Founded in 2005 by Rïse Wilson, The Laundromat Project (The LP) supports artists to work in and with communities across New York City, and particularly anchored in three neighbourhoods. Kemi Ilesanmi first joined the board in 2006, and in 2012 became executive director; she now leads a staff team of seven, additionally supported by volunteers. Its turnover has been steadily rising; in 2017 it reached an operating budget of $800,000, of which 5% was raised through peer-to-peer fundraising, and another 10% through individual philanthropy and a gala fundraising event. Roughly 60% of contributed revenue is received as grants from major funders, and the rest comprises city and state funding and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Mission: amplifying the creativity that already exists within communities by using arts and culture to build community networks, solve problems, and enhance our sense of ownership in the places where we live, work, and grow
The Laundromat Project began when founder Rïse Wilson left her corporate job to pursue a more meaningful career based in service. Also a printmaker, she began to look at unconventional community settings where she could bring art directly to where people already were. The laundromat culture in New York is very specific, says Kemi Ilesanmi: “Apartment buildings are dominant and usually won’t have laundry facilities, so laundromats are a huge part of life here. They are de facto community gathering spaces, attracting customers across class, race, and age.” And so The LP began literally with “commissioning artists to make original art in laundromats”.
Since then its work has expanded both in terms of the spaces in which it appears and what is offered to participants, but the central idea remains consistent: “It’s meeting people where they are and being embedded in a neighbourhood, to connect and empower artists of colour and their neighbours within communities of colour. We’re really interested in process-based art-making, co-creating and collaborating at various levels, so it’s about conversation, engagement and inviting people in. The idea has always been, what would it look like if you just showed up in a laundromat and there was an artist doing a project and you were invited to participate and contribute: how might that open up space in one’s mind and concept of the world, that could then translate into other parts of one’s life?”
“The idea has always been, what would it look like if you just showed up in a laundromat and there was an artist doing a project and you were invited to participate and contribute: how might that open up space in one’s mind and concept of the world, that could then translate into other parts of one’s life?”
Although Wilson originally dreamed of acquiring a laundromat of her own, The LP started by commissioning and training artists to do community-responsive and socially-engaged art-making, working with more than 150 artists to date. In 2015, The LP co-founded the Kelly Street Collaborative (KSC) in the South Bronx, in partnership with Workforce Housing, Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association, and Kelly Street Garden Committee. The LP’s contribution sprouts from a two-bedroom apartment which “we activate as a community resource through public programmes, artists residencies, and art-making workshops. It’s our creative hub.” In addition, The LP has two other anchor neighbourhoods in NYC in which it focuses its main programming: Harlem in Manhattan and Bedford-Stuyvesant (Bed-Stuy) in Brooklyn.
The emphasis is always on everyday creativity: “We wanted to think about artists and creativity as a resource. Our neighbours may not identify as artists, but they’re incredibly resourceful and come at things with a different kind of perspective. These are all things that are really useful in the context of a community, so why not lift their creativity up as a resource that should be valued? Creativity is about thinking about things in a new way, approaching things with a different kind of lens, and sometimes taking a risk – and those are things that we all do.” It’s through that creativity, Ilesanmi argues, that “artists and their neighbours in communities of colour and communities living on modest incomes, can help shape the world around them”.
“We wanted to think about artists and creativity as a resource. Our neighbours may not identify as artists, but they’re incredibly resourceful and come at things with a different kind of perspective. These are all things that are really useful in the context of a community, so why not lift their creativity up as a resource that should be valued?”
An emphasis on local artists
Central to The LP ethos is “long-term commitment to place”: initially it began working across not only New York City but also New Jersey and Philadelphia, but now aims to “work more deeply than broadly and solely within New York City’s five boroughs”. This has also affected how it chooses artists with whom to work: The LP now selects up to 20 artists to work in its Create Change programme each year, of whom five are commissioned to do a project and the other 15 undergo professional development training. “The artists are selected by our Artist and Community Council – consisting of five people including an alumnus of our programmes, arts professionals, and community activists representing our three anchor neighbourhoods. We ask artists to work in their own neighbourhoods or communities of affinity, in which they have stock and an investment, and to whom they are accountable, so they don’t say: my six months are up, I don’t care about that issue any more. They still live there, and The LP wants to keep working with them and provide them with the resources to make community-responsive art with their community members.”
Chosen artists represent multiple diversities: “They’re multi-racial and multi-ethnic, multi-disciplinary – painters, film-makers, dancers, writers, sounds artists, community healers – and multi-generational, with older artists bringing a much-valued perspective to the table. It’s about how do we connect different kinds of people with each other, and how do we have conversations about community re-zoning, food access, education quality, issues of safety. It’s not that those conversations can’t happen without us but art can touch hearts and minds in a way that data can’t.”
“It’s about how do we connect different kinds of people with each other, and how do we have conversations about community re-zoning, food access, education quality, issues of safety. It’s not that those conversations can’t happen without us but art can touch hearts and minds in a way that data can’t.”
Professional development training – which all the selected artists undergo – focuses on “cultural organising – how do you move policy, ideas, narratives through culture – and community partnerships”, among other topics. The year always begins with a workshop run by Urban Bush Women on “entering, building and exiting community. Even if it’s a community you know, when you’re asking people to engage, there’s a different way you need to enter and work with them: particularly with communities of colour and those living on modest incomes, that sense of people coming in to study them, getting what they need and moving on is something we really want to challenge and avoid.”
Storytelling as world-making
A consistent theme in The LP’s work is “narrative: community histories, oral histories, and storytelling. A lot of our artist projects are about gathering stories and then translating them in all kinds of ways: making short video pieces, making theatre, doing photo installations. Storytelling as a mechanism is a powerful mode of shaping one’s worlds, putting one’s world on record, allowing people to shape their world: there’s so much power embedded in that – especially for communities or people within those communities who may have undeserved negative stories about themselves circling around in their heads. It is critical to challenge and shift one’s own stories from negative to positive and art can help with that in powerful ways.”
“Storytelling as a mechanism is a powerful mode of shaping one’s worlds, putting one’s world on record, allowing people to shape their world.”
Ilesanmi refers to three particular artists to illustrate the diverse ways in which this has worked:
1: Misra Walker; Coquito & Climate Cart (2016, Mixed Media Installation)
Coquito or “icy” carts selling ice-cream and shaved ices are a common feature in New York in the summer, especially in the Bronx. Bronx-based artist and climate-change activist Misra Walker redesigned her own coquito cart as “a way to entice her neighbours into conversations about environmental and climate-change issues. But she didn’t use those words; she asked: what kind of weather is happening today? What have you noticed about the way the weather has changed over time? She then had people write these stories out on colourful pieces of paper that corresponded to icy flavours, to make a collective story of climate change from a local perspective.”
2: Claro de los Reyes; My Baryo My Boro (2015, Video-Based Oral Histories)
A theatre and film artist, Claro de los Reyes worked with the Filipino-American community, “gathering oral histories and then transforming them into short plays and literary pieces. He has continued to develop the project and partnered with several local organisations, including the Queens Public Library as a permanent repository for the stories. His project is a way of capturing the history of a community that isn’t currently in the history books.”
3: Elvira Clayton; Dioko (2015, Public Mobile Installation)
A multi-media artist married to a man from Senegal, Elvira Clayton worked with the Little Senegal community in Harlem to create a mobile installation “visually inspired by African masquerade dress that often features burlap and colourful beads. Embedded within the sculpture are headphones featuring stories from local Senegalese immigrants that Clayton met at local hair braiding shops, restaurants, and businesses. You’re attracted to it because it’s big, colourful and interesting – and then it turns out to be interactive, and you get to learn about a neighbour and what their story might be.”
Beyond the immediate project that an artist might be commissioned to make, The LP is interested in the ways in which “our work can plant a seed that becomes part of changing the dominant narrative and the conversation about communities and people of colour. We work with artists who are engaged in real on-the-ground issues of gentrification, displacement, food access, climate change, and ideas that don’t fit into a traditional gallery system. We are a place where they can do something that is grounded in their lived experience and connected to their own communities. The long-term impact of our work shows up in ripple effects: we have artists who join community boards and artists who are doing different kinds of socially-engaged projects together years later.”
“We work with artists who are engaged in real on-the-ground issues of gentrification, displacement, food access, climate change, and ideas that don’t fit into a traditional gallery system.”
One example Ilesanmi gives is the ongoing collaboration between Tomie Arai and Betty Yu, who met through The LP’s Create Change program in 2012. In 2015, along with ManSee Kong, they co-founded the Chinatown Art Brigade, a cultural collective of artists, media-makers and activists creating work around issues of housing displacement and gentrification in NYC’s many Chinatowns.
Truly community-responsive art-making requires particular skills of the artists, beyond those related to practical art-making, because the biggest challenge it poses is that “you’re dealing with people. Artists need to have skills of listening, flexibility, generosity of spirit, and conflict negotiation. You might think you have a beautiful idea and it turns out that the people you want to engage may or may not agree.” Ilesanmi recalls one project in particular, in Bed-Stuy, “Mapping Soulville” (2013), led by artist Aisha Cousins, who wanted to invite inhabitants to rename local streets after Malcolm X, but quickly realised “she had to give her neighbours room to choose whatever names were of meaning to them. The real goal was to get a conversation going about community change, norms, and connection”.
Although long-term community relationships are embedded in The LP’s working practice, and “we really do focus on nourishing and building our incredible network of artists and community members”, Ilesanmi is aware that official engagement with each artist lasts only six months, and questions: “What more can we do past that? Do we need one- or two-year residencies? Do we need new kinds of trainings? How do we keep investing in it in a meaningful way?” In particular, she is interested in the question of “what thought leadership looks like”, and how The LP’s large community might share its approaches with other organisations and communities.
Photo: Artmaking at The Laundry Room, Field Day, 2015. Credit: Ray Llanos