1999 was steeped in Y2K mania. Prince’s 1999 and R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World” made notable musical comebacks and served as the soundtrack for our collective psyche dealing with the pending certainty that the world was hurtling toward a computer programmed apocalypse. The turn of the century came and went without much as much of a blip but that didn’t stop many of us from re-assessing our lives, “new century, new you” style. For me, it took the form of plotting a move out of the San Francisco Bay Area, and for curator Dr. Lowery Stokes Sims, it was a “mid-life crisis job” opportunity that led her away from a successful and very comfortable career at the MET Museum.
In 2000 Sims became the Director of the Studio Museum of Harlem after leaving her storied position as the first black curator at the MET. For students of leadership theory, Lowery’s appointment to the Studio Museum makes an interesting case study; her vision and early action ushered in a transformative period at the museum which ultimately opened (or broadened) a new lane for African Americans in the contemporary art world. One of her first hires was current director Thelma Golden and along with Sandra Jackson Dumont the trio would bring innovative programming that introduced the art world to new artists and curatorial voices.
Golden’s 2001 show “Freestyle” not only showcased 28 emerging black artists, but it also allowed assistant curators including Christine Y. Kim and Franklin Sirmans to spread their wings in a dynamic show that pushed boundaries in style, medium and message. This show became a cultural flashpoint that ultimately disrupted a heterogeneous representation of white, European artists on the walls of museums. The show was not without controversy. When the term “Post Black” became the conceptual lightening rod for the ire of critics and the public at large, the dust up over semantics nearly eclipsed the importance of the show, but history has shown that the success of the artists who have risen in prominence is counter to the criticism. Additionally, the show ushered in a subsequent series of shows that exposed new groups of artists and curators that enabled the Studio Museum to remain a strong force in creating and cultivating artistic voices that would be heard far beyond the confines of an otherwise insular New York art world. As these artists and curators have moved out of the Studio Museum, Stokes Sims’ and Golden’s curatorial influence is far reaching.
2001 Freestyle Artists:
A ‘Freestyle’ Take on Post-Black Art, Victoria L. Valentine, October 2013 http://www.culturetype.com/2013/10/31/a-freestyle-take-on-post-black-art/
Julie Menin with Lowery Stokes Sims, April 2014