Martel Chapman's 'Arcanus.'
Inspired by the period in the 1920s and ‘30s when literature, visual art, music and politics flourished in New York City’s most famous African American neighborhood, the world’s first Harlem Renaissance Museum is set to open on Madison’s east side.
The museum, which will host a grand opening on March 28, is located in the former Great Big Pictures building on East Washington Avenue, near Fiore Shopping Mall.
The museum is a labor of love for a diverse group of board members hoping to honor the history and spirit of the Harlem Renaissance while highlighting some little-known connections between the Madison area and some of the period’s most influential figures.
In addition, the board members are planning programming that will foster the same types of cross-fertilization that made the era so culturally rich. The first exhibit is “Harlem in the Heartland,” and the founders say they hope to include more museum content, including manuscripts and artifacts, as the effort progresses. The museum will showcase live performances and will have a liquor license.
Peter Brooks, a poet and Ph.D. candidate in rhetoric and composition at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, serves as unofficial academic adviser to the group. He is creating a curriculum for the museum’s educational programs and will give a lecture at the grand opening about the importance of the Harlem Renaissance today. Brooks says many people today know very little about the period and its connections to the Midwest.
For example, the novelist and poet Jean Toomer, who was of mixed racial heritage, spent some of his college career at the UW-Madison. In 1931, Toomer married Margery Latimer, a white Wisconsinite, prompting scandals over “race mixing” and the spiritual commune the two helped organize in Portage. Philosopher Alain Locke, often referred to as the “dean” of the Harlem Renaissance, was once a visiting professor at the UW. Locke was also gay. Brooks says the Harlem Renaissance contained early seeds of the gay liberation movement.
Brooks believes public intellectual battles that took place during the Harlem Renaissance provide positive examples for communities working through conflict and dissent. “The Harlem Renaissance was not a utopia; it was not a perfect place where everyone agreed,” says Brooks. “You had scholars and writers on one side saying you need to adapt and conform, and other writers, artists and performers saying we need to be who we are, we need to be genuine.”
Brooks says it is important to create a space for the community to wrestle with today’s issues. “The Harlem Renaissance is an example of how conflict can help people learn more about each other and bring people together,” says Brooks. “You had a very public expression of everything that is good flowing into the streets. African Americans were able to talk about slavery, violence and poverty — and not just to black audiences but white audiences as well.
David Hart, a local attorney and museum board member, is glad to see the 12-year effort to create the museum reach fruition. Hart facilitates monthly poetry slams at Genna’s for Madison’s Urban Spoken Word collective and says the spoken word movement owes a great debt to the Harlem Renaissance. “Most of the things that we are able to do today are possible because of that movement,” says Hart. “We really always use the Harlem Renaissance as a framework.”
Why locate a museum named after a New York phenomenon in Madison? “Everyone’s heard or is familiar with the Harlem Renaissance, but it was interesting that there was no museum ever, anyplace, and so why not us?” says Tom Farley, who also serves on the museum board. “I’m glad somebody had the wherewithal to do it here.”
Farley, brother of the late comedian Chris Farley and a former director of marketing for the Greater Madison Convention & Visitors Bureau, says the museum will be a great addition to the East Washington corridor, which he calls the “future of Madison.” He says the opening gala will demonstrate the diversity of the museum’s programming. In addition to a performance by J.W. Basilo, a world champion poetry slam finalist, the event will feature jazz, visual art and Brooks’ lecture. “All these different mediums coming together in one space, people will get the sense it’s going to be a place where you can come and learn,” says Farley.
Hart says the museum will create a welcoming space for everyone, regardless of race, gender, background or sexual orientation. “We wanted to make a lasting impression on the arts landscape in Madison. The urban art forms, or the Harlem Renaissance art forms are thriving even today,” says Hart. “We sought to make those arts as respectable and relevant as any other art form that exists here in Madison, like the opera or the ballet.”
Harlem Renaissance Museum Grand Opening
Saturday, March 28, 7 pm, 1444 E. Washington Ave.
Featuring music by the Caitlin McGahan Artet, lecture by Peter Brooks, J.W. Basilo (National Poetry Slam winner) and Martel Chapman, the artist who created the exhibit of oil paintings called “Harlem in the Heartland.”