In 1968, The Studio Museum in Harlem opens amid political unrest
The Studio Museum in Harlem opened in September 1968 with Electronic Refractions II, a solo exhibition of work by the artist Tom Lloyd (1929–1996). 1968 was a watershed year in U.S. history. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated in April, and Robert F. Kennedy just two months later. Major demonstrations were held against the Vietnam War, including at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
A controversial choice
The choice of Lloyd’s work as the subject of the Studio Museum’s inaugural exhibition was therefore controversial, as most audiences—both black and white—expected African-American artists to produce work that was socially relevant or figurative. Lloyd’s electronically programmed sculptures used colored light bulbs to create flashing projections that did not readily connect to the real world.
An artist in the community
For Lloyd however, the works spoke directly to the African-American community, especially given his self-identification as a black artist committed to engaging with that community. Three years after Electronic Refractions II, Lloyd founded the Store Front Museum in Queens, NY, a cultural institution that hosted exhibitions, lectures, concerts, and festivals, as well as dance and karate classes and other forms of community enrichment for the predominantly black neighborhood of Jamaica.
Framing black artistic expression
That same year, Lloyd edited and contributed to Black Art Notes, a compilation of eight texts written by African-American cultural producers that spoke to “a collective effort to project, glorify, and protect” black artistic expression. In his essay, Lloyd asserted the need for a relationship between art and social and political action.
A commitment to working directly with young people
Lloyd’s commitment to working with the African-American community was also manifested in his work with the Studio Museum. He was the first artist selected for the Studio Program, one of the Museum’s founding initiatives. The program provided teenagers and young people the opportunity to work directly under an artist, and underwrote the cost of materials for that artist to create new works, which were then exhibited at the Museum. The Studio Program was intended to support artists in their practice, particularly in the creation of works that were experimental and costly to produce.
Several of Lloyd’s sculptures, such as Moussakoo, are modular, and can be displayed in any configuration as long as one part touches another. Lloyd, one of the first artists to work in light, was interested in how electric lights were used to communicate within daily life, such as in traffic signals and theatre marquees. He felt strongly that art should take advantage of new technology, and worked with an engineer at RCA to learn more about programming.
A museum for the Harlem community, and beyond
The founders of the Studio Museum, a diverse group of activists, artists, philanthropists, and Harlem residents, hoped to bring to the Museum not only the people living in and around Harlem, but also those throughout the rest of New York City and beyond. Opening with an exhibition of Tom Lloyd’s sculptures thus signaled the institution’s willingness to be innovative and contemporary. It cemented both the Museum’s commitment to supporting the work of living artists and its emphasis on youth education. The desire for a museum committed to the work of artists of African descent was apparent in the audience numbers—during its first three exhibitions, the Museum attracted over 15,000 visitors, including nearly 300 school groups.
© 2018 The Studio Museum in Harlem