Laurie Cumbo

Featured Alumni Profiles

Laurie Cumbo

MA '99, Visual Arts Administration

While participating in the visual arts administration study abroad program in the summer of 1998, Laurie Cumbo spent time in Bilbao, Spain. There she observed how the new Guggenheim Museum had rejuvenated the community. "Bilbao had decided to use culture as a transformer," Cumbo explains, "It made me think of what could happen in Brooklyn." Today Cumbo runs MoCADA, the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporian Arts, which she founded in 2000 in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.

When did your interest in the visual arts begin?

I've always been interested in the visual arts, but while at Brooklyn Technical High School I did an internship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That was the real turning point. Taking the train all the way uptown and then working in that grand building with different scholars and artists, and then seeing the exhibitions that resulted was really exciting.

You got your masters in the Visual Arts Administration Program. Is it true that your thesis resulted in the formation of MoCADA?

The hypothesis of my thesis was: Could a museum for artists of African descent thrive in Brooklyn, New York? It started out being very theoretical, but while doing the research I read about a grant that funded socially entrepreneurial ideas. The grant application required that I form a board and find a location for a museum. I didn't end up getting the grant, but because of the application I had put these elements in place. I thought, I might as well continue as if it's real. That's how MoCADA began.

What kinds of things take place at MoCADA?

Recently we showed "From Challenge to Triumph," a documentation of printmaking over the last 135 years. The show dealt with lynchings, post-slavery, labor, voting and civil rights. We do four exhibitions per year that usually deal with contemporary urban issues such as AIDS, homelessness and police brutality. We also facilitate approximately 30 programs in conjunction with each exhibit, as well as an outdoor film festival called Kid Flix Film Fest of Bed Stuy. We have an artist in residence program as well, where we bring exhibiting MoCADA artists into PS 262 three times a week, and then a take the students to museums once a month.

How did your time at NYU prepare you for this work?

The NYU experience was quite incredible for me. I learned so much in such a short period of time about auction houses, galleries, museums and fundraising. The university provided a solid foundation and a great primer for what was to come. And studying abroad through NYU was the most challenging and wonderful experience. To go from country to country and see all these different institutions and learn how they operate was invaluable, especially considering what I'm doing today.

What's next for you?

A mixed use cultural district is being built surrounding the Brooklyn Academy of Music that will include space for dance, theater, performance art and visual art. MoCADA is going to be a part of that. The Brooklyn Borough President has allocated $5 million for the construction of the new museum, and the City Council Brooklyn Delegation allocated an additional $1 million. Our goal is to break ground this year with a new facility opening in 2004/5. That's a lot of synergy, and it feels great to be a part of it.

Photo: Sultana Rahman and National Conference of Artists New York President Kwame Brathwaite present award to Laurie Cumbo for her initiative in founding The Museum of Contemporary African Diasporic Arts. Credit: Kwame Brathwaite.