There are, of course, other acts of creativity that do not meet traditional definitions of “fine art” but are no less valuable. If you walk east from Columbia’s Butler Library, down the rocky hills of Morningside Park, and cross a few avenues, you will find a relatively nondescript laundromat, one of some 3,000 in New York. It’s not a gallery, nor a pop-up space, nor the work of an artist who turned an abandoned building into a functioning laundromat. No, it’s a laundromat, but nonetheless one bursting with creativity.
To wit: During the summer months, it hosts workshops by The Laundromat Project, a nonprofit officially started in 2005 that seeks to “amplify the creativity that already exists within communities” through residencies, development programs, and a host of other events, as its executive director Kemi Ilesanmi explained to me. The benefit of hosting public events in laundromats is engaging a diverse group of people. In New York, at least, they are “multi-generational, multi-race, and multi-class spaces,” says Ilesanmi. The type of community engagement fostered by the project isn’t about painting a mural and walking away, but rather commissioning artists who think long and hard about how to engage the communities where the project operates: Harlem, Bedford Stuyvesant, and Hunts Point / Longwood, three neighborhoods primarily made up of people of color with modest incomes and rich histories. Elvira Clayton’s “Dioko,” a “sculptural oral history project,” for example, took place in the much-trafficked hub of African Square on 125th Street and explored Senegalese and African-American communities in West Harlem.
The Laundromat Project attracts people of all ages, many of whom haven’t produced art in years and who might not opt in for a museum experience. “One of the things that makes us stand out is that we meet people where they are,” said Ilesanmi. “It’s not that museums can’t or have never done that. But we actually do it all the time. It’s not a special project.” Ilesanmi notes that the rules governing museums, long conceptualized as something akin to temples, is an alienating experience for many people. “In our opinion everyone is creative, and we remind them of that even when they don’t think that about themselves,” said Ilesanmi, adding, “creative expression is just a part of being human beings.” As we spoke, she talked through the imagined voice of any given person: “I dance, I love music, I love fill in the blank, as a human being in the world. However, I don’t need that validated by, nor do I feel like I have to go into, a formal setting.” Likely because of this inclusive approach, the Laundromat Project has been met with success. The organization was featured at the Creative Time summit and successfully raised $35,000 in 10 days this year. It’s now thinking about how it will adapt and change its program in the future.