The National Public Housing Museum Eyes a 2021 Opening

When you’re working to establish a museum with such contested subject matter as the National Public Housing Museum (NPHM), it pays to have a few shorthand expressions within easy reach, lest anyone get confused about creating a curatorial platform for an institution many associate with failure.

Crystal Palmer, a former public housing resident and vice chair of the museum’s board, says the museum will tell “the good, the bad, and the ugly” of public housing. Lisa Lee, the museum’s executive director, says (quoting another board member) that it will “tell the stories of our in-laws and our outlaws.”

Lee is attempting to encapsulate this complicated legacy on the Near West Side of Chicago, inside the only remaining building of the Jane Addams Homes, a public housing complex built in the 1930s. It took 10 years of administrative wrangling to get the building from the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA), and the museum hopes to open in 2021. Since 2010, however, it has been mounting exhibitions at a variety of other venues.

An aerial view of the future museum on Chicago’s Near West Side. (Landon Bone Baker)

It’s unabashedly an “activist museum,” says Lee, and will be full of revisionist histories. The museum’s stance is that housing is a human right—75 years after FDR asserted the right “of every family to a decent home” in his Second Bill of Rights. To make its case, the NPHM will look to everyday resident histories and apply them to today’s housing crisis.

“This methodology believes that in order to preserve history, you have to make it relevant to contemporary social justice struggles, and in order to solve social justice struggles of today, you have to look back in time,” says Lee. “Housing insecurity is one of the most critical issues today, and I don’t think you can solve it without becoming a student of history.”

The museum will tell this intimate and domestic story with intimate, domestic-scaled architecture. “When people close their eyes and imagine public housing, they imagine a scary high-rise,” says Lee. But the building on Taylor Street, commissioned by the Works Progress Administration and designed by Holabird & Root, is positively neighborly at three-and-a-half stories, and scaled to the commercial strip that surrounds it.

It will undergo a light-touch adaptive reuse by one of Chicago’s most talented architects of subsidized housing, the firm Landon Bone Baker Architects. Even before construction, the ceiling heights, corridor widths, and basic proportions of the Jane Addams Homes are reminders that this was where people once lived. “It’s a much more intimate space than a typical museum might be,” says architect Peter Landon, and “amazingly well built.” It had to be strong to survive: It’s been vacant since 2002. Workers have done lead-paint and asbestos abatement on the site. The museum has saved artifacts from the building’s former life, and some original walls will be incorporated in the new design.

Landon’s design begins with a new glass-pavilion entry lobby. In addition to standard gallery space, the 47,000-square-foot museum will contain three model apartments, furnished and decorated to represent different communities that lived in the Addams Homes and in American public housing (including Jewish, Puerto Rican, Polish, and African-American families).

There will be spaces for public programming, performances, and oral history. An entrepreneurship hub will work with nonprofits to develop cooperative models of what Lee calls a “solidarity economy.” There, a focus on the informal economies that thrived in public housing will include ad hoc barbershops and nail salons, but also the drug trade and prostitution. The museum is considering an interdisciplinary center where former and current residents of public housing come together with artists, scholars, designers, planners, and advocates to envision the future of housing.

The rear of the building will have a courtyard featuring several 1930s animal sculptures by Chicago artist Edgar Miller, which will be reinstalled after the restoration. This courtyard recently hosted a 2019 Chicago Architecture Biennial installation that focused on oral histories and storytelling, and the museum site has already been the venue for a series of exhibitions. The near-constant stream of activity, for a museum so far without a permanent home, has helped along a capital campaign that has garnered about $6 million toward a $15.7 million goal.

Children playing in the courtyard of the Jane Addams Homes in the 1940s. (Photograph by Peter Sekaer, courtesy of the National Public Housing Museum)

This remnant of the Jane Addams Homes is one of only a handful original CHA properties still intact. Widespread dereliction, violence, and concentrations of extreme poverty plagued many high-rises. Palmer, who lived for decades in the West Side’s Henry Horner Homes, recalls how she couldn’t get basic services like garbage, fire, police, and mail. “It’s like you’re a refugee in the city you were born in,” she says. And yet, “I could stick my hand out from where I lived and touch downtown.”

Early on, the CHA was run by progressive social reformers like Elizabeth Wood, who fought relentlessly to racially integrate developments. But Wood’s successors gave way to policies that created a death spiral of social segregation and infrastructural breakdown. In 1999, the CHA launched the Plan for Transformation, which would tear down 18,500 subsidized homes and build 25,000 new units, many of which would be in mixed-income developments. CHA became a facilitator, guiding investments from affordable housing developers; funding for a given project might come from a dozen different sources, many of them private.

This year, 10 years behind schedule, CHA is set to reach its goal of replacing 25,000 units. But given the level of housing need and the delay, communities were dispersed.

The building today. (Zach Mortice)

The NPHM is both a product of this dispersal and a corrective to it, and the Plan for Transformation will be a curatorial focus at the museum. Deverra Beverly, who lived in the complex that contained the Addams Homes, is credited with originating the idea of the museum in the midst of demolitions. Beverly (who died in 2013) used the Local Advisory Council structure to build up a power base and advocate for the museum. Even amid dysfunction, Chicago public housing residents formed grassroots leadership and governance structures “that all movements can and should be looking to,” says Lee.

That history is one reason why Chicago is an ideal place for the National Public Housing Museum. Lee has another: “There’s nowhere in the country where the aspirations for public housing were as big, and also the failures and dreams deferred were as major.”

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The Baltimore Museum of Art Made a Pledge to Buy Art by Women. Is It Just a Stunt?

To great fanfare, the Baltimore Museum of Art announced earlier in November that the institution will only purchase works made by women in 2020. Just 4 percent of the museum’s 95,000 artworks and objects were made by women, typical of the gross imbalance in art collections across America and around the world.

Christopher Bedford, the museum’s director since 2016, described the initiative as a proactive effort to address a root problem for the art world. “To rectify centuries of imbalance, you have to do something radical,” he told The Baltimore Sun.  

“Women are about to take over the Baltimore Museum of Art,” reads a story in The Wall Street Journal.

Yet one group is raising questions and concerns about the new push at the Baltimore Museum of Art: women in the arts in Baltimore. In a November 26 feature published by BmoreArt, a magazine devoted to the arts in Charm City, more than two-dozen women registered their impressions of the museum’s pledge. Some used words such as “tokenism” and “contrived.” An editorial from editor-in-chief Cara Ober and managing editor Rebekah Kirkman described the announcement as “headline friendly.”

That much is true: CNN, NPR, and scores of other publications—to say nothing of the art press—have run articles about the museum’s “2020 Vision.” As the reports detail, the museum has planned 22 exhibits for 2020 focusing on woman-identifying artists, including a major commission by Mickalene Thomas and a career survey of Joan Mitchell. Nineteen of the shows will feature only works by women.

This comes a year after the Baltimore Museum of Art made a splash with the sale of seven works by modern masters, among them Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg, to generate millions for what Bedford describes as a “war chest” to fund purchases of works by underrepresented artists.

The latest push is a “better platform” but still a “boxed platform,” writes Maura Callahan, a Baltimore arts writer, in one of the 27 letters published by BmoreArt. “By making gender a point of promotion, the museum frames the work of these artists through that non-default category, reinforcing the woman artist as a spectacle,” she writes.

Several of the letters echo shared concerns: about the far greater and disproportionate absence of artworks by African American women, for example, or the lack of women in leadership positions to steer decisions made by the museum.

“Why did a male’s call to action seem to resonate so loudly in this instance when women are the subject and have been calling for the same action forever?” asks Donna Drew Sawyer, chief executive officer of the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts, the city’s official arts council. “Is this initiative an exceptional act of inclusion or exceptional because of pervasive exclusion?”

Sawyer’s letter adds, “A year in the limelight, just like a month to have your history recognized, is inadequate at best.”

How much difference can a single year’s effort really make in an encyclopedic art collection? Bedford declined a request for an interview to discuss the matter, but the museum sent along some outlines about its collection practices. The reality might fall short of the headline-fetching promise.

In 2018, the Baltimore Museum of Art participated in a study conducted by two art publications, artnet News and In Other Words. Between 2008 and 2018, just 12 percent of the museum’s acquisitions were made by artists who identified as women—a bleak figure in line with the rest of the art world. Acquisitions break down into two groups: purchases and gifts. Of the 570 acquisitions of artworks by women over a decade, 235 were purchases. These things change from year to year, but that works out to about two dozen purchases per year.

For 2020, the museum plans to spend $2 million on art, using funds from last year’s sale. Such a purse could buy a few works by prominent artists, several pieces by mid-career or emerging artists, or some combination. Curators propose purchases, museum committees review them, and the board of trustees approves them. Gifts to the museum won’t be affected, raising the somewhat dismal prospect that, by the end of next year, the museum may still have acquired more works by men than women.

“The first thought that occurred to me when I saw the headline was the fact that collecting a piece of art doesn’t automatically guarantee that the artist will find a viewing audience,” writes Priyanka Kumar, a graduate student at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA). Her letter calls for programming and outreach at the local level to match the purchasing pledge. Other letter writers—among them journalist Jillian Steinhauer, who notes that work by Latinx, Native, and trans artists are all underrepresented in formal art spaces, too—wonder if there’s a plan for after 2020.  

Bedford has undeniably put Baltimore at the center of a conversation about inclusion in the art world. Beyond garnering the attention of the national press, he has championed the work of Mark Bradford, whose appearance at the Venice Biennale he organized (and brought to Baltimore), and Amy Sherald, who painted Michelle Obama’s portrait (now in the Baltimore collection). Bedford has raised some eyebrows along the way, too.

“You can call it canon correction, but it is a kind of reparations,” Bedford said in his interview with the Journal. At one level, that’s just cringe: Casting the needs of a museum’s art collection in the same urgent moral terms as the fight to correct centuries of slavery and legal injustice could be considered counterproductive. The point about canon correction, however, anticipates a question raised by Nancy Proctor, executive director of the Peale Center for Baltimore History and Architecture.

“My question is, are they also doing the self-critical reflection necessary to interrogate the structures of power that have not only produced the BMA’s collection and exhibitions, but are also produced by it?” Proctor’s letter says. “As Audre Lorde warned us, ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.’”

In the art world, radical change can be fleeting. In 1992, the Maryland Historical Society teamed up with a group called The Contemporary to bring in an outside curator, conceptual artist Fred Wilson, to re-think the permanent collection. Through the museum’s artifacts, he assembled an exhibition that focused on the stories of enslaved African Americans and brutalized Native Americans. “Mining the Museum” is considered a mile-marker for curatorial studies today, and it was popular with audiences at the time, but a year after the exhibition opened in Baltimore, the society’s director was pushed out. Press reports held that the change was too much for the board.

By no means are women in the arts in Baltimore wholly rejecting the overture from the Baltimore Museum of Art. Leslie King-Hammond, founding director for the Center for Race and Culture at MICA (and graduate dean emeritus), praises the initiative as a “pivotal wake-up call for numerous art and cultural institutions in this nation who find themselves facing similar challenges.” Most of the letters in BmoreArt express a mixture of optimism and skepticism.

“Could the committee decide to collect two works by women for every work collected by a man for the rest of time until the collection is balanced and write that into your bylaws?” Ober asks. While the museum’s pledge for 2020 is welcome, radical change might still be a ways off.

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It’s a Funhouse for Selfies. Is It Really a Museum?

When the Museum of Illusions opened in Greenwich Village last fall, it drew lines down the block to get in. Visitors flocked to photogenic exhibits that make it look like you have lost your head or can walk on walls. Following in the footsteps of other viral-experience purveyors like the Museum of Ice Cream, Museum of Pizza, and Color Factory, the Museum of Illusions’ takeover of a prominent corner building seemed to assert that the age of the pop museum—or “museum”—is only beginning.

The Museum of Illusions’ New York outpost was the second location to open in a burgeoning international franchise. MOI lists 18 current locations around the globe, with another 14 in the works, including in Chicago, Miami, and Washington, D.C. Unlike many of its predecessors in the world of Instagram-bait exhibitions, the Museum of Illusions isn’t a temporary pop-up—its locations are intended as long-term fixtures. The stately downtown NYC location, a landmarked neo-classical former bank, underlines that ambition.

These immersive experiences are branded as exhibits, but that might be where the link to traditional museums ends. The companies are, after all, for-profit businesses that sell experiences that have been expressly created for social media postability. That’s quite a contrast from the conventional idea of a museum as an educational institution that’s driven by the public good. Traditionally speaking, museums have mission statements, standards, accountability, and other responsibilities (including generating enough income to survive).

Their viral brethren are here to sell a good time for a profit, though providing education can be a welcome side benefit. Renne Gjoni, the CEO of MOI’s New York City outpost, says he is gratified that educators value the exhibits so much that they keep bringing school groups back.

A visitor poses for a picture in the “Rotated Room” of a Museum of Illusions franchise in Pristina, Kosovo. (Armend Nimani/AFP/Getty)

Why, then, has it become trendy to make a funhouse for grownups and brand it with the M-word? For one thing, pastimes among the well-off have evolved and converged. For example, the “experiential retail and entertainment” complex Area 15, set to open in Las Vegas next year, advertises, “It’s retail, it’s entertainment, it’s art—redefined.” (See also the popular immersive experiences by Meow Wolf and TeamLab.) Then there’s the global popularity of museums as travel destinations, and their primacy in online searches. And there’s also the possibility that businesspeople aren’t too cautious with the word museum, as Museum of Ice Cream founder Maryellis Bunn told The Atlantic last year: “It’s not so damn serious. I like ice cream, so do you, that’s enough,” Bunn said.

As the Museum of Ice Cream’s business grows beyond pop-up installations, though, the company’s founders have signaled a shift in thinking about its use of museum. Speaking to Forbes in August about the company’s future—including opening permanent locations in New York and San Francisco this year—Bunn unveiled a new word: experium, a combination of experience and museum. She told Forbes:

For the last three years, we’ve been having conversations about what we create. Museum is not the right word and experience is not the right word, because an experience can be having a cup of tea, writing a letter or walking outside. So we need to properly define this word for ourselves and for the world.

There certainly has been some value in adopting the museum as a brand. Research shows that museums generally are among the most trusted institutions in America, earning higher marks among the public than local news, government agencies, and academic researchers, according to the American Alliance of Museums.

“The fact that many successful immersive experiences are identifying themselves as museums demonstrates they feel there is economic value in museums and in associating their work with more traditional organizations,” says Elizabeth Merritt, founding director of AAM’s Center for the Future of Museums. “Traditional museums, in turn, can watch how these for-profit experiments operate and create new revenue sources.”

The looming question, then, is if appropriating the word museum threatens to diminish that hard-earned trust.

That’s the crux of the matter for Peter Kim, executive director of the nonprofit MOFAD, the Museum of Food and Drink. “I have no quarrel with the approach and goals of a place like the Museum of Ice Cream, or the Museum of Pizza, or the Museum of Illusions to create a space for fun, and a space for play,” Kim tells CityLab. “My only issue arises, and it’s a very serious one, when they use the word museum to describe what they’re doing. That’s where the entire problem lies.”

Kim has been working since 2011 toward the eventual establishment of a permanent museum with the professional level of quality and practice to eventually be accredited by AAM. Presently, the temporary “MOFAD Lab” is open in Brooklyn and exhibiting “Chow: Making the Chinese-American Restaurant,” whose webpage cites 10 scholars and experts who advised the exhibition.

The word museum invokes expectations, and if those are not met, “then you warp and change the meaning of the word,” Kim says. “It means education, it means community building, it means service, it means mission. And these places are pretty much devoid of that.”

“Space for fun is a laudable effort in many ways,” Kim says. “But the real hard stuff comes when you want to connect people in new ways, or teach new things.” In the moments when a museum isn’t all sparkles and photo ops, he says: “I worry that there will be a sense of disappointment from people who are no longer used to experiencing things in this way.”

Of course, it’s an eternal challenge to know what to expect of the public, or how much credit to give. You want to believe that people understand the University of the Streets does not grant MBAs, the Brandy Library is not about lending, and you can’t reach the Fountain Pen Hospital by calling 911.

Laura Lott, president and CEO of AAM, says she trusts that people can understand the difference between different types of places that call themselves museums. “Generally the public can distinguish what kind of experience they plan to have,” Lott told CityLab. “I don’t worry about people confusing the Met and the ice cream museum.”

Still, there’s something refreshing about the straightforward billing of the Selfie Fantasy in Ocean City, Maryland: “Ocean City’s first immersive selfie inspired Instagram worthy experience. Enjoy many different atmospheres—all while snapping awesome selfies.” There is also the House of Selfies in Las Vegas, and even the meta Museum of Selfies in Los Angeles, which have photo settings reminiscent of the food- and illusion-based places, and make it clear what the real subject of the experience is. It’s not ice cream or illusions or bright colors—it’s you, the visitor.

That concept might also offer up the strongest connection between the selfie factories and the M-word. Museum comes from a Greek term meaning “shrine to the muses.” The lofty institutions that use the term today are the spiritual descendants of 16th-century “cabinets of curiosities” and “wonder rooms,” in which private collectors gathered the objects that captured their attention. Maybe it’s not so big of a reach, then, to suggest that people might enter the cabinet of curiosities themselves, and find the muse right there in their camera lenses.

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