Art for Community
Shortly after sculpture Maren Hassinger ’69 finished graduate school, she sat in her studio in Los Angeles and set the tone for her future.
“I said to myself, ‘Okay, I’m going to be an artist. I am an artist,’” said Hassinger. “I made that pact with myself, and I’ve really never looked back since.”
Hassinger’s lifelong devotion to her art, pledged early on in her career, has framed her work ever since, granting her purpose and resilience, even when faced with the financial and creative obstacles inherent to an artistic life.
If walls could talk, the Studio Museum in Harlem, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, would agree with Hassinger’s unswerving dedication to the importance of art.
Though this institution, founded to celebrate works by contemporary artists of African descent, has temporarily closed its galleries in preparation for construction of a new space, it is offering off-site programming and exhibitions in the interim to ensure that its presence in Harlem remains vibrant as ever.
One such exhibition is Hassinger’s Monuments, comprised of eight site-specific sculptures installed in Harlem’s Marcus Garvey Park that will remain up through June 10, 2019.
Monuments evolved out of a conversation with Assistant Curator Hallie Ringle and Exhibition Coordinator Eric Booker, who were searching for a way to keep Studio Museum engaged in the Harlem community during the renovation.
“At first, I wanted to do a piece called Neighbors, which was a photography project that showed all the neighbors who were using the park,” said Hassinger. “It would be a way of monumentalizing all the neighbors.”
However, Ringle and Booker were drawn to Hassinger’s earlier work, which involved projects made out of branches. Under that guiding vision, Monuments became a series larger-than-life shapes made of branches and twigs that were positioned in key spots around the park.
“Initially, I couldn’t figure out how we were going to do all eight projects of this scale in two weeks,” said Hassinger. “Somehow, we managed to do it, but it was hard work.”
An army of volunteers were needed for assembly. Armatures were filled with mulch, branches were sought out, and each sculpture was carefully pieced together. This process “went on and on. And after two weeks, it was done.”
Fatima Zaidi ’16, who works as a campaign assistant at Studio Museum, was also part of the team of approximately 75 volunteers who helped assemble Monuments. In addition to bringing in volunteers from Studio Museum’s Teen Leadership Council and Expanding the Walls high school program, the organization’s entire staff was invited to help with installation.
“I was working on a wreath, a circular sculpture completely made of twigs,” said Zaidi. “It was a great way to get outside and help out the staff and do this thing together.”
With the large number of volunteers needed to create Monuments, the exhibition became a community-engaged project.
“I really enjoy that, through this project, we get to have sculptures, even though our museum is currently closed for renovation,” said Zaidi. “I also like that we’ve worked with Maren before—she was a Studio Museum artist—and now, we get to have her work inaugurate our first off-site exhibition.”
Museum Fellows Term
Zaidi herself discovered a passion for arts development while participating in Bennington’s inaugural Museum Fellows Term (MFT), which launched in 2015 with a pilot grant from the Mellon Foundation.
MFT is now an annual immersive educational opportunity that spans from January to May and places students at major cultural institutions. During MFT, students gain professional work experience, visit exhibitions, study multiple aspects of the art world with Bennington faculty, and meet artists, curators, and other cultural leaders.
During the inaugural MFT, Fellows worked at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, which was led at the time by the late Holly Block ’80. Zaidi assisted with a benefit auction the museum was hosting, and she cites this opportunity as her first “foot in the door” of the New York City museum world.
After its pilot year, MFT expanded to include the Brooklyn Museum, the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, the Jewish Museum, the Museum of the Moving Image, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. In 2018, the Studio Museum also joined as a partner.
“Before MFT, I was interested in curation,” said Zaidi. “But when I started working at the Bronx Museum, I realized I didn’t want to work as closely with artists as curators do. I’m more suited to development, but I didn’t even know what development was until I started working at the Bronx Museum.”
The following year, Zaidi interned at the Whitney, and after graduation, she spent a year at Public Art Fund before taking her current position at the Studio Museum.
The museum internships Zaidi had while at Bennington became a strong foundation for her current work, providing a background in both anniversary fundraising and capital campaigns.
“I worked at Public Art Fund during its 40th anniversary, and now the Studio Museum is going through its 50th anniversary,” said Zaidi. “I’m also working for its capital campaign. While I was at the Whitney, I worked in their brand new building, which was built in 2016, so I’m also able to use that experience. I think it’s incredibly helpful to be at the Studio Museum now, after working at the Whitney. It all came full circle.”
While at Bennington, Zaidi “took advantage of whatever resource Bennington had, whether it was having discussions with professors in and out of class, all the internships that we had to do for Field Work Term, or MFT, which was an incredible resource for me.”
“I was already interested in going into art administration,” said Zaidi. “All the classes that I took were always tied into displaying culture, the idea of how to present culture and how important it is for communities. I studied a combination of psychology, art history, painting, philosophy, and anthropology. I took anything I thought would help with my career path.”
Greed and Equality
As a Pakistani who came to America for college, Zaidi appreciates the diversity the Studio Museum brings to the artistic community.
“Overall, the art world in the United States is not diverse, and that has been my experience,” said Zaidi. “It’s been difficult, being a person of color and an immigrant. When I graduated, my family got a green card, but I was not a permanent resident. As I navigate the current political times and balance my interest in art with the existing lack of representation, it’s great to work at institutions like the Studio Museum, which is dedicated to the African diaspora in America and has a diverse staff.”
Hassinger likewise encourages Zaidi’s commitment to revolutionizing the art world in which she finds herself.
“It doesn’t matter the path or course of your life, but do the best you can and stick with it,” said Hassinger.
That’s what the world needs: people who are committed, ordinary people committed to extraordinary ideas.
Maren Hassinger '69
Hassinger’s own work centers on universally understood themes. While her early work is known for its exploration of humankind’s relationship to a rapidly vanishing nature, she recently reexamined what underpins that issue.
Through rediscovering classic authors and texts like Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and William Faulkner’s “The Bear,” Hassinger was struck by the prophetic qualities of these stories.
“At first, I thought of nature as dying off because of cyclical events in the cosmos,” said Hassinger. “But now, I think it’s a vanishing nature caused by greed. It’s promoted by people. Greed has also affected the politics of people. There’s this squandering of life that's very much like the squandering of land and resources.”
The solution? Equality, proposes Hassinger.
“Unless we start working together as family, we’re going to have serious trouble,” said Hassinger. “‘Divide and conquer’ is a specific pattern of behavior that alienates so the people who are in power can remain in power because majorities are divided into fighting minorities.”
The role of poets and artists, therefore, is to see the bigger picture and analyze it for a broad audience.
Much like a storyteller, said Hassinger, “I would like for my work to be seen as a poem or a story that has physical presence.”
By Natalie Redmond, Associate Writer