A new arts center on 123rd Street has survived its first four months despite a destructive economy. For the local community, it persists as a symbol of Harlem’s history and transformation.
The Dwyer Cultural Center is a $3 million, 7,000-square foot facility located at St. Nicholas Avenue and 123rd Street. It was unveiled in June when two nonprofits, International Communications Association and Community Works partnered up to reinvent an abandoned Harlem structure.
The project got on its feet when Community Works, a group founded in 1990 by Barbara Horowitz to promote the arts, was approached by ICA, which was seeking a partner to develop programming content for this transformed space to become the Dwyer Cultural Center.
“We were very fortunate this marriage took place,” said Voza Rivers, co-director of the Dwyer and vice president of the ICA.
The building that houses the cultural center was constructed in the late 19th century for use as a warehouse. Over the course of a hundred years, the structure gradually deteriorated, and the original exterior was eventually demolished. In the 1990s, the Harlem Urban Development Corporation made the International Communications Association the nonprofit custodian of the building. Just this year, they completed the renovation and opened up the space for exhibitions.
Dwyer is home to Community Works’ “Harlem is...” exhibition, which is a series of installations and programs exploring local culture, with displays at the center now proclaiming “Harlem is... jazz... hip-hop... blues... music.” The center has also housed live music and theater performances through its “Harlem Nights” program. According to directors, the Dwyer will provide a residency for one Harlem artist each year to create new work and hold receptions to connect artists directly with the community.
“Dwyer wants to encourage and support a whole other generation of emerging artists in Harlem,” said Rebecca Carroll, the center’s deputy director. “But I have yet to hone in on the ‘the thing.’ I want to develop a program series that is like no other opening in the city or in Harlem,” she said.
Now, the facility’s main corridor is adorned with glossy signs along the walls that recount local history. Inside a connecting room, handmade quilts decorate the dimly lit space. According to organizers, this walkway is an artistic narrative of Harlem’s past.
Barbara Horowitz, now a Dwyer co-director, said this arts center is an opportunity to tell the story of Harlem’s diverse history and heritage, from the Renaissance of the ‘20s to the drug epidemics of the ‘70s and ‘80s to the rapid development of the early 21st century, up until the recent slowdown of activity due to the recession.
She hopes the Dwyer serves as an artistic outlet to relate this history directly to the neighborhood today.
“Philosophically, we’re saying that education needs to be connected to the community. Young people need to know history that is not known,” Horowtiz said, adding, “We need to continue the documentation of the community.”
Four months after its birth, organizers say that they are struggling to weather the storm. Rivers said that Harlem has always known tough financial times, so they are prepared to face the challenges ahead and learn “to do more with less.”
Carroll added her optimism, saying, “What I can say in moving forward is that times are tough. But tough times breed creativity and innovation.”
In the long-term, Horowitz said she hopes to transform the Dwyer’s content and the way it is presented. Such plans include producing books and making information available on digital interfaces.
This would distinguish the center in the future, she said, as “The ability to reconfigure information and make it available using 21st century technology will put us in a very viable position.”