New MoMA PS1 director leans into social justice and reaches out to Long Island City

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New MoMA PS1 director leans into social justice and reaches out to Long Island City
An entrance at MoMA PS1 in Queens, where plans are underway to create a break in the exterior walls to further connect to the Long Island City community, April 5, 2022. Director Kate Fowle, who arrived in 2019, is carving out an independent identity for the Queens institution distinct from that of the Museum of Modern Art. “We are using art at the center of how we build community,” she said. Camilo Fuentealba/The New York Times

by Robin Pogrebin

NEW YORK, NY.- Shortly after Kate Fowle became its director in 2019, MoMA PS1 started a program called “Homeroom,” collaborating with organizations in Long Island City and adjacent neighborhoods on exhibitions about climate justice, immigrant labor and Black transgender identity.

The British-born Fowle has also been addressing the exterior wall around MoMA PS1 as a barrier between the museum and its surroundings — opening the courtyard to the street, adding plantings to make the courtyard more of a public space and turning the entrance into a permanent public plaza.

And Fowle has championed the museum getting its own website — scheduled for June — so that it no longer shares one with the Museum of Modern Art, with which it merged in 2000.

These efforts speak to Fowle’s priorities as the new leader of the Long Island City institution: to strengthen the connection with its neighbors in Western Queens and North Brooklyn, to make PS1 a hub of community activity through art, to lean into the museum’s progressive roots and to give the institution an identity distinct from MoMA’s.

“We are using art at the center of how we build community,” Fowle, 50, said in an interview. “I’m trying to make MoMA PS1 somewhere that people turn up and feel welcome across a gamut of participants.”

To help convey that greater spirit of welcome, plans are underway to create a break in the exterior walls and to add amenities that allow the courtyard to remain open when the building is closed. The city approved $9 million in capital funds last year for the project; the design phase has not yet begun.

“Kate and her team have developed a focus on community, especially in Queens, which has become an ever more artist-centric place,” said Glenn D. Lowry, MoMA’s director. Fowle’s goal, he added, was “to think about how the local community — which had often felt very alienated — could see MoMA PS1 as a home rather than a strange thing fenced off with a concrete wall from the neighborhood.”

The museum’s longtime major supporter and former chairwoman, Agnes Gund, said she believes “very strongly” that MoMA PS1 should go further and split from MoMA, to establish a clear identity, donors and governance of its own.

“I wanted them to break with MoMA and go their separate ways,” said Gund, who continues to serve on the boards of both PS1 and MoMA. “They should be independent.”

But Fowle said that the two institutions benefit from each other. MoMA contributes 25% of PS1’s total operating budget of about $8 million, including 10% of its operating support and 15% in discretionary giving from MoMA trustees and affiliate groups.

PS1 — which has focused since 1971 on experimental contemporary art — in turn gives MoMA an added programmatic dimension.

Fowle also said she disagrees with the analogy that her institution is the child and MoMA the parent. “I see the relationship from the perspective of collective impact,” she said.

Lowry said the relationship has been “organic and very amicable.”

“We learn a lot from PS1 — it is a place that generates ideas — and they learn a lot from us,” he added. “We are a place that has a lot of connections and expertise.”

Fowle has also taken the museum in a more progressive direction, which some see as a marked shift in emphasis from her predecessor, Klaus Biesenbach, whom she succeeded in September 2019.

“Klaus elevated MoMA PS1,” said Jimmy Van Bramer, the former chairman of the New York City Council’s Cultural Affairs Committee. “Kate has leveraged that cultural relevance and prominence to reach out to the local and sometimes underserved communities, including public housing residents.”

“After the Fire,” for example, a participatory mural project led by artists Nanibah Chacon, Tatyana Fazlalizadeh and Layqa Nuna Yawar, began with workshops with two community groups — Transform America and Make the Road — along with members of the Shinnecock and Matinecock nations.

This summer, the courtyard will feature artist Jackie Sumell’s mobile apothecary of healing herbs grown with incarcerated people — the culmination of a yearlong collaboration among the museum, the Lower Eastside Girls Club and the artist.

“It’s not a community center, but a place for artists in the community,” Sarah Arison, the museum’s chairwoman, said of PS1. “It goes back to the DNA of what PS1 is.”

Community groups say they appreciate MoMA PS1’s increasing openness to social justice issues, such as an activation in the fall of Homeroom by the Fortune Society, which supports reentry from incarceration and is based near PS1.

In 2020-21, the museum offered “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” a critically acclaimed exhibition that explored the work of artists in U.S. prisons and work by non-incarcerated artists concerned with imprisonment.

“A lot of our folks didn’t know about the museum, didn’t think it was a place for them,” said Jamie Maleszka, the Fortune Society’s director of creative arts. “Now they feel comfortable going there. To have an institution of that size committed to amplifying our voices — it’s invaluable.”

The show “Nuevayorkinos: Essential and Excluded,” which opened in October 2021, paid tribute to ​​immigrant cultures and labor in New York. “We got a lot of exposure thanks to the exhibit,” said Mohamed Attia, director of the Street Vendor Project, which worked on the show and is part of the Urban Justice Center, a nonprofit legal and advocacy group. “Rather than just grabbing the coffee or the tamale on the way to the subway, people were able to get to know the street vendors on a deeper level.”

Similarly, in January, the Slow Factory, a nonprofit that focuses on climate justice and social equity, transformed Homeroom into “The Revolution Is a School,” which encourages interactive learning through video, installation and a workshop series. (The activation runs through April 23.) Celine Semaan, the organization’s co-founder and chief executive officer, said the museum is “lowering the barrier to entry to the art world.”

An emphasis on social issues is also evident in other exhibitions. On June 2, PS1 opens the show “Life Between Buildings,” featuring artists who have explored New York City’s public spaces through the lens of ecology over the past 50 years.

Fowle came to MoMA PS1 from the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow, where she was chief curator, and she is the first director appointed from outside the museum. Biesenbach, who in 2010 took over from the museum’s founder, Alanna Heiss, had started as a curator there in 1995. Called the P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center from its founding in 1976, the museum merged in 2000 with MoMA and changed its name in 2010 to MoMA PS1.

Taking on the job of director just before the pandemic, Fowle has had to contend with the challenges facing every cultural institution — financial losses during lockdown led to a reduction in staff from 64 to 17. (It is now back up to 55.)

She used the time to address how MoMA PS1 physically interacts with the community. When the wall was built in the 1990s, it was “to help demarcate a safe space for creative things to happen” because the neighborhood was considered dangerous, Fowle said. “Thirty years later, it’s the fastest-growing residential neighborhood, and there is a giant concrete wall around this place.

“I don’t know that the wall needs to come down — this is not the Berlin Wall,” she continued. “It’s about changing perception: How do you make the wall more porous; how do you do that physically and metaphorically?”

Fowle has also reached out to the Queensbridge Houses, the country’s largest public housing project. Starting May 11, the Queensbridge Photo Collective, a group of female photographers of color over age 65, will create a multidisciplinary activation of Homeroom that reflects upon the lives of their members, who grew up near the museum.

“It’s been about building trust,” Fowle said. “What makes a museum feel as if it’s part of the fabric? What is the sense of belonging?”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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