Why Successful Black Artists Are Creating Residency Programs To Mentor Younger Artists

by Yvonne Bynoe

Up until the sixties, the gallery system would have X number of artists, established artists—like, ten. Those artists very often decided who the one or two young artists would be to come in, like protégés, and then they would be nourished and they would become the next group. And for the average person—average artist—there was no way to enter unless they got, literally, what slaves got: a note from the master to come in. You’d go to a gallery and if you didn’t know some famous artist, they’d wonder: Why are you there? . . . “ — Benny Andrews in conversation with Susan E. Cahan, author of Mounting Frustration: The Art Museum In the Age of Black Power (2016).

The art world is still an “old boys network.” This means who an artist knows, who recommends the artist, and what entities the artist is affiliated with matters a great deal to their success. Many collectors and curators make acquisition and exhibition decisions based on what’s on an artist’s CV.

The elements that signal that an artist’s work is important or promising are largely based on having an MFA degree from one of the handful of recognized art schools, solo shows at prestigious and/or acknowledged cutting-edge venues, press coverage from respected publications, and ties to important curators in the U.S and abroad.

Critical to the artist’s CV is the requisite list of residencies

Artist colonies and residencies have existed for more than a century with the founding of The MacDowell Colony in 1907. Artist residency programs have a formal invitation process that typically includes a review of an artist’s works and an application. Invited artists live on-site,  often in bucolic settings for four weeks to twelve months.

These types of collaborative environments give artists the time, space, and materials they need to create new work or to focus on their work-related research. Moreover, residencies are important career boosters because they provide artists with the opportunity to form relationships with their peers and receive mentoring from influential artists and industry professionals. 

The vast majority of Black artists, however, lack the prerequisites to be invited to many of the top residencies. This system tends to exclude self-taught artists, artists who didn’t graduate from arts programs at elite White institutions, and artists who don’t have powerful advocates. The consequence of so many Black artists being shut out of the higher tier residencies is that they have less industry status, receive little publicity, have fewer museum acquisitions, and obtain lower prices for their work.

For more than 50 years, the Studio Museum in Harlem’s Artist-in-Residence program has been the premier residency for artists of African descent. The more than 100 Studio Museum In Harlem’s Artist-in-Residence fellows reads like a Who’s Who list of contemporary Black artists.

The Studio Museum in Harlem

In the 2021 documentary, In the Absence of a Light, luminaries such as Carrie Mae Weems, Glen Ligon, Kehinde Wiley, Jordan Casteel, and others explain the importance of The Studio Museum In Harlem providing them with the professional development, camaraderie, and network to skillfully navigate the art world. Prior to the founding of The Studio Museum in Harlem, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs)—Howard University and Clark-Atlanta University, in particular—were the primary training and support centers for Black artists.

The Studio Museum in Harlem was founded in 1968 during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, and it was a bold and controversial endeavor.

The founders, a group of activists, philanthropists, artists, and Harlem residents had goals beyond exhibiting the work of Black artists. They also wanted the museum to be an asset to the Harlem community and a cudgel to reshape the largely segregated art world. In the following decade, the museum became a crucial institution for Black artists, many of whom were not having their work shown in the city’s major museums and galleries. The Artist-in-Residence program was critical to achieving their aims.

To place the significance of The Studio Museum In Harlem into context, a year after its founding in 1969, The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition, Harlem On My Mind, didn’t include any Black artists. Artists, Benny Andrews, Reginald Gammon and Cliff Joseph, who had co-founded the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition, led protests in front of The Met.

The Studio Museum in Harlem’s Artist-in-Residence program paved the way for the emergence of prominent Black artists who now are creating their own artist residency programs. These new art residencies are important to expanding the opportunities available to artists of African descent to receive artistic training and professional mentoring. Moreover, the stellar reputations of residency founders provide an imprimatur to their younger fellows.

In September, 2021, McArthur Binion, an artist known for his mixed media abstract paintings, announced his residency program to support emerging Black artists. The 75-year-old Binion stated that he wants his Detroit, Michigan-based program, called Modern Ancient Brown, to help younger artists gain the recognition that eluded him until he was in his 60s.

Kehinde Wiley and Titus Kaphar are two other high-profile Black artists who have created artist residency programs.

Kehinde Wiley rose to international stature after being selected to paint the official portrait of the 44th President of the United States, Barack H. Obama. Wiley was a 2001-2002 Studio Museum in Harlem Artist-in-Residence. In 2019, he founded his residency, Black Rock Senegal, in Dakar. The residency program is housed in a studio designed by renowned Senegalese architect, Abib Djenne. The interior is richly decorated with textiles, sculptures, and paintings from several African artists, and the studio overlooks the Atlantic. The one to three month residency is open to visual artists and creatives in other fields. Wiley, who was born in South Central Los Angeles to a Black American mother and a Nigerian father has personal ties to Senegal, going back more than twenty years.

Kehinde Wiley at the Black Rock artist residence he founded in Dakar, Senegal – Photo Credit: New York Times

Wiley states, “Black Rock stands as the direct answer to my desire to have an uncontested relationship with Africa, the filling in of a large void that I share with many African Americans. With this project, I wanted to explore my own personal relationship with Africa while inviting artists to do the same and to galvanize the growing artistic and creative energies that exist in Africa…”

In 2015, Titus Kaphar founded his art residency, NXTHVN (Next Haven). Kaphar, who joined the mega gallery Gagosian in 2020, is best known for works that simultaneously reference classic and renaissance portraiture, yet employ methods such as torn canvases or images that are white-washed or submerged in tar to up-end American mythology by revealing the hidden stories of Black Americans who experienced sexual exploitation and brutality at the hands of revered White men. Among his numerous accolades, Kaphar is a 2018 recipient of a MacArthur Foundation’s “Genius” grant.

NXTHVN is a $12 million nonprofit arts incubator and fellowship program housed in former factory buildings in Dixwell, a historically Black neighborhood in New Haven, Connecticut. Kaphar received his MFA from Yale School of Art, also located in New Haven. The stated aim of NXTHVN is two-fold: “[t]o build an alternative model of art mentorship and career advising through a specially designed curriculum, and to simultaneously set into motion significant opportunities for emerging local entrepreneurs.” 

One of the key components of these new artist residency programs is that they are situated in Black communities. 

Many Black artists and art professionals who were not Studio Museum in Harlem fellows nevertheless benefited from the museum’s exhibitions and public programming because they were available in Harlem. For more than a decade, Black artists have understood that it’s not enough to bring art entities into under-invested Black communities. For art to be a catalyst for change, their initiatives have to directly benefit local residents.  

In 2010, Theaster Gates, a native of Chicago, Illinois spearheaded this movement when he combined art and community revitalization through his not-for-profit Rebuild Foundation. He rehabbed a derelict building that had formerly been a 1923 savings and loan bank and turned it into the Stony Island Arts Bank, a world class community-based arts venue in Greater Grand Crossing, a historically Black community in Chicago.

In 2014, Los Angeles-born artist, Mark Bradford, along with philanthropist and collector Eileen Harris Norton, and social activist Allan DiCastro, founded Art + Practice (A+P) in his old South Central Los Angeles community. Art + Practice provides life-skills training for foster youth as well as free, museum-curated art exhibitions and moderated art lectures to the Leimert neighborhood.

In 2021, there remains a need for art residencies specifically for artists of African descent.

In a 2019 study that surveyed the collections of 18 major U.S. museums, researchers found that 85.4% of the works belonged to White artists and 87.4% are by men. African-Americans who are approximately 15% of the U.S. population had the lowest share with a 1.2%.

Despite some well publicized hires of Black curators at major museums, the institutional decision makers of the art world are still overwhelmingly White and the selection process is still centered on an antiquated vetting system that disadvantages Black artists, artists of color, and women. The result is that in the 21st century, White artists, especially White male artists, remain overrepresented in museums and in the overall cultural narrative in the U.S.

It’s also reasonable to question whether the paltry number of Black artists who make it through the current artist selection gauntlet actually represent the broad socio-economic, political, and ethnic spectrum of Black Americans; diversity isn’t solely about skin color.

Systemic change within the art world requires the training and cultivation of substantially more talented artists and art professionals of African descent.

The star-powered art residency programs give local artists and leaders the ability to not only launch but also attract funding for their local initiatives. The Roll Up CLT in Charlotte, North Carolina is a prime example of this trickle-down effect. The community-based artist residency is located in the historic Camp Greene neighborhood. Charlotte is a growing city that, like many others, is grappling with gentrification and a racial legacy that marginalized and displaced Black communities.

The Roll Up CLT’s founder, Jessica Moss worked on the senior leadership team of Theaster Gates’ Rebuild Foundation from 2013-2015. In 2016, Moss spent a year rehabbing a property that had been vacant for more than a decade into a habitable home, gallery, and workspace for artists.

The Roll Up CLT residency is between six-twelve months, and the artist-in-residence is provided with housing, transportation, food, and supplies. Selected artists have a history of community engagement and are connected with the Lorien Academy of the Arts, a nonprofit based in West Charlotte, which provides arts education access to low-income students.

A previous The Roll Up CLT artist-in-residence is Zun Lee, an award-winning visual artist. Lee’s photography “[i]nvestigates Black everyday life and family spaces as sites of intimacy, belonging and insurgent possibility against cultural displacement and erasure.” Lee taught photography at the Loren Academy and, as a result of his residency experience, the Canadian artist now divides his time between Toronto, ON and Charlotte, NC.

Zun Lee “Father Figure”

There has never been a dearth of talented Black artists. However, there has been a dearth of opportunities for them to advance in the mainstream art world. As well-known Black artists pay it forward through their residency programs, they open the door wider for other Black artists to make their creative marks on the world and enrich the communities that they draw their inspiration from.

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Yvonne Bynoe is the founder of the online platform @shelovesblackart which highlights visual art from the African diaspora. She is a former attorney and the author of the acclaimed book, Stand and Deliver: Political Activism, Leadership and Hip Hop Culture.

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