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The Black Library occupies an old bank branch in downtown Monticello. (Photo: Courtesy The Black Library)

A Fresh Showcase for Black History and Culture in the Catskills

The Black Library in Monticello offers a space for arts, literature, and community connection.

by Dalvin Aboagye

Along Broadway in Monticello, the Sullivan County seat, an old KeyBank branch long sat unoccupied next to the courthouse. It was a solemn scene; the unassuming bank facade was overshadowed by the civic building’s grandeur. 

Now two angelic paintings fill the windows of that building. In its place is a new institution: The Black Library, a research library and community art space founded by Monticello-born artists Douglas “DJ” Shindler and Michael Davis. Since opening in August 2022, The Black Library has quickly become a treasured space in the county thanks to its collaboration with the Hurleyville Performing Arts Center and funding through the $407,800 Artist Employment Program grant from Creatives Rebuild New York.

Youth and community elders can connect through the center’s programming. (Photo: Courtesy the Black Library)

Brief remnants of the building’s former life remain; the over 800 books in their collection — donations from across the country — sit next to teller booths adorned with art and seminal Black literature. Cubicles have been converted to mini art studios stocked with supplies. And a giant vault on the back wall overlooks a lobby that was recently packed during an open mic night.

“A library doesn’t just have to be books, reading, and education. It can also house creativity, artists’ spaces, a photo studio — hold art shows, exhibits and showings, documentary screenings, and stuff like that,” Schindler says. It’s an opportunity to explore new avenues as much as it is to learn.

Both Shindler and Davis grew up sketching and exchanging art with their friends as kids. They initially didn’t see it as a career option. Opportunities to do so were few and far between in Monticello. But that changed as time went on. Shindler would specialize in painting and photography as he went through SUNY Sullivan, where they met, and SUNY Purchase. Davis’ love of photography landed him a job doing interior photo work for hotels. What they’ve built now is a place they wish they could’ve had when they were younger. 

The library’s founders wanted to create the kind of resources they wish they’d had when they were younger. (Photo: Courtesy the Black Library)

“We are resources that we wish we had when we were in high school,” Davis explained. “I am the first film photographer in this area that I know of.” 

Now artists, musicians, and creatives nearby have a place to collaborate, seek mentorship, and just be. That kind of offer was enough to bring Monticello native and Black Library artist-in-residence Malik Titus Bridges back into the fold. 

“In Monticello, we didn’t even have people to look up to in the creative realm that we knew in real life,” Bridges says. Bridges’ work is just as varied as that of the other artists in his cohort: lively paintings lie in the cubicle corner across from his travel sketches and handmade rave-inspired clothing. As a longtime friend of Davis and Shindler, he’s glad to be involved with something so personal. Like them, he hopes the younger residents take full advantage of it. 

The Black Library has cultivated a body of literature focused on the Black American experience, and available for public reading. (Photo: Courtesy the Black Library)

“This is a unique situation, right? There’s nothing like this. I can only hope that they would appreciate it.” For them, it’s a gathering spot — a third place for a village in need of one. 

In a space filled with multihyphenates, many of the events they’ve held in the last year straddle the line between the arts and other disciplines. In between the dozens of sip and paints, musical performances, and art shows are outings like the Black Agricultural Weekend last July. That one-day workshop was a crash course in gardening and growing food at the arts organization and farm Denniston Hill in Glen Wild.

The connections they’ve formed with them, other nearby farms, HPAC, the Delaware Valley Arts Alliance, the Ethel B. Crawford Public Library, and others exemplify the community-building ethos behind Creatives Rebuild New York’s program.

“By founding The Black Library in Monticello, Mike Davis and DJ Shindler have upended tired tropes about upstate New York and created a welcoming, educational space that draws diverse, local, regional, and international audiences,” Bella Desai, director of strategic initiatives and the Artist Employment Program at Creatives Rebuild New York, said in a statement. “Through artist residencies, dynamic performances, and a beautifully curated reference library, Davis and Shindler are showcasing and celebrating the incredible talent of local Black artists and artists of color. The Black Library creates a space for community joy, healing, and connection — and it epitomizes how creatives are rebuilding New York.”

As its initial grant funding ends this year, the new institution will transition to becoming a nonprofit. (Photo: Courtesy the Black Library)

Shindler and Davis plan to keep hosting a few events each month for the next several months as The Black Library transitions into its next phase: becoming a nonprofit this year. As their initial grant funding ends in June, they want to make the transition as smooth as possible by seeking out grants, donors, and other fundraising opportunities. 

Some of their upcoming events will double as fundraisers, like their fashion show set for Feb. 17, which will showcase designs and garments created by locals. “This space I think is hopefully going to inspire as many projects or collaborative efforts as possible,” Davis says. Ultimately, they want nothing more than to leave an impression on anyone who comes through, whether they’re a curious visitor or a precocious young artist. 

“Honestly, I just hope that they take away whatever it is that they need to take away,” Shindler says. “That we’re here in a safe space for people to just exist in. That’s super important to us.”

Dalvin Aboagye is a writer based in the Hudson Valley and the Catskills. When he’s not enjoying the warmth and sunlight of summer, you can find him scrambling to survive yet another cold winter in the Catskills. He’s written for the Times Union, the River, Thrillist, and more.

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