“What If We…” Expressions of Violence and Hope in Our 2016 Community Partner Art Show

An installation view of “What If We…,” our fourth biannual exhibition of artwork created during our Community Partnership program. Photo: Kaitlyn Stubbs

“It was tough, because they want to deal with it but they don’t want to express it in art…just show[ing] small representations of what it means to be confronted by a cop. Body language. They had to revisit — ‘Ok, when was my encounter with that policeman?’ And that’s hard because once they’re thinking about that…it’s hard for them to get creative. But they pulled through.”

— Anthony Dejesus, Arts Coordinator, Friends of Island Academy

Over 100 people came streaming down the stairs and into the exhibition space of MoMA’s Education Center on Wednesday, September 27 — an audience of excited kids, proud parents, first-time artists, Museum staffers and trustees, teachers, activists, and others — to attend the opening reception for our fourth biannual Community Partner Art Show. It was a celebration of the artwork, creativity, and interpersonal connections that had been made over the past two years.

Started more than a decade ago, MoMA’s Community Partnership Program works with a wide range of audiences who are continually underserved through most museum-based education programs. By coordinating with New York City’s social services network, we are able to connect with HIV/AIDS organizations, LGBTQ housing facilities, early childhood centers, alternatives-to-incarceration programs, community courts, homelessness initiatives, GED programs, job training facilities, refugee services, and many other programs and initiatives throughout the five boroughs.

The exhibition’s wall text features phrases identified by MoMA’s teaching artists as areas of connection between the Museum and our partnering organizations. Photo by Kaitlyn Stubbs

We titled the exhibition What If We because it connects two themes that run through every aspect of the program: the idea of exploring what’s possible (What If) and our strong belief in the power of community (We). Our commitment to audience-centered programming resulted in the creation of artworks that take an unflinching look at the current state of the world and the specific issues affecting our city.

Friends of Island Academy’s collage piece, which was inspired by memories of police violence, alongside Lantern Community Services’ printmaking project created by adults and families transitioning from periods of homelessness. Photo: Kaitlyn Stubbs

Sometimes what we create together in these programs involves deep and sustained art-making projects, or hands-on introductions to new materials and techniques. Sometimes they just involve finding spaces in the galleries to hold discussions and connect to one another by sharing ideas and experiences. There’s never a pre-planned roadmap of what we’re going to do with any given partner. Instead, we choose our own projects and themes. We explore the Museum and find the artworks and the images that appeal most strongly to our group as a whole — a freedom that often results in the discovery of new artistic ideas about how our country might be transformed and hopefully, eventually, improved. Throughout it all, we rely on the power of sustained connection, the transformative nature of working together, and the ways collaborative action can, in the best of circumstances, lead to positive social change.

Self-portrait hand sculptures created during a collaboration with Housing Works, an organization focused on offering services connected to HIV/AIDS and homelessness. Photo: Kaitlyn Stubbs

For most of the people we work with, the projects on view represent their first art-making experiences, and this is the first time they’ve shown their work in public. We take our role in making that happen very seriously. The goal of the program isn’t to lecture anyone about art, but rather to find ways to utilize it in order to allow the participants’ points of view to be seen and heard, and to create cultural spaces where all opinions and experiences are welcome and can be shared, respected, and celebrated.

The video clip below captures a conversation between Andre Obasogie and Anthony Dejesus from Friends of Island Academy (Friends), an organization that provides services and mentorship to young people who have recently been released from jails across New York City. Andre, the Director of Youth Advocacy at Friends, and Anthony, a former student at Friends who now works with them as an arts coordinator, talk about the project their students created for the show:

Focusing on the students’ past interactions with the police — interactions that may have included violence and abuse — the students who collaborated on the project explored physical representations of the ways these interactions made them feel, arranging their own bodies and moving into physical positions that evoked these incidents.

Details from Friends of Island Academy’s collage project. Photo: Kaitlyn Stubbs

As Andre said to us recently, “The kids feel like they don’t have a voice. This project represents their voice, presented through the arts. No one listens to this generation — they feel helpless. No one cares. When police abuse them, they’re scared. But they’re not going to admit that they’re scared. These projects help bring these feelings to the forefront.”

What If We… is on view to the public through November 30, 2016, in the Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Education and Research Building. More information on MoMA Community Partnerships can be found by contacting us directly at calder_zwicky@moma.org or (212) 333–1252.

Special thanks to Kerry Downey, Shellyne Rodriguez, Rebecca Goyette, Francesca Rosenberg, Wendy Woon, Andre Obasogie, Anthony Dejesus, and the students and teachers who take part in our Community Partnership Programs, as well as Volkswagen of America and the other supporters of education at MoMA.

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