Ringgold Looks to Give Back to Harlem Through Art

Columbia Spectator | November 20, 2009

By Sarah Darville

A collection of quilts and photographs wove the biography of artist Faith Ringgold and her family together with the story of Harlem on Thursday night.

Ringgold, whose story quilts now hang in the Guggenheim Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, grew up in Harlem. Her daughter, author Michele Wallace, presented the quilts at the offices of Broadway Housing Communities on 135th Street. Soon, they may hang in her own museum.

Broadway Housing, an organization that works to provide affordable housing and community resources to prevent homelessness, is planning a new building on 155th Street. It will house the Faith Ringgold Children’s Museum, tying art and community development together in the most direct way yet.

In an interview before the event, Ringgold explained that her interest in the organization began a few years ago after meeting Ellen Baxter, the executive director of Broadway Housing. Ringgold began attending events and learning about the organization’s mission. “I was so impressed with everything I saw, all the people. … Every opportunity I got to return, I took,” she said.

Wallace presented slides of one of her mother’s quilts in detail, called “Change: The Weight Loss Story Quilt.” It incorporated photographs of every decade of Ringgold’s life and works from the beginning of her artistic career.

Ringgold remembers having art class every day at school when she was a child. When she got to high school, her parents bought her supplies so that she could continue art at home. “The time, the place, the materials were provided for me,” she said.

Her museum, she hopes, will eventually serve to provide the neighborhood with what her parents provided her.

“They need to have the opportunity to create their art at their great time of brilliance, which is when they are children. If they miss it, they miss the opportunity of creativity. … We don’t know what that makes them become. I don’t even want to think about it very much, but it’s not good for them,” Ringgold said. “This museum will lend itself to seeing that that happens for many, many children that come there.”

In addition to the children’s museum, the proposed Sugar Hill Project will house 124 apartments and an early childhood center for residents and neighborhood children, according to Broadway Housing Managing Director Mary Ann Villari.

This will build on the organization’s community programs, including after-school and Head Start programs at one site and a smaller art gallery at another.

In June 2008, David Adjaye was chosen as the project’s architect, nine months before being named part of the team to design the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American Culture.
“It’s a testament to David’s philosophy that he wants to do a project that contributes to and changes a neighborhood,” Villari said.

The committee that chose Adjaye included Lionel McIntyre, the Nancy and George Rupp Associate Professor in the Practice of Community Development in GSAPP, and Ghislaine Hermanuz, professor of architecture at City College of New York, according to the Broadway Housing Web site.

In computer renderings of the proposed building, it appears as a group of stacked gray-purple cubes, with scattered windows of different sizes and a glass-enclosed floor just above street level to house the museum. The project is projected to open in 2012.

Villari said that the building is meant to reflect the surrounding buildings and will be a mix of red, brown, and purple colors.

“It’s going to fit right in with all that music, all that jazz,” Ringgold said. “Those windows just make me think of music. … It’s not the kind of area that’s exclusive. It will accept new trends in architecture.”

According to a report released in 2008 by the Community Development Finance Lab from the New School for Management and Public Policy evaluating the proposed site, residents of the immediate neighborhood of the Sugar Hill Project face “high unemployment, high levels of poverty, lack of job opportunities, [and] limited educational opportunities.”

Ringgold acknowledges those problems, but has a fierce pride in Harlem and the Sugar Hill district.

“Yes, there are a lot of poor people. … A lot of things have happened since we first came here 400 years ago. But it’s a beautiful area. It has what a lot of poor areas don’t have, and that is gorgeous buildings. … Sugar Hill has that character,” she said. “Low buildings, beautiful architecture, many of them poorly maintained and not managed well.”

To Baxter, this is the next logical step for an organization that has slowly expanded from a building of single rooms to family housing.

Said Baxter: “It’s really the evolution of Broadway Housing—we started with housing and extended to the cultural dimensions of life for everyone. To really do a good job of making a village, you need all three elements.”

© 2020 Broadway Housing Communites, Inc.