Featured photo: Kerri Mubaarak is Elsewhere’s new executive director. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

Yes, it’s the place with all the stuff, but Elsewhere is so much more than that.

That’s what the living museum’s new executive director, Kerri Mubaarak, wants people to know.

“Anybody who comes through Elsewhere’s doors, it’s a place where you can actually think freely,” she says. “We just don’t have that anymore.”

After closing its doors in January for six months, the quirky museum reopened this summer with a renewed energy around its vision. But it wasn’t always easy.

Mubaarak, who became executive director in June, originally joined Elsewhere in 2017 as operations manager. She joined the board in 2020 and left the board to become acting director in October 2022. 

Elsewhere was founded in 2003 by George Scheer, Josh Fox, Matt Merfert, Stephanie Sherman and Allen Davis after the group converted the thrift store owned by Scheer’s aunt Sylvia Gray, into an immersive arts space. Scheer stepped down in 2019 and since then, the organization has undergone a good bit of change in leadership. In 2021, activist April Parker was named managing director while Matthew Giddings acted as executive director.

But the organization was in flux. The pandemic had thrown a curveball at the museum and staff wondered what the future would look like for the longstanding arts organization.

“When we stepped out, we were thinking about if Elsewhere needed to be something else,” Mubaarak says. “What ended up happening when we were down, was we threw everything on the table.”

Kerri Mubaarak, Elsewhere’s new executive director, poses with Rontherin Ratliff’s “Rosa #7 Yellow Independence.” (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

Scheer and Sherman returned to the museum, along with former staff, artist alumni, supporters from the community and board members. They started asking questions.

What if it turns into a bar?

What if it could be an Airbnb?

“After all of this soul searching, we circled back to the beginning,” Mubaarak says. “We’re an artist residency. That’s what people know it to be…. That’s what it has been and that’s what it needs to remain as.”

While many people in Greensboro may not be knowledgeable about Elsewhere’s mission — Is it a museum? Is it a thrift store? Is it business? — the organization has built up a worldwide reputation. And that’s mostly due to its artist residency program.

“The wealth of Elsewhere is in its artists,” Mubaarak says. “They’ve had as many as five to six residencies a year for 20 years. There are hundreds of alumni that have been through Elsewhere that have been from all points around the globe. They have come to Greensboro so that they can be free to create, to have unencumbered thoughts to create.”

Some of the most notable artists include Lonnie Holley, Shan Wallace and Chloe Bass.

“There’s these really important artists who come here,” Mubaarak says. “If the general public knew who was living in downtown Greensboro, it would really surprise them.”

The last artist residency took place in October with local artists Cassandra Liuzzo and Michaela Baldwin. Liuzzo lived in the museum while Baldwin commuted from Winston-Salem. Their residency was the first one that Elsewhere had hosted since October 2022. Next year, they’ll have their first urban exchange residency in which they’ll invite artists from Detroit to come and live and work in the space. In June, they’ll host their first alumni residency.

“It’s for artists to come in and reimagine and think or not think and feel or journal and create in some kind of way,” Mubaarak says.

Kerri Mubaarak is Elsewhere’s new executive director. Here she poses with artist Billy Dee’s “Tiny Elsewhere.” (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

But the space isn’t just for artists.

In addition to the artist residencies, which they’ll have less frequently compared to before, Elsewhere will also make room for creative retreats for businesses, university groups or any other communities that want to utilize the space.

In September, the museum hosted a consulting firm from Nashville that had come to Greensboro for a medical conference. As part of the retreat, the consultants were asked to create art with the knick knacks and materials found throughout Elsewhere. And after an hour, these medical-minded people created installations that addressed things like race disparities within medicine and solutions.

“That’s the kind of thing we want other people to experience,” Mubaarak says. “It’s not just a space for artists but also a space for non artists to get creative too.”

The museum will also open up every first weekend of the month to the public. In the past, the museum was open every weekend. If the community wants to experience the space outside of that, they can rent out the museum for parties or open mic nights.

The hope is that the Greensboro community gets to know Elsewhere more.

“I would like for the community to understand Elsewhere as it actually is,” she says. “Yes it is the place with all the stuff, but why is that stuff there? When you start telling people that story, they’re fascinated.”

The changes are also to ensure that Elsewhere as an organization can remain sustainable, according to Mubaraak.

“When I came in from October to March, it was about making a full assessment in terms of where we were financially and our public image,” she says. “We had to ask ourselves, ‘We’re 20 years in, do we need to stop this?’”

Kerri Mubaarak is Elsewhere’s new executive director. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

The group landed on this diversified set of offerings that allows the museum to make more money and not rely so heavily on grants.

“If you’re talking about sustainable practices,” Mubaarak says. “Grants shouldn’t be the first thing that comes out of your mouth. Grant money is really for your programs. As far as the nuts and bolts of running the organization, that’s why we built out the plan for the creative retreats and the rentals.”

And now, looking back on the quarter that Elsewhere is closed, Mubaarak is excited and confident about the museum’s future going into 2024.

“George had called me and asked, ‘Is it over?’” Mubaarak remembers. “And I said, ‘Only if you want it to be.’ And nobody wanted it to, so we’re still here, and we’re doing fine.”

Learn more about Elsewhere at elsewheremuseum.org. Follow them on Instagram at @elsewheremuseum.

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