By Charlotte A. Cohen, Executive Director, Brooklyn Arts Council
In 1992, I was working as the program director at Maryland Arts Place, an important artists space in Baltimore. It was there that my personal definition for what constituted a ‘museum’ was revolutionized.
Unfortunately, the organization at which I was employed could not take credit for this life-changing epiphany. Over on West Monument Street, the Baltimore Historical Society had unveiled Mining the Museum, an incendiary exhibition that fomented a powerful and enduring conversation about race in America and the tendency of institutions – the Baltimore Historical Society included – to perpetuate inequity. Curated by the artist and Bronx native, Fred Wilson, Mining the Museum was everything that its name implied. Meticulously, Wilson probed Maryland’s oldest cultural institution’s holdings, including countless items which alluded to or bluntly depicted the state’s antebellum history of enslavement. The exhibition juxtaposed iron shackles with silver tea sets and other ‘metalwork’ finery; whipping posts with 17th century chairs and sundry ‘cabinetwork.’ Mining the Museum, debuting days before Rodney King’s assault incensed the public, catalyzed a parallel firestorm within the art world.
Yet the institution which meaningfully indicted American museums for approaching encyclopedic collecting without cultural context was not what, at the time, I considered a fine arts museum; it was a state-funded historical society. In that moment of being moved by Wilson’s critique, I was also moved by art’s institutional mutability: the cultural sector is vast and chances to meaningfully connect with works of art and individuals who share our interests are innumerable. We have opportunities to support talent years ahead of its arrival on Museum Mile. And in Brooklyn, we seize that.
Falling during the worst public health crisis in recent history, this International Museum Day is an opportunity to continue to expand our definition of the work of museums and ensure that community museums continue to connect to our hopes, provoke our minds, and fill our creative spirits. Simultaneously, today affords us the chance to celebrate the art world’s entire ecosystem: from the neighborhood collectives that foster under-recognized talent, to the organizations that connect emerging artists with gainful employment, to the homegrown businesses that host their performances, to the galleries and museums which inevitably introduce their work to vast audiences.
As the Executive Director of Brooklyn Arts Council twenty-eight years later, I have a bird’s eye view of this very ecosystem. Time and time again, I am reminded of the lessons I learned from Mining the Museum: Globally successful artists and arts organizations are made locally.
In Brooklyn, this network is vast, electric, and inviting. It spans political and business districts and provides first-class creative development to those who are navigating the ever-daunting New York City art world. Whether one is setting foot into the Brooklyn Museum, Smack Mellon, BRIC, or Trestle, opportunity awaits.
One of our borough’s exemplary community museums, MoCADA (Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts) was founded with Brooklyn Arts Council’s financial support by Laurie Cumbo in 1999. When MoCADA moved to its current location in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, it was supported by another local arts organization: Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Local Development Corporation.
Today, Laurie Cumbo serves as New York City Council Member for the 35th district and the City’s first African-American female Majority Leader, where she regularly advocates for cultural funding in the Brooklyn neighborhoods that need it the most – a role that, given COVID-19’s abysmal impact on the city’s cultural sector, is more essential than ever. But not even a global pandemic can stop MoCADA from providing invaluable experiences and services to Brooklyn residents. In recent weeks, the museum has debuted live performance (delivered digitally, of course), resources for local artists, and a virtual exhibition of paintings by Francks F. Décéus, a 54 year-old Haitian artist who now calls our borough home.
Nimble. Close-knit. Generous. Such is the creative synergy of Brooklyn, New York.
While this creative nurturing starts at home, it continues wherever our artists’ careers lead them. At Brooklyn Arts Council, we are no strangers to funding first-time grant recipients. Many of the artists we support are just learning to craft a personal statement or a budget and we consider it a priority to help them prepare for future funding opportunities. Brooklyn Arts Council works with studio artists, teaching artists, and arts organizations at every phase of our grants application process with the knowledge that they will carry these skills with them – no matter where the art world’s currents take them.
And – as BAC grantees such as playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, comedian Danny DeVito, and director Spike Lee can attest – sometimes this five-star local care is enough to carry one’s practice well beyond the topographical boundaries of Brooklyn.
But because of COVID-19, resources for artists are increasingly scant, and many go-to professional opportunities, including gig work, have been canceled or postponed. Local artists and arts organizations large and small – museums included – are hurting. In a recent survey of the borough’s creatives communities Brooklyn Arts Council learned that 80% of artists were experiencing cashflow issues; 67% said they would or might have to file for unemployment. A jarring 85% of respondents stated they had lost work, including jobs, expos, exhibitions, and performance events. Local arts organizations, including museums,
Today, consider giving where it counts the most: locally. Artists depend upon museums to recognize their late- and mid-career efforts. Yet their earliest champions will always be the art spaces, community centers, and open studios that line our neighborhood blocks. These are the organizations that will take risks on artists, even – and especially – when they stoke the flames of revolution.
Charlotte Cohen brings with her over 25 years of experience in the arts. Before coming to Brooklyn Arts Council, she served as Fine Arts Officer at the U.S. General Services Administration where she oversaw the federal government’s Fine Arts Collection in the Northeast and Caribbean region.
Previously, she was director of New York City Department of Cultural Affairs Percent for Art Program managing the commissioning and installation of dozens of public art projects across the five boroughs, working closely with artists in all stages of their careers and from across the globe. She also served as project director at the Smithsonian Institution’s Traveling Exhibition Service and program director and curator at Maryland Art Place, a contemporary art center in Baltimore, Maryland.
A third-generation Brooklynite, Charlotte is deeply committed to promoting and expanding access to the arts and improving public spaces throughout the borough. She has served on the boards of a range of local, national, and international cultural non-profit organizations and has lectured nationally and internationally on issues surrounding contemporary and public art. She is a faculty member at the School of Visual Art’s Masters Program in Curatorial Practice and is on the editorial board of Public Art Dialogue Journal.