Executive director, the Laundromat Project
Jun 16, 2022
Kemi Ilesanmi never seemed destined to run an arts organization. Despite having grown up in Lagos, Nigeria, among a family of artists, she is not an artist herself, nor does she hold an arts degree. In fact, she didn’t even complete her undergraduate studies at Smith College until she was in her late 20s.
When she was working on her thesis there, a professor suggested she apply for an internship at the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis. Despite her never having heard of the world-class institution, Ilesanmi’s one-year gig would turn into a six-year stay, with her ultimately running the Walker’s visual arts residency program.
Working there with artist Nari Ward, among others, Ilesanmi would explore notions of home in different communities, especially among those marginalized.
“He was interested in the history of highways and how they cut into neighborhoods,” Ilesanmi told Artsy about Ward, “much like Longwood was affected and dismantled by the Bruckner Expressway here in New York.” Seeing the connection between community, art, home and culture helped crystallize a perspective that she brought with her to New York in 2004 as director of grants at Creative Capital.
Since 2012, she has run the Laundromat Project (LP), where Ilesanmi straddles the line between administrator and innovator — she’s more of a people curator than an arts curator.
“What we really do is we build, we nourish, and we equip people to be community leaders and use their full creative arsenal to envision and make the world that they deserve and want to live in,” she told Artsy. To date, the Laundromat Project has commissioned and trained upward of 200 multiracial, multigenerational and multidisciplinary local artists in making art that tackles issues including gentrification, immigration, climate change, LGBTQIA safety, and food justice.
The Laundromat Project is the brainchild of Risë Wilson, who dreamt it up while attending graduate school at New York University and living in Bed-Stuy. Her idea was to own and operate a functioning neighborhood laundromat that doubled as a neighborhood hub for the arts. Through the residency program Create Change, the Laundromat Project provides resources and financial support for primarily BIPOC New York City artists to make public projects in their local laundromats and other public spaces throughout the city such as libraries, community gardens, public plazas and cultural organizations.
Under Ilesanmi’s leadership, the Laundromat Project signed its first-ever long-term lease in Bed-Stuy in mid-March 2020, unifying the LP’s activities under the same roof for the first time since its inception 15 years earlier.
“We’re really interested in artists as neighbors, artists as citizens, artists as community members,” she told the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage in April. “Artists are translators and bridge-builders … Allowing arts to be recognized and valued for all the fullness that they bring to the conversation and that they bring to neighborhoods is a big part of what we’re trying to address. And that becomes part of community development.”