather, the works cannot exist without the stories of others. The fruits of social connection—of holding each other and being held—are in “11439 – 39202.” The experiences of Black, brown, and other marginalized people subject to generations of disenfranchisement connect more than forty new textile works. Take, for instance, his work Sites of Continuance #2: at the center of a white quilt, an old-school, wood-paneled television beams an embroidered image of three black silhouettes enjoying a seaside sunset. Golden script spells out the names of four historically Black vacation spots: Freeman’s, Rainbow, Oak Bluffs, and Chicken Bone. These are places where Black people, in spite of state-sanctioned violence, carved out their own spaces of autonomy and self-determination.

Art practices can counter an economic system that encourages alienation. Artist and theorist Christian Nyampeta has used his exhibitions to produce informal spaces for education, channeling the Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembène’s notion that the cinema was a place for after-hours learning, an école du soir, or “evening school.” Nyampeta designs environments for sharing knowledge that combine the democratic nature of Enzo Mari’s Marxist furniture with think-tank infographics. Within these spaces, Nyampeta convenes a scriptorium, or space for writing, and gathers interested parties to translate African philosophers’ texts.

Savannah Knoop, an artist who first entered public life as the person who inhabited the public role of literary hoax J. T. Leroy, has explored the uncommon places where community forms. Their project SCREENS: A Project About "Community" documents the unusual social bonds and protocols that form among the chorus of regulars at the East Village’s Russian and Turkish Baths. [2]2
On view in Knoop's solo exhibition “Soothing the Seams” at Brown University's David Winton Bell Gallery .
documents the unusual social bonds and protocols that form among the chorus of regulars at the East Village’s Russian and Turkish Baths. Together, these men—ranging from type-A bodybuilders to socially awkward septuagenarians—argue about whether or not people will eventually become robots, croon Andrea Boccelli hits for each other, and sweat. It’s a ragtag group, but it’s emblematic of a kind of togetherness that forms, quite literally, underground, in the shadows of a weird and decadent pre-pandemic New York.

From the distanced observer’s point of view, the type of curating that Lind practiced at Tensta has become aspirational in some ways for the most “progressive” American art institutions, even those that consistently fail to better the lives of the people who work at, exhibit in, or visit them. I’m inclined to think the possibility of belonging continues to exist in the informal—in the evening schools and the underground. Many curatorial programs, from the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College to the School of Visual Art’s Curatorial Practice program, import and teach European models of curating and exhibition making developed under the Scandinavian welfare state and Northern European social democracy. [3]3
It should be noted that Lind was previously director of CCS’s graduate program, and is currently faculty-at-large at SVA’s Curatorial Practice program. Moreover, in his book Beyond Objecthood: The Exhibition as Critical Form Since 1968, art historian and curator James Voorhies describes the wide-ranging impact of “New Institutionalism,” a curatorial theory that emerged from the Office of Contemporary Art Norway, on the field of exhibition making outside of Europe.
This progressive form of social curating and institution building can lead to disappointment, if not outright conflict, because it does not comport to American political and economic realities: our museums would not exist without private money often acquired through dubious means.

Still, there’s reason to be hopeful for how institutions can be with their communities, and two recent examples shine through: the Speed Art Museum’s exhibition “Promise, Witness, Remembrance,” curated by Allison Glen, carefully considered the life of Breonna Taylor, and was organized in dialogue with Tamika Palmer, Taylor’s mother, as well as local and national committees. If recent institutional blunders (for instance, “Collective Actions,” the Whitney’s art activism show that never was) were any indicator of potential outcomes, the Speed could have easily mishandled this exhibition. The museum, however, did not, because it opened itself up to stakeholders from the outside—other communities. Recess, a New York nonprofit art organization, committed in 2020 to paying all of its employees a starting salary of $65,000, a figure well above the entry wages at most American contemporary art institutions. “What would it look and feel like for an institution,” wondered Recess codirector Shaun Leonardo, “to be in community rather than purporting to serve community?” [4]4
Shaun Leonardo, “Love,” Dossier #3: Beyond Perfection, March 2, 2021 .
A question, I think, we should all try our best to answer.

Owen Duffy is the Director of the Yeh Art Gallery at St. John’s University in New York.


Preview image: Azikiwe Mohammed, Unispheeere, Queens, NY, 2021. Embroidered denim jacket, 35 x 15 inches. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Azikiwe Mohammed.

Thank you!

An email with a confirmation link has been sent to the email address you entered. To complete your subscription, click this link.