Nancy Lane, spirit behind Studio Museum in Harlem, dies at 88

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Nancy Lane, spirit behind Studio Museum in Harlem, dies at 88
Nancy Lane at her home in New York on July 10, 2018. Lane, a trailblazing corporate executive who promoted the works of Black artists as a champion of the Studio Museum in Harlem for a half-century, died on March 28, 2022, at her home in Manhattan. She was 88. Daniel Dorsa/The New York Times.

by Sam Roberts

NEW YORK, NY.- Nancy Lane, a trailblazing corporate executive who promoted the works of Black artists as a champion of the Studio Museum in Harlem for a half-century, died Monday at her home in Manhattan. She was 88.

Her death was announced by the museum’s director and chief curator, Thelma Golden.

Lane was recruited to the board of the Studio Museum in 1973, five years after it was founded. She was the chairwoman from 1987 to 1989 and remained on the board as its longest-serving member until her death.

As the founder of the trustees’ acquisitions committee and a leader of the building committee, she spurred the museum’s emergence from humble beginnings in a rented loft on upper Fifth Avenue to become what ARTnews in 2020 called “a touchstone for today’s Black artists, and a pipeline for aspiring curators of color.”

That same year, The New York Times said the museum’s artist-in-residence program was “an early-career incubator whose alumni list, in annual cohorts of three, reads like a canon of a half-century of Black American art.”

In 1988, the museum became the nation’s first Black or Hispanic institution to be accredited by the American Association of Museums. Under Lane’s guidance, the acquisition committee added some 300 works to the collection.

In the business world, she was one of the rare Black women in the 1970s to rise in the corporate ranks, notably at Chase Manhattan and Johnson & Johnson.

She started her corporate career after serving in the 1960s as a project manager for the National Urban League, where she developed a Black Executive Exchange Program that connected aspiring students at 26 historically Black colleges with mentoring corporate managers.

Her support for the arts also extended beyond the Studio Museum as a patron of Black artists and a collector of works by them: Xenobia Bailey, Rashid Johnson and Hank Willis Thomas, to name a few.

She has donated works from her collection to the Studio Museum and other institutions.

In 2019 she was named co-chairwoman of the Museum of Modern Art’s Black Arts Council. But her work with the Studio Museum in Harlem is her greatest legacy.

“For five decades, she was a pillar within the institution whose fearless dedication to our mission and generous stewardship of art and artists would go on to define who we are today,” Golden said.

Kinshasha Holman Conwill, one of Golden’s predecessors at the Studio Museum and now the deputy director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, said Lane’s “profound interest in artists and engagement in their work were ineffable and rare things.”

Nancy Lee Lane was born on Sept. 3, 1933, in Boston to Samuel Madden Lane, a law school graduate who worked for American Airlines and a steel company, and Gladys (Pitkin) Lane, who worked for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

She left no immediate survivors.

Lane earned a Bachelor of Science degree in public relations and journalism from Boston University in 1962 and a master of public administration from the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. In 1975, she completed a program for management development at Harvard Business School.

After her time with the National Urban League, she joined Chase Manhattan Bank in New York to work in executive recruitment. She was later named vice president of personnel for New York City’s Off-Track Betting Corp. before joining Johnson & Johnson, the pharmaceutical company, at its headquarters in New Jersey.

There, in 1976, she was named vice president of human resources, the first woman to hold that post, and later served as its vice president of government affairs. She was described as the first female vice president and the first African American to join Johnson & Johnson’s internal management board. She retired in 2000.

In an interview with the The HistoryMakers digital archive in 2016, Lane said she first became aware of the Studio Museum while watching a TV program about its artist-in-residence program. She decided to visit.

“I’m not sure I had ever been to Harlem until I went up that time,” she said.

As a head of its building committee, Lane helped inaugurate plans to replace the museum’s current building with one designed by Ghanaian British architect David Adjaye in a joint venture with Cooper Robertson, a New York-based architecture firm. The new building will span the museum’s current site, at 144 W. 125th St., near Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, and an adjacent lot.

The Studio Museum, Lane told the International Review of African American Art, “has been a powerful force in the transformation of the global art world, launching and furthering the careers of hundreds of artists of African descent and exposing generations of audiences to powerful experiences with art and artists.”

Among those artists, many of whom Lane championed personally, are Mark Bradford, Awol Erizku, Sam Gilliam, Wangechi Mutu, Lorna Simpson, Carrie Mae Weems and Kehinde Wiley. Another was Elizabeth Catlett, who died in 2012.

Alvin Hall, who shared the chairmanship of MoMA’s Black Arts Council with Lane, recalled: “As an art collector and patron, Nancy truly delighted in seeing artwork in her own home and in institutions that made her see and think differently.

“Art also lifted Nancy’s spirit,” Hall added. “She said of a large photograph that she hung at the foot of her bed, ‘When I wake up in the morning, I want to see a strong Black woman.’ That daily uplift was what art gave Nancy. And she gave it back by steadfastly supporting many artists and museums.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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