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PICTURING DIVERSITY

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By TANYA PEREZ-BRENNAN

The Times-Union

Springfield's Main Street strip, the city's new arts hub, was bustling with life one Saturday night last spring. At Boomtown Theatre & Cafe, the usual suspects congregated: artists, actors, dinner guests.

Just a few doors down at the now defunct Pickett Gallerie, a string of bodies lined the sidewalk, listening to the sounds of spoken-word poetry mingle with hip-hop music in the background.

Some of the spoken-word attendees walked past Boomtown, casting cursory glances at their counterparts. The Boomtown patrons returned similar glances and retreated to their corners. It was a brief acknowledgement, nothing more. Though they were on the same block, merely doors apart, they were in two worlds: one white, one black.

The split between the mostly white patrons of Boomtown and the mostly black patrons of Pickett Gallerie seems unimaginable to many in a city striving to grow artistically. After all, many in the arts world contend that for a city's arts scene to truly flourish, there needs to be a camaraderie, a melding of sorts, where artists of all backgrounds come together.

But the formation of a new group of local artists recently has raised questions about the role race plays in the arts. The group, which calls itself the Jacksonville Consortium of African American Artists (JCAAA), is a non-profit arts advocacy organization. Its mission is to create visibility for African-American artists by addressing what its members see as inequities in the arts and identifying funding sources and raising awareness of local African-American art.

Another reason for the creation of a group, members say, is the lack of institutional support for African-American artists in the city. Although local arts institutions have made some concerted efforts to diversify their cultural programming, many African-American artists think more needs to be done. They say the problem has less to do with racial prejudice and more to do with the lack of diversity of those arts institutions.

Representatives of the JCAAA, which has 28 members, say that although they are primarily African-American, the group is open to anyone. And they do not see that as a contradiction.

Gilbert Mayers, the group's vice president, said there are plenty of arts groups that cater to other interests.

"We want to celebrate the African-American experience," he said. "That's our cultural roots, and that says something about who we are. It's not that we're trying to exclude people. . . . We can all benefit from our fellowship."

Most local artists say they support the group. But others say they wonder what the formation of the group reveals about race relations in the city.

Stephen Dare, owner of Boomtown, opened his doors to the bi-monthly Soul Release spoken word event when Pickett Gallerie -- owned by Suzanne Pickett, JCAAA's treasurer -- closed last March.

"I agree with them and their reasons," Dare said of JCAAA. "I just wonder if it's setting up the black community for a separate but equal [situation]. . . . I have mixed feelings about a city that creates the need for a black arts group."

Tiffany Duhart, who runs Soul Release, said that bringing the mainly black event to Boomtown helped create a more diverse audience.

"People will already be [at Boomtown] for dinner, and then they'll stay for the show, and then bring people next time," she said.

Still, a separation of the races seems to be the norm at most art events, many local artists say.

Duhart, who is a member of JCAAA, said it is necessary to provide support for black artists by promoting group shows.

"You've got a lot of talented people here, but everyone's spread out, there's no unity," she said. "And from this standpoint there's strength in numbers."

JCAAA members say their group is also meant to provide support for artists through professional workshops, including teaching artists how to apply for public funding. But obtaining that funding often means more than just following the right procedures, they say. It also depends on who sits on the boards.

Local arts institutions say they are committed to diversifying their boards and cultural programming.

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Diversity in the arts

Here is a breakdown of diversity in some the city's most important cultural institutions. These are organizations that either provide funding for the arts or offer cultural programming to the public. All of the institutions say diversity is a priority.

The Jacksonville Museum of Modern Art: Two of JMOMA's 25 board of trustees are minorities. Jane Craven, JMOMA's executive director, said that of the 74 artists who exhibited at JMOMA during the past year, 26 percent were minorities.

The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens: One of the Cummer's 16 board members is a minority. Maarten van de Guchte, the Cummer's director, said museum attendance by people who identified themselves as African-American increased 31 percent during the "African American Masters: Highlights from the Smithsonian American Art Museum" exhibit last year.

The Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville: Four of the Cultural Council's 26 board members are minorities. Board members are nominated by the mayor's office and usually include at least two elected officials, said Amy Crane, deputy director of the cultural council.

The Art in Public Places Commission, which oversees the Art in Public Places Program, has three minorities among its 11 appointees.

The Cultural Services Grant Program Panel, which oversees public finding for local arts agencies and organizations, has four minorities among its 11 members. Anyone from the community can be nominated, but it is usually a person who has worked to promote the arts, said Crane.

The Community Foundation: This non-profit philanthropic organization has provided arts funding since 1989 through the Art Ventures Grant and the Foster Vitality in the Arts initiative. Since 2001, three of the 22 grant recipients through these programs have been minorities. --------------------------------------------------

The Jacksonville Museum of Modern Art took a critical look at its permanent collection four years ago.

"We realized that it was too white and male, so we rewrote the collections policy with verbiage that gave us the goal of including minority and women artists," said Jane Craven, JMOMA's executive director.

The museum also started the Black on Black Film Series last year, which highlights minority filmmakers from all over the world. It runs in February during Black History Month.

But Black History Month is itself a sore point for many African-American artists, who say their work is only considered worth highlighting then.

"That's the only time that they want us bad enough," said Pickett.

Those who head arts institutions say they are aware of the issue.

"On the one hand, you want to distinguish African- American artists as a viable artistic movement and give them exposure that particular month," said Maarten van de Guchte, director of the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens. "But you don't want to ghettoize them, you don't want to just put them in the museum in that time period."

The Cummer's "African-American Masters" traveling exhibit last September drew more diverse audiences.

"If you bring shows that have a specific minority focus, the minorities that you tend to address or hope to address will come," van de Guchte said. "Our challenge as a museum is to have them come back, so you have to create an atmosphere that is open and welcoming, that in no way is exclusive or discriminatory."

And the lack of it can keep potential audiences away.

"I think there are a lot of reasons why an artist may not feel included in the mainstream gallery or museum scene," Craven said. "There certainly is still segregation in Jacksonville in the art world."

And this is reflected in the lack of diversity on arts boards.

Lydia Stewart, administrator of the Ritz Theatre & LaVilla Museum, an institution dedicated to African-American visual and performing arts, sat on the advisory committee for the new library branch projects, part of the Art in Public Places Program, directed by the city's Public Arts Commission and administered through the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville.

Stewart, also a member of JCAAA, said the selection process was rather arbitrary, with two of the other members failing to be open to unknown artists, some of whom were minorities.

Still, Stewart said it is hard to cry racism in a situation like that, especially when others may not see their actions or decisions as exclusionary. It places the few minority members in an uncomfortable position.

"If it's only a sense and there're no cold facts, it's hard to say it exists," she said.

The Cultural Council, which funds arts organizations and agencies with public money, is one of the more influential local arts institutions.

Robert Arleigh White, executive director of the Cultural Council, was present at one of the first JCAAA meetings. White said the group's importance transcends the boundaries of race.

"It's not so much that there's never been a group like this for African-American artists, it's that there has never been a group like this, period," he said. "What they've created can serve as a model for other artists who want to coalesce around a vision or an idea. I think it's very far reaching and forward thinking."

The arts organizations funded through the Cultural Council must make diversity a priority, said Amy Crane, the council's deputy managing director. Arts organizations must attend an annual public hearing to reapply for more funding by adhering to strict guidelines.

"We take our agencies to task," Crane said. "Their feet are held to the fire."

Stage Aurora, an African-American theater company based on the Northside, is one of the recipients of the many grants offered by the Cultural Council.

Darryl Reuben Hall, Stage Aurora's founder and artistic director, said he grew up without any exposure to theater and wanted to give back to the community by offering it theater that focuses on the African-American experience.

"I think people get uncomfortable when they see [the label] African-American, they think it's out to develop some type of separatism," he said.

In the end, the issue may have less to do with race and more to do with Jacksonville's cultural growing pains, said White. But arts institutions -- especially those that receive public funding -- have an obligation to offer cultural programming that reflects the entire community.

"I think art is probably our most important community-building tool because it really does slice through all of those things that say, 'I'm this kind of person,'" he said. "It gives us the opportunity to share things together."

tanya.perezjacksonville.com, (904) 359-4287

This story can be found on Jacksonville.com at http://www.jacksonville.com/tu-online/stor..._17113827.shtml.

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