The Studio Museum in Harlem Spring Luncheon is the hot ticket event of the social season for Manhattan’s most powerful and influential black women.
I know it’s spring when the #BlackGirlMagic telegraph starts buzzing in celebration of who’s going, who’s sitting with whom and, of course, what everyone’s wearing. Like Chirlane McCray, New York City’s first lady, who was on hand, seated next to the museum’s director, Thelma Golden, and former Teen Vogue Editor-in-Chief Elaine Welteroth. The always understated McCray, her braids pulled up in an elegant topknot, dressed in an embroidered white blouse and smart blue slacks, gave warm hugs to friends who stopped by to greet her.
I attended the luncheon Friday with my childhood BFF Crystal McCrary. We put on our best LaQuan Smith dresses to go see our friend and honoree Elaine Welteroth give the day’s keynote speech.
“Looking out at this room, I feel like I’m in Wakanda,” began the preamble to her speech about Expanding Walls, the museum’s youth education arts program.
Breaking down walls is an experience that both she and Golden know well: Welteroth, as Teen Vogue’s youngest editor-in-chief and the second black editor-in-chief ever for Conde Nast; and Golden, as the Studio Museum in Harlem’s venerable director, who literally changed the face of the art world’s establishment.
Golden’s early work as curator of the Whitney Museum’s exhibition “Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art” went down in history as a reckoning on the role black men are allowed in our public art institutions. The art world was hers for the taking—she chose Harlem.
“The Studio Museum in Harlem was black excellence long before black excellence became a hashtag,” Welteroth said, looking lovely in a floral Bohemian gown custom-made for the occasion by Coach. “I’ve spent much of my career breaking out of boxes, and as we all work together to create our brave new world, I leave you with the words of mother Maya Angelou: ‘Find some beautiful art and admire it and realize that it was made by a human being just like you. No more, no less.’”
Wherever black art lives, Golden seeks to give it a place to shine.
Her mission has been to build the long-term future of the facility that opened in 1968 into a community-centric incubator and global epicenter for artists inspired and influenced by black culture.
The Studio Museum in Harlem is now approaching its 50th anniversary, and in the spirit of expanding walls, the museum is set to debut a new building designed by British architect David Adjaye.
According to Curbed, “The new museum is being funded through a public-private partnership, with the city contributing nearly $54 million.”
Right now the museum, which sits near the corner of 125th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard in the heart of Harlem, is closed for construction. Not wanting to slow down the good work, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture has opened it doors to the Studio Museum in the interim.
At the heart of that good work is the youth education initiative. During the luncheon, the speech by a scholarship recipient of the museum’s eight-month program was the highlight of the program.
High school sophomore Khadijah Savane, 2018’s Expanding Walls fellowship recipient, opened with a poem she’d written about her journey to becoming an artist.
“My father told me that if I carried myself like a man that I would grow up to be powerful. If I learned not to show fear and hide my emotions, I would grow up to be powerful and be able to do anything I wanted,” she said, adding that her deepest wish was to be able to be respected for being herself.
Dressed like a boss in a jet-black hijab and black-and-white newsprint T-shirt and black flares, Savane, a first-generation immigrant from Guinea, spoke to the heart of everyone who has ever hid behind a mask of toughness but who felt lost and afraid and wanted to belong.
Living in a foreign land, she said that she found herself trying to fit in and compete in a school system with parents who had little basic education to guide her.
“Being more stoic than sympathetic,” Savane said, “led me to being hospitalized with depression.”
Savane was motivated by love for her family and the sacrifices made.
“They had one school five hours away—they wanted better for me,” she said.
Savane recalled how a teacher at school gave her a camera that connected her to her power as an artist. And she both loves and laments her favorite subject—the landscape of Harlem.
Her new home and its people are a source of strength for her, but she laments the relentless gentrification changing the face of Harlem’s population. Still, she says, there is beauty in perseverance.
“I go back to that time when I was in the hospital. I won this really competitive program at Expanding Walls,” she said. “Look at me now. I know I can overcome anything.”
Editor’s note: A previous version of this post stated that Thelma Golden was director of the Whitney Museum; she was a curator there. Khadijah Savane was also described as an immigrant from Ghana; he is originally from Guinea.