“A Community Engaged Artist Residency” / Jeffrey Kasper

It all began with a facility tour of the Jamaica Center for Arts & Learning (JCAL). Walking through the over 100-year-old city-owned building on Jamaica Avenue, formerly the Queens Register of Titles and Deeds, led to an unanticipated encounter with the museum’s disheveled basement. “This is prime real estate for artists,” Woodham exclaimed to JCAL’s Executive Director, Cathy Hung. Before his eyes, piles and piles of dusty institutional detritus lay untouched and a space unused. In an impromptu act of transformation, the artist suggested that the Center use this space as studio spaces for visual artists working with the local community.

Over the past year, Woodham, acting much like an “artist-in-residence” of the institution himself, was tasked with not just transforming the physical space for a nascent “community engaged art residency,” but also setting up the organizational structure that would make it work. The artist began with research into Jamaica and its diverse collection of communities. He assembled a survey in consultation with JCAL staff and artists who are from the neighborhood and/or have worked closely with its residents. Questions that guided this exploration included: “What is the value of such an institution to community life?” and “How can the institution support artists engaging with the civic sphere?”

Working with and within an institution with its own working processes continues to be a challenge, in the best of senses. Advocating for platforms for artists to get involved in community affairs is not necessarily a hard-sell; however, more often than not, the value of integrating artists into community institutions seems to be a sentiment that is not completely understood. Woodham’s project pushes us to ask about the ways artists can interact with Jamaica and how an institution like JCAL can create the necessary infrastructure, both social and physical, that can support local artists seeking to work in this way. Woodham’s creative relationship with both the space and JCAL itself was less institutional critique but more a mix of “upkeeping” an institutional space underused and under-imagined while “unkeeping” of the ways in with the institution might normally interact with both its community of artists and the public at large – fostering new interactions. In his patient durational relationship with institutional structure, Woodham provides us with a model way of working that suggest artists can embed themselves within an arts institution in order to transform it.

Jeffrey Kasper