Enjoy Art While Doing Your Laundry
Risë Wilson ’97 and Takema Robinson
have received a $90,000 fellowship to pursue the Laundromat Project,
an innovative nonprofit venture that involves opening a self-service
laundry that will double as a community arts center in the Bedford-Stuyvesant
neighborhood in Brooklyn. The fellowship was awarded by Echoing
Green, a New York-based global social venture fund.
“The idea is to create a space that invites anyone to experience
art in a meaningful way, without entering a museum and without having
to have a background in art,” says Wilson, who majored in
African-American studies at the College and took art classes while
on campus. “I’ve always been interested in art, but
never gave myself permission to pursue it as a career.”
Wilson conceived the idea five years ago while working in sales
at Procter & Gamble. She didn’t know how to create a public
arts center, but figured she could support one by marrying it to
a profitable venture.
In her free time, while still working at P&G, Wilson enrolled
in art classes in her native Philadelphia, pursued internships and
volunteered at arts organizations in order to learn more about the
nonprofit art world. She continued to hone the idea while a graduate
student in Africana Studies at NYU — from which she graduated
in May with an M.A. — during which time she interned for a
year at the Museum of Modern Art.
For the money-making side of the venture, Wilson considered pairing
the arts center with a beauty or barber shop or a bodega, among
other options. Her objective was to capture the broadest audience
possible and to engage customers in visual arts in an informal atmosphere.
Eventually, she hit on the idea of a Laundromat.
“You have to do laundry whether you want to or not,”
notes Wilson, “no matter what the economy is doing.”
Other Laundromats around the country have combined their services
with a café, bar, dating service or musical concerts, but
Wilson says this is the first attempt she knows of to use the profits
from the coin machines to support a nonprofit mission.
“You have down time,” says Wilson, noting that a self-service
laundry often is a place where local residents gather and talk.
Installing art will give patrons something new to discuss. The exhibitions
will be by local artists or about the neighborhood. “It’s
about displaying the art creatively, not about hanging framed pictures
on the wall,” she says. “We can install works on the
machines, on the floor, or hang them from the ceiling. As someone
who’s come in to do your laundry, you enter the installation
and become part of the work.”
Two artists that Wilson and Robinson already are working with are
Isaac Diggs ’94 and Syreeta McFadden
’97. Diggs, a photographer, lives and works in New
York City. He recently had a solo exhibition of his photographs
at Luxe Gallery and is preparing for a project in Japan. Wilson
and Diggs did not meet at the College; rather, they met in early
2004 at a symposium. “Isaac’s images explore issues
of sexuality, power and performance in public spaces, which matches
my curatorial interests in the body’s participation within
the many processes of inventing identities,” Wilson notes.
By day, McFadden works in the NYC Department of Housing Preservation
and Development, but for the past six years also has been a freelance
photographer. She and Wilson met at Columbia. “Syreeta’s
artistic work is interested in the dialogue between urban architecture
and urban bodies (individually and as communities),” says
Wilson. McFadden is a board member of Louderarts, Inc. and an active
member of the Fort Greene Photography Association.
Wilson would love to see the Laundromat Project take over a brownstone
in Brooklyn and expand to provide art classes, studio space and
perhaps an artist-in-residence program. The project continues to
raise funds so it can look for a start-up space.
“We might mount some arts education programs and community
programs even before we have the building,” Wilson says. “We
don’t want to wait two years to start fulfilling our mission.”
Shira Boss-Bicak ’93
The Laundromat Project is building a board of directors, and
its founders are eager to meet alumni who can offer advice or assistance.
Those interested in learning more can contact
Wilson at (718) 574-0798 or firstname.lastname@example.org.