Saturday, July 5, 2014

Meanwhile in the Dallas Arts World… by Vicki Meek

Let me set the stage for all you’re about to read so that everyone is clear about why my frustration level is off the charts. I am a 64-year-old African American female artist/activist who has made Dallas my home since 1980. I’ve raised my children to adulthood here. I’ve given my blood, sweat and tears to the arts community here. I have not made my art career here. Last week was a very trying one for me. In the span of 4 days I experienced more examples of white privilege than I could stomach. Let’s start with the first incident. I decided to take my Paul Quinn College class to see the wonderful Archibald Motley exhibition at the Amon Carter Museum because we’re studying, among other things, The Harlem Renaissance as it relates to the development of “The Black Aesthetic in the Visual Arts”. I arrived earlier than the bus-riding students because I chose to drive my car. As I’m standing in the lobby area waiting for my students, the young white male visitor desk attendant asks can he help me. I tell him that I am waiting for my class to arrive and that we’ll be visiting the Motley exhibit. He asks what I teach and I tell him that it’s a course I developed called the black aesthetic in the visual arts. I guess this didn’t register with him because he then proceeds to try to school me on Archibald Motley and what his work is all about. I let him talk for a few minutes and when he starts to tell me about how similar Motley and Robert Colescott’s work is, I decide to put the skids on his misinformed conversation by first letting him know that Bob Colescott and I knew each other and no, Colescott’s take on the black experience had nothing to do with Motley’s despite what he might think. I then gave him some info on Motley and Colescott that he obviously hadn’t heard in his “docent training”. Now here’s the thing. When someone tells me they are teaching a class on a particular subject, it never occurs to me that I should try to school them on that subject. I can honestly say that the only time this has happened to me has been with white people trying to prove how much they know about Black culture/subject matter. For some reason, some white people can’t get comfortable with not being in control of a conversation when a Black person is in it. They can’t just accept that they don’t necessarily have all the information needed to hold an intelligent conversation and maybe, just maybe, they should shut up and listen! Annoyance level on a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being thoroughly pissed off: 7. Move on to the weekend and my planned attendance at Theatre 3’s production of “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark". I was looking forward to seeing friends Yolonda Williams and Stormi Demerson in Lynn Nottage’s complicated play that explores racism in Hollywood and so much more. I knew that, as is true of most of Nottage’s work, I was in for an interesting afternoon of theater. I went with my bestie/sister Marion Marshall and I have to say the production, although not perfect, was very well done and deserves a more diverse audience than the one we were a part of (maybe 5-6 Blacks and a whole lot of over 60 white folks!) When the performance was over, we thought we’d grab a bite at the Thai place next door and chat about what we just saw. Well, in walks another cast member Raven Garcia who did a bang-up job in her role so we applauded her as she entered. As we started to chat about the play, a white woman I’m guessing about my age or maybe a few years younger, walks up and exclaims “oh my, you women were just fabulous in that play!” to which I responded “I wasn’t in that play.” Marion’s mouth dropped open and Raven just looked confused. The white woman was visibly embarrassed and moved back to wherever she came from. Raven, who is probably in her 20s looked at us and said, “Oh my God, did that just happen? Is that not what this play is about, our invisibility?” to which Marion and I said practically in unison “Yep, the more things change the more they stay the same!” Here was a white woman who just watched a play about how stereotyped Black actors were in the 30s and 40s and how they struggled with their invisibility in Hollywood and she walks up to 3 Black women only one of who was in the play and the other 2 who look NOTHING like the other Black actors in the play, and says “oh my, you women were just fabulous in that play!” Really lady? You really thought we were the same women you just saw onstage even though there is no resemblance physically? Annoyance level- 9 The next day I look to see how the reviews were for the play and pull up DMN Culture Map’s piece on, yes you guessed it, the only white women in the play and that about did it for me! How do you do an exclusive on a play about a Black woman and not think it makes sense to showcase the star of the play? The excuse can’t be used that it’s because the white woman was a local girl because Yolonda Williams doesn’t get any more local with her 3rd generation Dallas-self! Annoyance level- +10 These experiences would be enough for me to revisit my recurring installation work entitled “I Could Be Angry All the Time If I Think Too Hard” but I still had one more in store. A long-time white visual arts supporter & former gallery owner made her first visit to South Dallas Cultural Center’s gallery this week. She apologized for not coming sooner and wanted to write a piece on the center for her website. She also expressed delight in seeing the young artist whose show was closing, Philmore Peterson, and wanted to write something about him too. In the midst of our conversation, she mentioned that she and a prominent university dean were writing a book on Texas contemporary artists. When I asked who was going to be in it she hesitated and then said “well I’m ashamed to say there are no African American artists in it” to which I said “you’re joking, right?” She went on to explain that she wanted to include Trenton Doyle Hancock but didn’t have anyone else in mind. I rattled off more than a dozen names of prominent Texas Black artists none of whom she knew. I showed her some work done by a few of these artists since my Performing Arts Coordinator and I have collected some work by those who've shown in our Arthello Beck Gallery. I then asked if any Latino artists were included in her list and she named one but said she hadn’t been able to get a return phone call so maybe she needed to pick another one. At this point I said to her “_____ (name withheld to protect the guilty!) I really hope I don’t see another book written on Texas artists that excludes the many black & brown artists making excellent work in our state and just to make sure I will send you a list of artists I know for you to check out their websites.” The email I got in response to mine was not at all encouraging so we’ll see what happens with this upcoming book. Annoyance level- Off the charts! So I have decided that the only way I’m going to keep myself from having a coronary before I retire from the arts administrative world in Dallas is to keep focused on supporting the many “Vera Starks” in this community and showcasing as many Black artists as I can because truly, the more things change, the more they stay the same…

Monday, November 25, 2013

When Black Theater Gets it Right, It's a Halleljuah Moment!

Yesterday afternoon I witnessed the rebirth of a theater company that years ago gave me hope for Black theater in Dallas. Soul Rep Theatre's The Freedman's production made my heart palpitate throughout its run, from the careful selection of the vintage images to the choice of musical fabric, everything screamed "we are back and we ain't playing!" When I arrived in Dallas in 1980, the only Black theater in this town was being done on an amateur basis, albeit some of it very professionally presented. I heard that Dallas Minority Repertory Theater had folded and Afro-American Artist Alliance was struggling to maintain. Curtis King was presenting plays under the mantle of The Third World Players and an occasional one person production could be seen. So when Tisha Crear with Guinea Bennett, and Anyika McMillan launched Soul Nation, things began to look up for Black theater/performance art because we finally saw some young people who seemed committed to creating original work that had an African sensibility and that vowed to speak with authenticity. The demise of Soul Nation might have dealt another death blow to Black Theater in Dallas were it not for the rise of Soul Rep Theatre Company that Guinea and Anyika started and into which they pumped all their energy and spirit. I watched them struggle to mount full productions of their inspired writing and rejoiced when they made it to COP status with the Office of Cultural Affairs. It was a very sad day when they decided to shut it all down because they couldn't maintain the rigorous schedule on the limited budgets they always worked under. As a mother/artist however, I sympathized and empathized with my younger sisters when they chose to concentrate on raising their young families and securing their homesteads. Although I secretly prayed that they would make a comeback, I knew they had to do what they had to do. So this rebirth, this triumphant comeback is such a sweet full circle for me because I have always felt that theater is an essential art form for a people whose legacy has been rooted in the spoken word and performance. Black theater for me is so much more than entertainment but instead a confirmation of our existence as a communal people in a society that never much valued community. The writing in The Freedman's is poetic and profound. Keith Price, who can spit a rhyme as effectively as he can pen a verse, gives us powerful testimony to the everyday trauma experienced by the Black Male in America, the text written by Anyika's multi-talented husband Chris Herod. The soliloquy delivered so poignantly by Monique Ridge (an actor who I confess has always made me shake my head in amazement!) is nothing short of brilliant. And what can I say about Anyika McMillan-Herod that won't have you thinking she paid me to say it, but that her writing, performance and commitment to excellence is an inspiration to an elder who values these qualities more than any other in a Black artist. I applaud all the former and new members of Soul Rep Theatre Company and vow to support all their future efforts as I hope everyone who loves theater and Black community empowerment will do as well! Bravo, Ashe and Hallelujah! Photo credit: Mona Reeder/Dallas Morning News staff Photographer

Friday, November 22, 2013

Erasure & Omission: The New Racism (or is it new?)

On Saturday evening of November 9, I learned just how easy it is for your personal history to be revised simply by the omission of your name from a narrative by someone in a position to do so. When Peter Doroschenko chose not to include me in the 35 year history of D-Art/Dallas Contemporary history, he effectively erased a part of my personal history in Dallas Texas. When I first learned of this erasure I was a bit hurt but after a few days of reflection, I moved from hurt to outrage! My outrage was based on several factors not the least of which was how dare this man come to "my town" and make a decision not to acknowledge something I worked hard to acquire i.e. a legacy of helping Dallas artists in a city that doesn't particularly value them. So some context for those who don't know my history in the visual arts in Dallas. In 1986, when Patricia Meadows asked me to leave my position as Supervisor of Community Arts Development at the Division of Cultural Affairs (Jerry Allen had not yet turned it into a Department) to assume the Executive Director position at D'Art Visual Arts Center (it had not yet been rebranded as D-Art) she didn't consider what a major shift in the Dallas arts narrative this invitation represented. Dallas had never had an African American lead a non-ethnic specific arts institution, male or female. The fact that Patricia didn't even consider this is a testament to her character but the fact that this was a major shift was not lost on me. As someone who had to, in 1977, kick the door down at the Connecticut Commission on the Arts to enter the arts administration field in something other than a designated "ethnic specific" position, I was no stranger to the latent racism that existed in the American arts world. I was well prepared for it having gone to art schools where I was often only one of a handful of Black students, often creating in a hostile environment. I knew that all eyes would be on me as I worked to move D'Art to another level of service to Dallas visual artists. I realize now that Patricia's selection marked a shift in not only the direction that this institution that Mary Ward,Judy Hearst and she had birthed, but a shift in how race in the Dallas arts community would play out. My presence at D-Art meant some major changes were going to happen around race because heretofore, the organization was pretty much all white and largely comprised of hobbyists. I knew that I not only had to attract the visual art professionals but I was also going to have to introduce Dallas to the many visual artists of color. I am proud to say that I was the first in Dallas to show Hung Lui's work, now internationally acclaimed, to showcase Barsamian and Dennis Gonzalez installations, Letitia Huerta's gorgeous paintings, Lahib Jaddo's provocative work and Jean Lacy's renderings for her St. Luke UMC windows, to name a few of the ethnic artists I presented.
I also introduced performance art to D-Art commissioning artists like Laney Yarber & Philip Lamb's X-Static, a work that even today has few rivals. So my contribution to the narrative of D-Art/Dallas Contemporary is by no means minor. In fact, if I hadn't moved the D-Art needle far over to the professional level, there would be no Dallas Contemporary! If this situation were an isolated incident caused by a stupid man who didn't think anyone would notice, I might let it go. But having the time to think about it, I know this is not the case. A number of years ago my friend Martha Jackson-Jarvis, nationally known artist in DC, recounted a story that mirrored mine. She was sitting in an audience at a conference listening to a white woman art historian give a lecture on a groundbreaking exhibition that Martha had curated and was in, only to witness her role not mentioned nor her worked showcased. She told me it was "like watching myself being erased from my own history!". The practice of erasing Black accomplishments is nothing new. It's been the nature of our historical exclusion since we arrived on these shores. What is new is whites in today's world of technology and social media thinking they can get away with it. Peter must have realized that 1. I would get wind of this omission and 2. I wouldn't be silent about my outrage on being omitted. Surely, if nothing else, I have gained a reputation in this town as someone who never backs down from saying what's right, no matter the consequences. But what would he know of what this town knows since he's invested so little time here! But I digress... I wish I could say this is the first time anyone has pulled this kind of crap but unfortunately it isn't. A while back, I commissioned artist Dave Herman to create an exhibition that explored his Gullah roots. He created "Etched in the Eyes" one of the most moving and beautiful body of photographs I've ever seen. A few years later, he was asked to remount the show at Brookhaven College and to my surprise and chagrin, David Newman the curator of the gallery program there, was representing David as an artist that he "discovered" and there was no mention of South Dallas Cultural Center as the commissioner of the exhibit anywhere in the material written up on it. I hit the roof and made sure he knew I didn't appreciate the omission of my institution in Dave's bio nor the inference that Newman had "discovered" him. So fast forward to this year and I experience the same kind of omission when I read Letitia Huckaby's exhibition record online at Liliana Bloch's new gallery website and no where is it mentioned that she showed in the Arthello Beck Gallery at the South Dallas Cultural Center, oh by the way, the first place to show her work as a solo artist. When I asked Liliana in an email why we were omitted, she never answered me but instead asked Letitia to respond. Of course Letitia was appalled that this had been done and in no way condoned it but to date, it still remains a MIA entry. Only if you drill into Letitia's CV link can you see South Dallas Cultural Center mentioned. What's interesting about this is that any artist knows that solo shows are far more significant in one's career than group shows. What's also interesting is that Hung Lui still lists South Dallas Cultural Center and D-Art on her gallery's website even though given how long ago these shows were, I wouldn't fault her if she dropped them now! The erasure or omission of African American accomplishments from American History is legendary. The omission of my Dallas history is beginning to follow this same legend. The difference is I don't plan to go silently into night, bemoaning this slight! Before DART Director of PR Sue Bauman retired, she made it her business to set the record straight about how the DART Art Program came into being and I am forever grateful to her for giving me credit for its design. It's not hard to change the narrative of any organization or institution after the people who know the real story are gone. Lucky for me I have an incredible personal archive that chronicles the work I've done both as an administrator and as an artist because the one thing I know for sure is that if Black people don't tell their own story, it likely will be erased from the American narrative. As we prepare for the Facing Race National Conference 2014, let this be a lesson in how Dallas needs to face race because although I am tired of talking about it, I will never tire of fighting against racism. A luta continua...

Friday, July 26, 2013

Black & Blue: A Cultural Oasis in the Hills

After researching for months and then working on the artwork for more months, I am finally relieved that the work is done and off to the fabricators. Since the Nasher Sculpture Center is planning a kick-off event for this commissioned site specific installation, I won't steal their thunder by describing the work. In fact, what I want to write about in this post has little to do with the finished work and more to do with the impetus behind the creation of the work. I have for over 35 years spent my creative energies reclaiming African American history in installations that both invoke memory and emotion. I have researched my community's past hurts and slights, its horrors and abominations, its beauty marks and its warts, all with the purpose of making my audience face history without apology. This latest project will help Dallas, particularly Black Dallas, face the truth about one aspect of Bishop College's history, and hopefully place Bishop at the center of Black cultural development, a place it has rightfully earned. So often when things don't play out the way we want them to, we tend to file away the experience in the "dead zone" file, hoping not to have to revisit the disappointing episodes of our failure. We either dismiss the experience or we reinvent it as something it never was. Such is the case with Bishop College. When I arrived in Dallas in 1980, I knew nothing of this little private HBCU nestled deep in South Oak Cliff. Bishop was on its last leg back then, limping along and trying to just hang on until some miraculous opportunity to revitalize its ailing body occurred. I heard sad stories about the administrative corruption and mismanagement of funds that plagued so many like institutions and having taught at a HBCU that had similar woes, I felt the pain of those bemoaners. My image of Bishop was colored by the constant barrage of newspaper articles that harped on and on about the bad financial health of the school and this image wasn't helped by the recent experience I had when arriving and attending the National Conference of Artists annual meeting hosted by Bishop and the Museum of African American Life and Culture. My first impression of the campus was "Oh my God, what bomb was dropped on this place!" The fact that the college was ill-prepared to host this body of artists from around the African Diaspora was undeniable. Unfortunately, the college didn't realize that by not having the necessary amenities to successfully host NCA, it made a lasting impression on the attendees that wasn't complimentary. In fact, the disastrous meeting only served to solidify in my mind what a sad state of affairs this Bishop College was in. But as is true of any institutional decline, the Bishop story at its end was hardly the full Bishop story. No one looks at the Fall of the Roman Empire as the definition of Rome's contribution to world culture. To discount the years of triumph simply because in the end it crashed and burned is to render history irrelevant. Well in the case of Bishop College, Dallas has rendered its history irrelevant. It has allowed the end to define the beginning. It has wiped the slate clean as far as what Bishop meant to our city and its Black population is concerned. When Bishop moved from Marshall, TX to Dallas in 1961, one of the Dallas Citizens Council leaders stated that Bishop was one of the most significant institutions to come to Dallas in a long time. Others lauded the city for attracting such a prestigious school to our community. Bishop was impressive enough to attract a $1.5 million Ford Foundation grant, one of the largest given to a HBCU back in the early 1970s. That Bishop's president, Dr. Milton Curry, Jr. saw fit to use a good portion of that money to enrich both the cultural offerings on the campus while simultaneously developing outreach programs to the community speaks highly of his visionary ideas about the role of a college in a community. Dr. Curry knew that for most HBCUs, their role extended well beyond simply educating students. Their role, by necessity, had to include uplifting the African American communities within which they dwelt. Make no mistake about it, Dr. Milton Curry, Jr. was a visionary. He foresaw a college that not only provided exemplary education but that gave Dallas its first glimpse of nationally prominent African/African American/Caribbean cultural luminaries. Bishop introduced Dallas to the likes of Maya Angelou (long before she became "famous"), Alex Haley (pre-ROOTS fame), Eleo Pomare (banned in some cities for his revolutionary choreography!), Nikki Giovanni (young, fiery poet), Alvin Ailey (now well known in Dallas, but not then), Ruby Dee & Ossie Davis (theater & film artists and activists), Poet Laureate Gwendolyn Brooks, South African poet/activist Kgotsitsile, and so many more. Its Fine Arts Lyceum Series under the leadership of Rev. Rhett James brought notable lecturers to the city who enlivened the intellectual offerings of a segregated city and helped Black Dallas join the national discourse on topics such as race, social justice, and cultural equity. Bishop, thanks to the vision of Dr. Curry, spawned two of our most influential African American cultural institutions, Dallas Black Dance Theatre and the African American Museum, formerly the Museum of African American Life and Culture. So many of the musicians we all take for granted in the Dallas music scene, musicians like Roger Boykin, Norman Fisher, Dean Hill, Wendell Sneed, Linda Searight, Glenda Cole Clay, Joyce Lofton, to name a few, are the products of Bishop College. The late Dr. Thelma Thompson Daniels, former Dean of Humanities at Bishop,inspired many Bishopites and non-Bishopites to embrace African American literature. One of my most prized possessions is the anthology Dr. Daniels gave me of African American literature dating back to the first known publication of a Black writer. Bishop College; this little treasure on the hill, this institution of higher learning, this cultural fount deserves to be remembered for the things it did to invigorate the cultural development of Dallas, black and white, and the legacy of cultural excellence that is carried onward today by the many Bishop alumni both here in Dallas and across the nation. Good Ole Bishop Blue, a Black institution that made an indelible mark on Good Ole Big-D. Lest we forget...

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Who's Missing Out in the Cultural Equity Dilemma?

On Friday, South Dallas Cultural Center premiered a new work by Shontina Vernon, a former Dallasite now residing in New York City. Working under her stage name, Tina Vernon, Shontina brought a fresh, dynamic one woman show to our stage that featured her original music and a story that worked both your heart and mind simultaneously. WANTED was a powerful testament to the notion that life can deal you a bum hand but you don't need to crap out of the game unless you choose to. An autobiographical narrative takes us on a journey from Tina Cato's (Shontina's) tumultuous childhood to her ultimate redemption through music/theater/the arts ending in a non-ending of sorts that reminds us that until your life ends, it has the possibility to change. I and the two nights of audience who witnessed this amazing journey were transfixed by Shontina's poetic script and her beautifully lyrical music not to mention the brilliantly filmed video backdrop created by filmmaker Kate Freer. Thanks to National Performance Network, we were able to have “Tina” in residence for a week in which time she conducted an amazing workshop with young women incarcerated in the Henry Wade Juvenile Detention Center. Now that it's all over, I have settled myself and taken the time to reflect on the experience. I might have simply spent the reflection time mulling over the poignancy of Tina's script or the beauty of her music but for the email I received this morning from a friend. This email contained a congratulatory message regarding the SDCC and me being mentioned in a blog post by Darryl Ratcliff regarding the dearth of Black presence in the arts events of the last several weeks in particular, but the Dallas arts world in general. A next generation arts mover and shaker, Darryl has taken demonstrative steps to forge a presence in Dallas and has made tremendous strides in bringing new energy and vision to our arts scene. Although I haven't had the luxury of attending all of his events, I have been following his trajectory with great interest. So it was with both a heavy heart and a sense of slight despair that I read his posts. I wished what he had to say was surprising but unfortunately, what this young man, this visionary and committed young artist activist has discovered is what I've been ranting about for too many years i.e racism is alive and well in the world of the arts. I won't go into all the revelations he voiced because Lord knows I've voiced them enough in this blog. What the posts made me reflect on is the WANTED experience and how glaringly absent the white theater community was in the audience. It made me sad that such a stellar piece of theater was missed by so many who would have been thrilled by it; missed it only because it happened in Sunny South Dallas at a facility they never venture to. I wondered about the many times I have trekked over to the Dallas Theater Center or Undermain or SMU to see work and seen few if any Blacks in the audience. I also thought about how many times we've had to beg to get reviewers out to see our work and although I am a firm believer that being critiqued doesn't necessarily help your work, particularly if the reviewer has no understanding of it, I make this point because it does speak to the segregated nature of the Dallas arts world. I have committed the South Dallas Cultural Center's small resources to the development of new work by African diaspora artists because I understand the necessity of keeping the art of creating alive. That's what keeps the arts alive and fresh. My commitment to the next generation stems from an understanding that if I don't support them, no one will! So with the help of National Performance Network's Creation Fund/Forth Fund and a program I created called Diaspora Performing Arts Commissioning Program, I am able to give these next generation artists a glimmer of hope in their artistic journey and a platform from which to showcase their work. I hope one day our city will grow to appreciate ALL of its creative resources and proffer support in an environment of cultural equity. I guess I'll just have to wait and see if this hope is in vain...

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Contemplating a Jazz Tradition

I started off D'JAM (Dallas Jazz Appreciation Month) cheating on its purpose a bit! Conceived by a DFW collaborative, the purpose of D'JAM is to celebrate and support local jazz events during April, the official month for celebrating Jazz as per the Smithsonian Institute's mandate. I ventured west to Fort Worth because Scat Lounge was presenting jazz elder statesman Ellis Marsalis with my friend Adonis Rose on drums. Given Mr. Marsalis' age and, I admit, his jazz prowess on piano, I didn't want to pass up an opportunity to hear him play! Needless to say, he didn't disappoint me and the evening's set, which benefited the Adonis Rose Endowment Scholarship for jazz students at UTA, was magnificent. But besides hearing some inspiring music, the evening got me thinking about the way in which jazz takes hold in a city, particularly as we begin this month long celebration in Dallas. There is only one city I've been to where jazz is ingrained in the very fiber of its core and that's New Orleans. Yes the Big Apple is the jazz capitol of America from the standpoint of performance venues but part of the reason New York can claim this designation is that musicians flock to that city from around the world so there's never a shortage of excellent players. But does New York provide a fertile ground for growing it's own jazz talent like you find in New Orleans? I'd have to say no since the streets are not bubbling over with little kids playing jazz (literally in the streets!) like you can find on many street in New Orleans. I can remember one of my first visits to New Orleans in the mid-seventies was so amazing because I experienced so much jazz just roaming the streets of Treme and Uptown. I saw a little "shawty" playing trumpet in The Funky Butt Club on Ramparts Street. He was just a nine year-old kid and the musicians put him on stage to blow for the audience, and boy did he blow. The place went wild and I knew that this was just one of the reasons so many New Orleans kids loved playing jazz; they got such an enthusiastic response from adults! Jazz was a regular part of the school offerings in New Orleans and kids expected to play it not only in the band hall but on the football field for the half-time show, in the streets during an impromptu second line, for parties that their parents threw, and just about every social event. That you have whole families of jazz musicians like the Marsalis Family is not unusual in New Orleans. Jazz legend Kidd Jordan's children Marlon, Kent and Stephanie are all jazz musicians and so is acclaimed saxophonist Donald Harrison's nephew, Christian Scott. The tradition of nurturing young jazz players is deep and historical in New Orleans with the emphasis being placed where it should be, learning the music of the jazz masters. It helps that there was an institution of higher learning, Southern University that provided the formal training in jazz. Both Trumpeter Kidd Jordan and jazz clarinetist Alvin Batiste ran jazz institutes and mentored countless musicians at their respective Southern campuses, musicians all jazz fans know like Terence Blanchard, Donald Harrison, Dirty Dozen Brass Band members, Branford and Wynton Marsalis, and Fort Worth saxophone virtuoso Quamon Fowler. So I wasn't the least bit surprised when a mom whose family relocated to Dallas because of Katrina jumped right on our newest offering at the Cultural Center, the Thriving Minds Youth Jazz Orchestra. She told me that her kids were upset because they joined the band at their school and expected to play jazz but were sorely disappointed when they found out jazz was not played at all! Although she lives in Richardson, she drives her kids and a few other New Orleans transplants to SDCC every Saturday so they can play the music they love and that has been a part of their life for as long as they can remember. Jazz is a family tradition in New Orleans which is why I proclaim New Orleans as the Jazz Capitol of America.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The More Things Change, They More They Stay The Same

I sat on a panel earlier this month at the Association of Arts Administration Educators 2013 Conference in New Orleans and was dismayed to see how few faces of color were in the room. Now before I go off on my usual rant about the dearth of diverse voices in my world, I want to say that I was also surprised to see more “colored faces” in the room than I had expected, but even so, there weren’t nearly enough for me to feel like things are moving rapidly forward in the arts world. I was on this panel with Tony Micocci (Assistant Director of UNO Graduate Arts Administration Program & founder of Micocci Productions LLC) and two of my National Performance Network colleagues, MK Wegmann (NPN CEO/President) and Maria Rosario Jackson (former NPN Chair & Senior Program Officer at Kresge Foundation) and our topic was SERVING THE 98% which was meant to address the 98% of the arts patrons who are not represented by the 2% of arts organizations/institutions that receive the vast majority of arts funding, both private & public. The theme for this conference was One Step Ahead: Advancing New Paradigms so I assumed we needed to address how the next generation of arts administrators and those who are training them need to understand the changing demographics of America. Having guest lectured for several years for the SMU Arts Administration Program, I am well aware of how insular the academy is when it comes to exposing students to anything other than the “mainstream” arts world. The knowledge of how mid-sized, small and ethnic-specific organizations stay afloat is negligible at best so our topic was bound to raise questions. I was pleased with the information each one of us delivered but I have to admit I left this plenary session shaking my head, thinking how little has changed since I entered the field of arts administration nearly 40 years ago. One of the biggest changes, of course, is the fact that you can now go to school to become an arts administrator! Back when I got into the business of arts management it was full of artists who decided they needed to eat better meals and possibly be able to rent a real apartment or, God willing, actually buy a house! The NEA had been on the scene a little over a decade and the country was making a shift to include the arts in its national conversation regarding what it took to make livable cities. I am fortunate to have cut my “real” arts administration teeth at what was in the 70s the leading state arts commission in the country as far as innovative programming was concerned, Connecticut Commission on the Arts. Tony Keller, the head honcho, was the leader in the field and so much of what we were able to do hinged on his trust in us and our creativity. But even as forward thinking as the CCA was, it lagged in one critical area, cultural equity. In fairness, I should say that CCA was no worse than any of its peers in so far as lack of commitment to cultural equity was concerned, and in fact, in many ways it was ahead of them in that it at least had some organizations of color on the “full funding” list as well as some artists of color receiving individual artists grants. CCA even had more staff of color than most of its peers, albeit most of us were relegated to the neighborhood arts category (translation: colored jobs!). But the fact that all but one of these ethnic-specific institutions survived the economic downturn of the 1980s is a testament to discrepancies in the support they received from the agency. All my screaming about de facto segregation and benign neglect went pretty much unaddressed (yes, alas I’ve spent my life screaming about injustices which is probably why I have so little tolerance left!) So when I fast froward to 2013 and see that we are still engaged in a conversation that has us trying to explain cultural equity vs. cultural diversity to a group of people who are charged with educating the next generation of arts administrators, I can’t help but to think the more things change, the more they stay the same. We still have a situation where the bulk of the arts dollars are only donated or provided by public agencies to 2% of the arts groups, all of whom represent Eurocentric cultures; all of which are large institutions; all of which use “outreach” as their major contribution to the discussion of cultural equity. If ever we are to see significant change in this situation, it will have to come from those who decide to work in this field and who recognize that 98% of all arts patrons may not be getting their arts experience in these large, largely Eurocentric institutions. They must realize that just as the Republican Party had a wake-up call about what America is today, the arts world must do the same! The diverse nation that America so proudly proclaims itself to be to the rest of the world must begin to live up to that claim or risk losing all of its major arts institutions to stagnation and irrelevance. A good start will be to get some people in these academies who’ve worked in the trenches and who understand how to energize communities by including heretofore excluded populations. Community Engagement cannot become the millennium buzzword for “colored people outreach”, a construct that has been such a disaster in the past. There must be the will to make real paradigm shifts which means real shifts of power and this is always a hard pill to swallow. The academy must reflect the real world and have both faculty and students that reflect that world as well. If I attend another arts conference where I’m hearing a rehash of the same conversations I’ve heard since 1974, I will be inclined to slit my wrists! Well maybe not, since I am much more inclined to simply decline the next invitation to attend. A luta continua...