March 7th, 2011
By Pia Catton
Wall Street Journal
Sometimes the weather just gets in the way. In January, this column was devoted to experiencing the arts in unfamiliar ways as an effort to curtail procrastination: trying out new (to me) venues, neighborhoods and formats. After visits to the Queens Museum of Art and the Central Park Marionette Theater, followed by watching opera in HD and ballet on iTunes, I scheduled a visit to the Studio Museum of Harlem.
When the appointed day arrived, however, so did a major snowfall, forcing the museum to close for the day. But just like the Carnegie Hall concerts that were postponed last year because of that pesky Icelandic volcano, it’s only a matter of rescheduling.
So on a considerably less snowy day, I took the subway uptown for a whirlwind tour of arts and healthful food. My guide for the afternoon was actor Daniel Beaty, the 35-year-old writer and performer of the one-man show “Through the Night,” in which he plays multiple characters to dramatize the stories of black men in America.
A longtime Harlem resident, Mr. Beaty is closely connected to the neighborhood’s arts institutions. He’s also a supporter of its small businesses that cater to the health-conscious, one of which loosely inspired a story line in “Through the Night,” which is currently playing at Times Square’s Westside Theater.
One of the characters in Mr. Beaty’s show is a middle-aged father on a mission to keep his health-food shop open. So for our first stop, we met at Watkins Health Foods (66 W. 116th St.), a juice bar that also sells all manner of food and vitamins. Though the real-life store does brisk business (and Mr. Beaty’s character bears no real connection to the owner), Mr. Beaty was inspired by the setting after stopping in each day for a power drink of green vegetables, ginger and lemon.
Daniel Beaty and Lauren Haynes on a recent tour of the Studio Museum of Harlem, where Ms. Haynes serves as assistant curator.
.”I used to get one of these every day after working out,” he said as he ordered one for me. “I’m going to have a large, but you might want small.” (I finished it—and the energy boost was no joke.)
Our next stop was for lunch at another of Mr. Beaty’s regular healthy haunts: Food for Life Supreme (108 W. 116th St.), where they craft everything from the delicious Cuban-style salmon sandwiches to the colorful tables.
After lunch it was on to the Studio Museum of Harlem, where our visit took on a six-degrees-of-separation element. Mr. Beaty’s production boasts a high-profile group of “artistic ambassadors” whom he and producer Daryl Roth brought onboard to ensure the play attracted a broad and diverse audience. Among them: Thelma Golden, the director and chief curator of the Studio Museum of Harlem.
Ms. Golden has been at the helm of this 43-year-old museum since 2005, and she has balanced the institution’s longstanding mission—presenting and preserving artists of African descent—with new approaches to building the audience.
Last summer, Ms. Golden extended the museum’s evening hours to 8 p.m. from Thursday to Sunday—and turned Wednesday into a day for school tours and private events rather than the public. They may sound like small administrative changes, but they’ve had a major impact. “We used to not have a late-evening opening time, and that really cut us off from our audience,” she said. “There were lots of people in the neighborhood, and the museum would be closed.”
With the later time, the museum can catch people before they head to performing arts or dinner. “It was an acknowledgment of all the different reasons people come uptown,” Ms. Golden said.
Assistant Curator Lauren Haynes led us on a tour through exhibits of work by Mark Bradford, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and Dawoud Bey. And before we left, Mr. Beaty and I both availed ourselves of a great freebie: Harlem Postcards. “We ask artists to take a picture, and we print it as a postcard,” said Ms. Golden. “Our hope is that visitors from near and far leave with something that represents not only the museum but the neighborhood.”
From the museum, it was a short walk to the Dwyer Cultural Center (258 Saint Nicholas Ave.), a performance, exhibition and rehearsal space where Mr. Beaty has performed and pops in to catch other artists. He also has a deeper artistic connection to the facility: Dwyer’s co-director, Voza Rivers, is also the executive director of the Lenox Avenue-based New Heritage Theatre Group, which originally produced Mr. Beaty’s “Through the Night” with the Riverside Theatre and Wall Tall Girl productions.
In the gleaming multi-purpose rooms, one group was rehearsing a play and another was just arriving for a hip-hop show. A text and photography exhibition celebrating gospel and churches in Harlem lined one of the walls.
The Dwyer Center is mere steps from the Aloft Harlem Hotel, the Nectar Wine Bar and the restaurant Chocolate, where Mr. Beatty and I reflected on our day over a glass of bubbly. In a short few blocks, we had connected with visual and performing-arts venues, but there was too much to pack into one day. Next time: the Apollo.
Write to Pia Catton at Pia.Catton@wsj.com