In 2016, four Chicago artists (Jeremiah Hulsebos-Spofford, Andrew Schachman, Avery R. Young, Faheem Majeed) with diverse professional backgrounds and interests partnered to found Floating Museum, a nonprofit art collective rooted in the belief that art shouldn’t be limited to four walls in institutional settings.
With a mission to transform public spaces into cultural assets, the nonprofit has partnered with communities across the City of Chicago since then to create temporary exhibitions like Cultural Transit Assembly that explore relationships between art, community, architecture, and public institutions.
Focusing intentionally on neighborhoods on the South and West Sides of the city that have experienced long-term disinvestment, Floating Museum aims to counteract the relative scarcity of resources for cultural production allocated to these communities and to catalyze conversations and partnerships among community stakeholders through its work.
In a Nutshell
What: A Q&A with Floating Museum Co-Director Faheem Majeed about the role cultural assets play in creating stronger, more equitable communities.
Location: Chicago, IL
Last summer, Floating Museum received a $130,000 loan from IFF that facilitated its acquisition of a 5,800-square-foot facility in Chicago’s Grand Crossing neighborhood that has expanded the organization’s capacity to achieve social impact through its work by providing the organization with permanent space for rehearsals, studios, offices, and storage.
As the organization’s capacity to achieve social impact expands with its new facility, we spoke with Floating Museum Co-Director Faheem Majeed recently to discuss the role of cultural assets in creating stronger, more equitable communities; how Floating Museum’s model facilitates community development in ways that aren’t possible with art exhibitions in institutional settings; and more.
In addition to his role at Floating Museum, Majeed is an accomplished solo artist, educator, curator, and community facilitator who previously served as the executive director and curator at the South Side Community Art Center.
IFF: To ground the conversation, can you explain some of the ways that cultural assets strengthen communities?
Cultural assets create a root system for community development, and as information and knowledge is shared in networks and between networks, that has far-reaching impact that strengthens communities in ways beyond beautification alone.
Majeed: One of the tangible benefits of cultural assets is that they beautify communities, and that changes how people view neighborhoods. Floating Museum’s facility, for example, is located on the South Side between two corridors that have seen a lot of investment recently. But on the block where we’re located, the only other structure is a bar across the street. Just by being here, we’re having an impact on the in-between space between the two corridors. We’re going to make the block look more welcoming with community assets like murals, which impacts the perception of the block and real estate values.
There are also intangible benefits in having cultural assets in communities, and I’ll use Floating Museum as an example again. Because we think of the City of Chicago as a museum and its residents as cultural producers, we’re working with a wide variety of artists all over the city, and that creates a network. Many of the artists in our network are working in neighborhoods without support, whether that’s financial or just the visibility of their work. We’re supporting them, which enables them to do more of what they’re already doing, but we’re also serving as a connector between members of our network.
If someone wants to know how we purchased a building, for example, we’re telling them about IFF and the various foundations that have supported our work. Each of those artists has their own network, and the members of their network have their own networks, and so on. Cultural assets create a root system for community development, and as information and knowledge is shared in networks and between networks, that has far-reaching impact that strengthens communities in ways beyond beautification alone. It’s difficult to measure that impact, but it’s real.
IFF: Beyond beautifying communities and creating networks for knowledge and resource sharing, how can cultural assets be leveraged to catalyze community development?
Majeed: Art isn’t threatening, and everyone has some sort of personal relationship with it. We’re interested in pushing certain ideas, but we’re also interested in creating beauty. That makes it easier to go into political or business spaces and to start conversations. I’ll illustrate what I mean by that with an example from one of Floating Museum’s projects, River Assembly.
In 1988, Mayor Harold Washington dedicated a 3.5-acre plot of land where the Chicago River meets Lake Michigan for a park honoring Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, Chicago’s first non-indigenous settler. Almost 30 years later, however, the park still hadn’t been built. There was toxic cleanup needed and lots of politics involved, and it was difficult to even get access to the land.
We started working with the DuSable Park Coalition to finally get this park built in du Sable’s name, and we were able to temporarily place a large foam sculpture on the land that was made by partially scanning a bronze bust of du Sable created by artist Erik Blome. It invited questions: “What is that yellow head out there? Why is it there? What’s that piece of land?” It seems like a small gesture, but those questions planted a seed. And that’s a model for how cultural assets can serve as an entry point for larger discussions.
IFF: What role does the process of creating cultural assets play in community development versus the finished “products” alone?
Majeed: I don’t think you ever actually finish anything. Instead, it’s a journey, and the journey is much better when you do it with a community, with a group of people. The process of creating art or other cultural assets creates opportunities for people to work together to achieve something, and I think that’s a sustainable model to galvanize communities to focus on other challenges.
At Floating Museum, we deal a lot in spectacle, creating hard-to-produce objects that require a whole network of people to accomplish. We cannot pull it off without the support of the community that we build around. So then when the goal is achieved, it’s a celebration of the whole community working together, not just one entity. Rather than members of the community coming to see the finished product at the end and saying, “great, thank you so much for bringing this thing that solved something for us,” it’s instead, “look at what we were able to do together.” That creates a feeling of ownership and a sense of pride in what was accomplished, because members of the community played a significant role in making it happen.
The process of creating art or other cultural assets creates opportunities for people to work together to achieve something, and I think that’s a sustainable model to galvanize communities to focus on other challenges.
IFF: In terms of Floating Museum’s model and how you approach the work, what are the benefits of treating the whole of Chicago as a gallery?
Majeed: I sit on lots of panels, and one of the questions that gets posed to me frequently is how museums can get more diverse people to visit, which is really just code for Black and Brown people. We’re challenging the idea that the only way to consume art is to go to an exhibition downtown. What if the exhibition was actually in a neighborhood instead? What if that content was somewhere in the 130s or in one of the various housing complexes on the edges of town, and what if by people going to that exhibition in the neighborhood they’re in, that counted as attendance for a museum downtown? Because they’re digesting the same content, and whether someone enters a physical structure downtown to see it shouldn’t matter since the purpose is knowledge sharing.
We’re challenging the idea that the only way to consume art is to go to an exhibition downtown.
I love having my work in a museum, but that doesn’t mean I have to choose one or the other. I think you can have both, and it’s important for people in the city to go to the Art Institute or the Field Museum, but I also think understanding the value exchange is important. It’s not more valuable to go to a museum downtown than it is to go into a community or to value the things and the assets that are in the community already.
We had a 30-foot inflatable monument created by a community of indigenous cultural producers, artists, and curators who came together to figure out what was respectful, what was vulnerable, and how we could use it as an exhibition. The goal was to see how far away from a cultural center we could go with it, so we started in Southeast Chicago, which is right on the edge of the city. And then we went to Austin, which is right on the edge of the West Side before Oak Park. Both communities have amazing cultural assets, so that’s where we start. It’s really not about bringing art to these communities, but instead about bringing resources and visibility.
IFF: How do you determine what projects will be most impactful in certain communities and where to direct the resources you just mentioned?
Majeed: How we select the neighborhood, how we select the artists, and how we select the collaborators – who we call hosts – is no different than how a museum downtown puts together exhibitions. You have curators who know the city and its neighborhoods who listen. And then we meet and we talk about what our capacities are and what our limitations are, and we make decisions.
It’s important to note that nothing we plan is set in stone. If we come across information after starting a project that changes how we think about the work, or someone in the community who we’re engaged with makes a suggestion, we have to be nimble and shift, which arts lends itself to. The projects may start one way, but the direction they take and even the physical form changes based on who’s engaged in the work.
Our goal is to work with the people who work with the community to strengthen what they’re already doing or to try to draw attention to it. That means we’re working with the art that’s there and just moving it around or finding new ways to present it. We need to recognize the knowledge that exists in the community among the people who have spent their lives there and structure our work to build their capacity.
IFF: Any final thoughts?
Majeed: As great as all the stuff that I talked about is, when you’re talking about cultural capital and you’re moving it into banking systems and loans, it doesn’t translate. So I do want to thank the Field Foundation and IFF for taking a chance on Floating Museum, because nothing about what we do is conventional. We didn’t initially plan to own a building, because we wanted to invest all of our money into supporting our network. But over time, we needed storage and we needed a rehearsal space, and we were spending more time and resources trying to find storage and rehearsal space than we were spending on actually doing the work. And while we do some pretty spectacular things with raising funds, we didn’t have credit, and that was a real barrier. But with support from both organizations, now we have an experimental space that works really well for us that’s going to help us do far more.
We didn’t initially plan to own a building…but over time, we needed storage and we needed a rehearsal space, and we were spending more time and resources trying to find storage and rehearsal space than we were spending on actually doing the work.
Learn about IFF’s work in the arts & culture sector, which includes the MacArthur Arts and Culture Loan Fund, Chicago’s Cultural Treasures, and supporting organizations like Red Clay Dance Company with lending and real estate solutions.