Skip To Content

Speeches and Writings

The Role of the Arts in a Democratic Culture | Page 2

October 13, 2017: National Association of Schools of Art and Design

Mary Schmidt Campbell, Ph.D.: President, Spelman College

Lesson # 1: Making Something From Nothing

If I have learned nothing else it is exactly that. Forty years ago, when I started my career at the Studio Museum in Harlem, the “museum” was a rented loft over a fast foods joint and a liquor store. New York City, teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, was literally falling apart. Subways rarely worked; public parks were a morass and Harlem was a ruin. Paradoxically, at the city’s lowest point, there were arts organizations all over the city—in store fronts, vacant garages, church basements, abandoned NY city school buildings--rooted in decaying neighborhoods in all five boroughs.  Even though they existed hand to mouth they embodied the city’s creative vitality. In virtually all of these arts organizations--the Bronx Museum, El Museo Del Barrio, Studio Museum, Queens Museum, New Museum. PS 1, Fashion Moda, Exit Art — living artists were the beating heart of their exhibitions, artist residencies and education programs in the city’s beleaguered public schools. 

All of them were sustained by vital relationships with their surrounding often impoverished neighborhoods and all of them in one way or another disrupted conventional narratives about who made art and what kind of art was art historically consequential. In some cases these organizations were not new at all but were old organizations that were re-envisioned, like the Brooklyn Academy of Music that re-conceptualized itself as BAM at a time when NYC’s cultural elites avoided Fort Green in Brooklyn like the plague.  BAM’s great opera hall ,that once housed karate demonstrations. was re-conceptualized to stage audacious new operas, ballets, concerts and theatrical work by artists from every continent. Creative vitality flowed through the arteries and veins of all of these once depleted neighborhoods.

It is tempting to write off these phenomena as the reminiscences of an aging arts activists,  but in fact, there is an entire new generation of artists who are re-thinking once lost neighborhoods. Theaster Gates in Chicago, Rick Lowe in Houston Texas, Mark Bradford in Los Angeles and scores of artists who are reclaiming derelict buildings in Detroit Michigan. Is it time to harness a new wave of creative energy, this time avoiding the pitfalls of gentrification and artist displacement to take advantage of artists’ capacity to breathe new life into our local communities? Would this not be a win for a culture of democracy?