Dear Art Lovers:
During this “Season of Giving,” I ask that you take some time to reflect.
As a teenager during the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s and early 70s, I followed the daily developments, the sacrifices being made by Blacks and sympathetic whites who felt the time had come to address the many grievances and barriers to equal justice under the law. The country was fortunate that many great leaders emerged who not only succeeded in getting laws changed, but were able to pass on to the next generation a legacy of collective thinking and action, collaboration and cooperation that would embrace the changing demographics —socio-cultural identity of the country.
One of the most vital elements of the evolving times was the role played by art organizations of color. Desegregation of public institutions and affirmative action laws also gave racial minorities a voice in this country through the creation and sharing of their cultural heritage and artistic contributions. Expansion Arts, a program begun in 1970 by the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal arts agency, identified with the richness of communities of color and their potential in shaping the landscape of a changing America. Expansion Arts supported the start-up and growth of a number of organizations like Dance Theater of Harlem, Studio Museum in Harlem, Philadanco, and a number of culturally diverse dance, music and theater programs across the country. They brought us the plays of August Wilson, Catherine Dunham Dance and the art of Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence that shared messages of struggles and accomplishment. Many of the early groups became permanent institutions.
Brandywine was one of the earliest institutions and with the support of Expansion Arts and other NEA programs, state and local funders and hundreds of individuals, we grew and contributed to the creation, documentation and preservation of a legacy of ethnically diverse American art. In an era when identity politics dominate most public forums, there are many voices competing and pragmatic, affirmative action is needed. While some may argue cultural activism and support is somehow nuanced and socially or politically insignificant, I remind folks that much of the leadership we see in our communities today is coming from celebrities— the artists, entertainers and educators— who command social media.
My Civil Rights heroes were Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcom X and other organization leaders, but Muhammad Ali, Curt Flood, Sydney Poitier, Alvin Ailey, Amir Baraka, Sonia Sanchez and others spoke eloquently of the experiences of their race and the need for change. Perhaps my greatest heroes were the teachers who inspired me to learn and become engaged with improving my community. Unlike today with the disappearing ethnically diverse faculty in public education, I never wanted for a role model or mentor. If not for Louise Clements, I would not have applied to art school and enjoyed a life-long career as teacher, artist, and arts administrator.
As I get closer to the end of my very public life, I am emboldened by what has been accomplished at Brandywine Workshop and Archives (and organization I founded in 1972), the recent recognition and documentation of the magnificent careers of visual artists Sam Gilliam, Richard Hunt, Benny Andrews, John Biggers, John T. Scott, Bob Blackburn, and Samella Lewis who have been pioneers and taught us much about tenacity and professionalism.
In this era of identity politics, in a country born out of immigration, America finds itself in the midst of a global struggle between nationalism and transnationalism, and racial minorities are being targeted with suppression of voting rights, education and cultural inequity, and religious persecution.
We are fortunate that at this time, at this place in history, the National Museum of African American History and Culture has been opened in Washington, DC. It provides the opportunity to tell the full story of an ethnic group’s contribution to American history and culture (the Asian and Latin American Museums will follow) and reminds us that time moves forward and change happens. Nostalgia by some for past “greatness,” when that past was full of hatred and oppression, can’t last. Realities change. People of good will must be visionary, diligent and determined to plan and act collaboratively to leave something positive for the next generation.
I encourage Americans to attack fear and apprehension with strong action, increased self-reliance and emphasis on self- education. Be engaged by sacrificing financially this holiday season to support the arts and culture programs in your school and communities. Buy a work of art from a young artist, who could be the next Bearden or Lawrence. Join a Friends group of a small art museum, dance company, music venue or after school program. Attend an art opening or poetry reading. Support an organization of color any way you can and let your friends know how important art and culture is to your community on #GivingTuesday and every day during this season of giving.
Founder & Executive Director
Brandywine Workshop and Archives