Shortly after Kate Fowle became director in 2019, MoMA PS1 launched a program called “Homeroom,” partnering with organizations in Long Island City and adjacent neighborhoods to showcase exhibits on climate justice, migrant workers, and black transgender identity.
British-born Fowle has also addressed the exterior wall around MoMA PS1 as a barrier between the museum and its surroundings – opening the courtyard to the street, adding planting to make the courtyard more of a public space and turning the entrance into a permanent public square .
And Fowle is in favor of the museum getting its own website — slated for June — so that it no longer shares one with the Museum of Modern Art, which it merged with in 2000.
These efforts align with Fowle’s priorities as the new leader of the Long Island City institution: strengthening ties with its neighbors in Western Queens and North Brooklyn, making PS1 a hub of community activity through the arts, drawing on the forward-thinking roots of the museum and to give the institution an identity different from that of MoMAs.
“We use art at the center of how we build a community,” said Fowle, 50, in an interview. “I’m trying to make MoMA PS1 somewhere where people show up and feel welcome across a range of participants.”
To help convey that greater welcome spirit, there are plans to create a break in the exterior walls and add amenities that will allow the courtyard to remain open when the building is closed. The city approved $9 million in equity funds for the project last year; the design phase has not yet started.
“Kate and her team have developed a community focus, especially in Queens, which has become an increasingly artist-centric place,” said Glenn D. Lowry, director of the MoMA. Fowle’s goal, he added, was “to think about how the local community — which had often felt very alienated — could see MoMA PS1 as a home rather than something strange enclosed by a concrete wall from the neighbourhood. “
Agnes Gund, a big supporter and former president of the museum, said she believes “very strongly” that MoMA PS1 should move forward and split from MoMA, in order to establish a clear identity, donors and governance of its own.
“I wanted them to break with MoMA and go their separate ways,” said Gund, who still serves on the boards of both PS1 and MoMA. “They have to be independent.”
But Fowle said the two institutions benefit from each other. MoMA contributes 25 percent of PS 1’s total operating budget of approximately $8 million, which includes 10 percent of operational support and 15 percent in discretionary donations from MoMA administrators and affiliate groups.
PS 1 — which has focused on experimental contemporary art since 1971 — in turn gives MoMA an extra programmatic dimension.
Fowle also said she disagrees with the analogy that her institution is the child and MoMA is the parent. “I see the relationship from a collective impact perspective,” she said.
Lowry said the relationship was “organic and very friendly”.
“We learn a lot from PS1 – it’s a place that generates ideas – and they learn a lot from us,” he added. “We are a place with a lot of connections and expertise.”
Fowle has also taken the museum in a more progressive direction, which some see as a marked shift in emphasis from her predecessor, Klaus Biesenbach, who she succeeded in September 2019.
“Klaus has raised MoMA PS1,” said Jimmy Van Bramer, former chairman of the New York City Council’s Cultural Affairs Committee. “Kate has leveraged that cultural relevance and exposure to reach out to local and sometimes disadvantaged communities, including public housing residents.”
“After the Fire”, for example, a participatory mural project led by the artists Nanibah Chacon, Tatyana Fazlalizadeh and Layqa Nuna Yawar, began with workshops involving two community groups – Transform America and Make the Road – along with members of the Shinnecock and Matinecock Lands.
This summer, the courtyard is home to artist Jackie Sumell’s mobile dispensary of medicinal herbs grown with incarcerated humans – the culmination of a longstanding collaboration between the museum, the Lower Eastside Girls Club and the artist.
“It’s not a community center, but a place for artists in the community,” Sarah Arison, the museum’s president, said of PS1. “It goes back to the DNA of what PS1 is.”
Community groups say they appreciate MoMA PS1’s increasing openness to social justice issues, such as an activation last fall of Homeroom by the Fortune Society, which supports return from incarceration and is located near PS1.
In 2020-21, the museum offered “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” an acclaimed exhibition that examined the work of artists in American prisons and work by non-imprisoners engaged in incarceration.
“A lot of our people didn’t know about the museum, didn’t think it was a place for them,” said Jamie Maleszka, the Fortune Society’s director of creative arts. “Now they feel at ease there. It is invaluable to have an institution of that magnitude committed to amplifying our voices.”
Opening in October 2021, the show “Nuevayorkinos: Essential and Excluded” paid tribute to New York’s immigrant cultures and labor. “We have gained a lot of exposure thanks to the exhibition,” said Mohamed Attia, the director of the Street Vendor Project, which worked on the show and is part of the Urban Justice Center, a not-for-profit legal and advocacy group. “Instead of just grabbing the coffee or tamale on the way to the subway, people could get to know the street vendors on a deeper level.”
Likewise, in January, the Slow Factory, a nonprofit focused on climate justice and social justice, transformed Homeroom into “The Revolution Is a School,” which encourages interactive learning through video, installation, and a workshop series. (Activation runs through April 23.) Celine Semaan, co-founder and chief executive officer of the organization, said the museum “lowers the barrier to entry into the art world.”
The emphasis on social themes can also be found in other exhibitions. On June 2, PS1 will open the “Life Between Buildings” show, featuring artists who have explored New York City’s public spaces through the lens of ecology for the past 50 years.
Fowle came to MoMA PS1 from the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow, where she was chief curator, and she is the first director to be appointed from outside the museum. Biesenbach, who took over from the museum’s founder, Alanna Heiss in 2010, had started there as a curator in 1995. Named the PS 1 Contemporary Art Center from its inception in 1976, it merged with MoMA in 2000 and changed its name to MoMA PS1 in 2010.
Fowle took on the post of director just before the pandemic and has faced the challenges every cultural institution faces – financial losses during the lockdown have resulted in a staff reduction from 64 to 17. (It’s now 55.)
She used the time to discuss how MoMA PS1 physically interacts with the community. When the wall was built in the 1990s, it was “to help delineate a safe space for creative things to happen,” because the neighborhood was considered dangerous, Fowle said. “Thirty years later, it is the fastest growing residential area and there is a gigantic concrete wall around this place.”
“I don’t know if the wall has to fall – this is not the Berlin wall,” she continued. “It’s about changing perception: how do you make the wall more porous, how do you do that physically and figuratively?”
Fowle has also reached out to the Queensbridge Houses, the country’s largest public housing project. Starting May 11, the Queensbridge Photo Collective, a group of female color photographers over the age of 65, will create a multidisciplinary Homeroom activation reflecting the lives of their members, who grew up near the museum.
“It’s about building trust,” Fowle said. “What makes a museum feel like it’s part of the fabric? What is the feeling of belonging?”