Ulysses Williams, Executive Director, ArtCrawl Harlem

Janeth Benjamin (JB): Tell us about ArtCrawl Harlem.

Ulysses Williams: ArtCrawl Harlem was created in 2008 by a gallery owner and Harlem-based tour guide who wanted to support and promote the historical legacy of art in Harlem while exposing the community and tourists to the community of artists and businesses. Spring and Fall tours were offered each year with excursions through local galleries and arts destinations while showcasing the neighborhood’s extensive selection of outdoor art with a culminating luncheon with musical performances to cap off the tours.  The ultimate goal was to add to the excitement that already existed in this globally famous enclave. At the time tours included stops at the Schomburg Museum, El Barrio Museum, and The Dwyer Cultural Center just to name a few as well as some hidden gems such as private artists’ studios and homes. ArtCrawl Harlem has been a nonprofit arts education organization since 2016.

In 2013, after many years of offering insightful and exciting tours, the organization produced its first curated exhibit titled From Motown to Def Jam a collaboration with well-known curator, Souleo. The art exhibit included four Harlem-based galleries and featured 49 visual artists with guided trolley tours on the selected weekends.  The ability to produce an art exhibit was a turning point for the organization.

ArtCrawl Harlem also co-produced art exhibits and performances featuring the work of Romare Bearden, Tribal African Art, and in 2016 kick-off it’s first of two installments of Harlem Holiday Windows which was a collaboration with the Schomburg Center’s Teen Curator’s program and the Fashion Institute of Technology’s Visual Presentation and Exhibition Design (VPED) Program where students together with retail business owners designed holiday season window displays that entertained and marveled those visiting the Lenox Ave shopping district.

ArtCrawl Harlem promotes the exposure of professional and emerging artists, Harlem art galleries, and cultural institutions.  The aim is to elevate Harlem on the greater metropolitan cultural map while providing both education and quality experiences to visitors, tourists, and members of the community. We expanded our programming to include an artist residency program where Monday through Sunday we host artists in a wonderful house on Governors Island and on weekends we welcome the public in to see the artists completed works and work in progress.

JB: What inspired you to join the organization?

Ulysses Williams: In late 2018, I met one of the founders of ArtCrawl Harlem at a Pop-up shop in Harlem through a mutual acquaintance.  She shared with me that she was the founder and Executive Director of an organization that hadn’t been very active as of late and she wanted to put the organization in capable hands that would continue the work they began back in 2008.  After finding out the mission and programming of the organization I was all in and ready to take the helm.

JB: Tell us a little bit more about your role as Executive Director? What’s your day-to-day like?

Ulysses Williams: As the Executive Director, I am the person setting the tone for the organization. I’m responsible for seeing where potential opportunities and partnerships exist for ArtCrawl Harlem to expand and activate programming for artists and the community at large.  We are a small organization and therefore I’m a cheerleader of sorts for the organization and the artist we serve. Saundra Heath of the Heath Gallery on Harlem recently referred to me as Pappa Bear. I guess I’ve been taking on that role. I wear multiple hats in this position; I manage the day-to-day operations, market and promote our activities, communicate with our partners and grantor as well as plan with the upcoming year in mind.

JB: What has been the highlight of your experience with Art Crawl Harlem?

Ulysses Williams: When I think back over the past nearly thirty-six months, there have been so many highlights; however, what stands out most was our ability during the pandemic to select and host visual artists for our 2020 and 2021 Boundaries & Connections Artist Residency Program on Governors Island. In addition to offering space for the artists to safely create, the artist also received stipends.

(Left to Right) Mario Joyce, Melissa Sutherland Moss and Michael Obele

Our 2020 Artists in Residence were Painter and Photographer, Ricky Day and Multi-media Artist DeMarcus McGaughey who both created a series of works that celebrated the centennial of the Harlem Renaissance. This year we are hosting three extremely talented artists; Portrait Artist and Photographer Michael Obele, Self-Taught multi-Media Artists, Mario Joyce, and last but certainly not least Multi-media Artist and Curator, Melissa Sutherland-Moss.  My motto for the residency is “Opportunity, Space, and Create.” The residency program is so important because as we know space is a commodity in NYC and for an artist to comfortably spread out and create in a serene setting like Governors Island is a great achievement. I’m excited that ArtCrawl Harlem will exhibit the artwork of our three artists in residence this September through October at 4B Nolan Park on Governors Island, 4B Nolan Park.

The other highlight was our Fire & Soul: 100 Years of Harlem Art Exhibit that featured 18 local NYC-based artists which were held at Kente Royal Gallery. I also wanted to include the literary arts, so we promoted a Fire & Soul Poetry Contest where four poets were selected to received stipends for their work.  I’m happy to say that our Fire & Soul poets; Carla Cherry, Tamu Favorite, Troy Longmire, and Masad Qawishabazz performed at this year’s 2021 NYC Poetry Festival on Governors Island as well as took part in ArtCrawl Harlem’s Virtual Juneteenth Poetry Celebration.

Also, an added highlight to this year’s Artist residency house on Governors is our What’s Your (G) Status Pop-in Public Art Installation with the (G)eneration Project where visitors can share how they and their family came to live in the United States and complete an artwork that represents their story.  The installation reminds us that we are all immigrants in this country.

JB: What is your vision for the organization and movement?

Ulysses Williams: I hope that the ArtCrawl Harlem will return to where we began and safely offer guided trolly tours throughout Harlem again. I can’t wait for ArtCrawl Harlem to confidently and safely be able to gather groups in celebration of Harlem again. I would love for the organization to one day have a physical space that not only exhibits art but also provides professional services to the many talented artists in New York City.  I look forward to producing more art exhibits and including performance art in our repertoire of programming.  My goal is to maintain ArtCrawl Harlem’s interest in sustaining, supporting, and promoting art in Harlem.

I look forward to curating exhibits and experiences that focus on the global Black experience and presenting a cross-section of artistic genres

JB: Is there a youth component to the organization and if so, how has it been received by the community and young people to date?

Ulysses Williams: There is not necessarily a youth component, however, our programs engage families and therefore young people are allowed to see art and talk to artists and hopefully be inspired to create as well. Our world thrives on technology, mobile devices, and social media apps but there’s nothing like young people getting their hands dirty with paint and clay as well as enhancing their vision through the art of photography and poetry.

JB: Have you been able to gain support from local community leaders and the community in general?

Ulysses Williams: Well, of course, we received grants from Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (LMCC) and Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone (UMEZ).  We were able to develop community and business support with Harlem Parade, Harlem2020, Suden PR, Sephina Spirits, and Costco.  Saundra Heath co-owner of The Heath Gallery in Harlem and Artist, Guy Philoche are valuable advisors, and we had the support of several volunteers.  Currently, we are expanding our Executive Board to further expand our footprint in the NYC arts community and beyond.

Our organization’s name is sometimes overshadowed by the extremely talented artists with whom we collaborate with but that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

JB: What has that been like during COVID?

Ulysses Williams: The COVID 19 Pandemic has been teaching the entire world a lesson on how to adapt and stay productive during challenging times. The pandemic hit just as I was attempting to fundraise and develop business partnerships. I was sending out emails to businesses about two weeks before the city shut down and went into quarantine.   Initially, I wasn’t sure just what to do but I knew we still had opportunities and plans to execute.

I continued to plan, with a mindset that Artists remained at work also. So many artists as we know created beautiful, imaginative, and thought-provoking work throughout the pandemic and they are always seeking opportunities to show and sell their work while sharing their story and what inspires them. The COVID 19 era shined a light on the BLM movement while also exposing the disparities within the arts industry and the lack of funding available to artists and the organizations and spaces that support artists. I’m proud that ArtCrawl Harlem has continued to exist as a conduit of support for artists deserving of public attention.