No Empty Smile

Ten days before it closed in Sugar Hill on August 10th, I was able to visit the “If You Build It” temporary art exhibition, organized by No Longer Empty (NLE) and presented in collaboration with the Broadway Housing Communities. The work of 22 contemporary artists was situated throughout the extraordinary building designed for Broadway Housing Communities by David Adjaye, Hon. AIA. The artwork, on view since June 25th, occupied third-floor apartments and the ninth-floor sales office, along with roof terraces and the entrance forecourt. The exhibition anticipates how the new housing will form links between its architecture and the art, and activism and community spirit of the Sugar Hill neighborhood, described as the historic epicenter of the Harlem Renaissance.

The exhibition marks NLE’s fifth anniversary, which has presented site-specific artwork at locations as diverse as Tapestry on East 124th Street in East Harlem (Weaving In & Out, 2010), to the Andrew Freedman House on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx (This Side of Paradise, 2012). The stated goal of NLE is “to broaden the audience for contemporary art, to promote socially conscious artists, and to build resilience in communities through art.” This is achieved, citywide, with flair and flamboyance, by presenting professionally-curated, site-responsive art exhibitions where a community of artists, educators, scholars, and the public come together to create and experience art, free of market imperatives and institutional constraints.

According to NLE Founding Executive Director Naomi Herrson-Ringskog, the works in the “If You Build It” exhibition “will address cycles of urban decay and regeneration – building community through shared heritage.” Many of the artists in the show are creating work around new approaches to immigration and displacement. Issues of politics and housing policy, economic segregation, and social inequity, find a place in a remarkable new structure that generated 50,000 applications for 98 apartments that are located on an important site at the southeast corner of 155th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue. The central purpose of “If You Build It” was described by NLE President and Chief Curator Manon Slome, as “setting forth a radical example of what can be achieved when art and architecture are united with goals for spatial and social justice.” The project successfully demonstrates “the desire not only to house, but to house with dignity and sustain community.” This is consistent with NLE’s organizational purpose to “draw together the vitality of the contemporary art world and the values of building community.”

Other neighborhood and activist organizations had concurrent installations and events, including, most notably for an architectural audience, the Institute for Public Architecture (IPA) installation of “Total Reset,” created in response to Mayor de Blasio’s “total reset for housing.” Jonathan Kirschenfeld, AIA, the founder of IPA, noted that “embedded in housing is social engagement,” which was achieved by community workshops organized by IPA Executive Director Karen Kubey, who said “a more holistic way of building affordable housing is key to making a city more livable and harmonious.”

Additional collaborators were: Art in FLUX; ArtsConnection; The Classical Theatre of Harlem; Dominican York Proyecto GRAFICA; Harlem Arts Alliance; Institute for Public Architecture; LeRoy Neiman Art Center; Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance; Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture; and Sugar Hill Culture Club, along with Taste of Harlem and The New School Collaboratory. More than 40 related events and programs included a “No Longer Bored” family day and programs on film, dance, education theory, and jazz, along with curator-artist speed consultations.

A high point of the installation was the installation by artist Nari Ward of Sugar Hill Smiles cans, which captured the good feelings about the project in the neighborhood. Souvenir cans are still on sale, and proceeds will go to support Broadway Housing Communities’ educational programming. No Longer Empty is also encouraging those who visited the exhibition to complete the “If You Build It” survey to share your experiences.

Apart from Slome and Ringskog-Herrson, the team for “If You Build It” included Jodie Dinapoli-Algarra (Director of Education), Rita Leduc (Project Manager), Patra Jongjitirat (Development & Design Associate), Ayana Hosten (Education Fellow) and Sarah Corona (NLE Curatorial Program Lab Coordinator).

The emerging and acclaimed artists whose work animated the show included Mequitta Ahuja, Raúl Ayala, Aziz + Cucher, Radcliffe Bailey, Sonia Louise Davis, Élan, Iliana Emilia Garcia, Scherezade Garcia, Brenda Jamison & Mark Revels, Carlos Mare, Misha Omo, Shani Peters, Kameelah Janan Rasheed, Freddy Rodríguez, Moses Ros-Suárez, Bayeté Ross Smith, Dread Scott, Hank Willis Thomas, William Villalongo, and Nari Ward.

One artist in the show whose work has historically combined art and architecture is Moses Ros-Suárez. His “Bridges of Sugar Hill” creates a space for “exhibition attendees and neighborhood residents to connect and socialize” on the entry plaza. An animated environment where motion and stasis are addressed on a personal scale, the Bridges parallel the overarching outreach to the community created by David Adjaye and his community-based client. Stay tuned for the next installation by No Longer Empty, rumored to be in the South Bronx.

“If You Build It” was supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, and with generous support from National Endowment for the Arts, Joan Mitchell Foundation, The Laurie M Tisch Illumination Fund, The Pinkerton Foundation, The Robert Lehman Foundation, The Wolf Kahn and Emily Mason Foundation, Northern Ireland Bureau, The Double R Foundation, The Foundation for Contemporary Arts, and The Tony Bennett Foundation.