Monday, November 25, 2013
Friday, November 22, 2013
Friday, July 26, 2013
Sunday, April 21, 2013
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
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
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...