Pittsburgh group using art as ‘a bridge and a convener’

Photo Credit: Lake Fong/Post-Gazette
La Keisha Wolf, executive director of the Ujamaa Collective, talks about fair trade and racial justice issues during a recent session at the collective in the Hill District.

The original version of this article can be found on post-gazette.com

The Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council is on a mission to promote the sticky conversation that society keeps not having — the one about race in America — but with art as an ally of everyone who sits down to talk.

It is also examining its own make-up and the way it promotes art and artists.

“We can be a bridge and a convener,” said Jen Saffron, the council’s director of communications. “But we are looking at our own practices, too, from our own board to our organizational culture.”

Last year, the arts council began soul searching to find out if it was sufficiently representing a diverse membership. It has about 300 member artists and arts groups.

“What we saw in surveys is that there is less capacity and stability in arts organizations that are serving people of color,” Ms. Saffron said. “There is an inequality in funding and panels on exhibitions and funding are largely controlled by majority [white] people. One solution is to change the make-up of the panels.”

The arts council has initiated a program to help minority organizations compete for grants, build audiences and grab exhibition opportunities. The council also has started diversity training for pro bono lawyers who work with its members and is expanding the range of event listings in its calendars.

The council has been sponsoring forums to bring artists and audiences together to talk about where race and art can intersect for the betterment of both.

Recent protests nationally over police killings of unarmed black men nudge at society’s great need to dig down deep and find a shared soul. Who better than artists to be pioneers of that conversation, said Tiffany Wilhelm, the arts council’s deputy director: “It is so important that artists be part of a social change.”

The council is not alone in its push for a more pluralistic arts scene. It sits among 80 members of the Pittsburgh Coalition for Racial Equity in the Arts. They include the Union Project, Assemble Gallery, the Kelly Strayhorn Theater and Carnegie Museums.

The Pittsburgh Foundation and Heinz Endowments have collaborated on advancing black arts over many years and laud the arts council’s own initiative, said Germaine Williams, senior program officer for arts and culture at the Pittsburgh Foundation.

“They are being courageous enough to look internally and at who sits around the table to make decisions,” he said. “There are African-American arts organizations that have been around and contributing for years.

Anu Jain, the arts council’s consultant on diversity and inclusion, has been emceeing forums and discussion circles “to talk about the intersections of art and racism,” she said. “A lot of white people are unaware of what privilege really looks like to others, and a lot of people of color have many opinions.”

A recent circle convened at the retail store of the Ujamaa Collective in the Hill District, where Ujamaa’s executive director, La Keisha Wolf, described the situation that led to the founding of the collective.

Celeta Hickman gathered a group of artists, craftswomen and artisans in 2008 “to do something for ourselves,” Ms. Wolf said. “She put out the call to black women in the arts scene. We began to meet collectively and said, ‘Let’s create this thing together.’ A majority of us, at the core, were activists. We focus on shared wealth and work, economic self-reliance and the obligation of generosity.”

With a retail boutique, entrepreneurship mentoring and incubation, a summer marketplace, an agricultural component and shared purchasing, Ujamaa is a success story “that reflects back at someone of African descent,” Ms. Wolf said.

As an arts business venture run by black women, it also is a rarity.

Ms. Saffron said the arts council was spurred to action in part by the losses of numerous black arts organizations including the Kuntu Repertory Theater, Umoja African Arts Co. and its African Arts in the Park events, the August Wilson Center and the Shadow Lounge.

The Shadow Lounge is an example of how the council is recognizing art out of the box. A pioneering, black-owned nightclub in East Liberty, it was the only diverse hot spot in the neighborhood in the early 2000s. But it was more than that. It introduced the larger public to black performers and served as a mixing place for all races.

It did not close for lack of audience. Like many businesses, it lost its lease.

“But the issue is that when people want to protect something, they go through hell-and-high-water advocacy to do it,” said Christiane Leach, the council’s artist relations coordinator. “When people are faced with no other option but to close their doors, that’s a problem.”

The August Wilson Center was another failure that did not have one cause, except that it was “hamstrung by huge debt,” Mitch Swain, the council’s CEO, said. “The situation their management was placed in made for little chance to survive.”

The arts council is host and member of the August Wilson Center Recovery Group.

Mr. Swain said a more inclusive arts scene can make Pittsburgh “consider things we might not have considered yesterday and be a more inclusive place,” in general and for artists. “There is no shortage of creativity and talent.”

Article written by Diana Nelson Jones / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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