A Blog Post by Laura Way
This year has been a crazy one for me. There is the all the great stuff going on that we do each day at Greenhill and then I added something onto our plate that was not in my or anyone else’s work plan… Art + Dialogue: Responding to Racial Tension in America. Many people have asked me why we took on this project. My answer is, because it is important—but, of course, there is more to it than that.
Last November, I was at the CEOs for Cities conference in Nashville, and our mayor, Nancy Vaughn, was on a panel of mayors. I think she was the fifth speaker of seven, and every mayor who stood up before her essentially did a commercial for their city. Nancy could have followed suit, but she did something brave: She stood up and said, “Greensboro has a problem, and it is poverty.” The room was electrified—she spoke a hard truth. She went on to discuss what we are doing about it as a city, and what a great city Greensboro is, but that it can be better. So true, and it was brave. I left Nashville thinking I needed to be braver, and take the social capital I had been building since I got to Greenhill in 2009 and do something powerful—something our community must deal with head-on for us to move forward to be a better city for all of its citizens.
While I was thinking about this, I was also watching what was going on in Kansas, New York City, Ohio, and I knew the topic we needed to address was race. But how? For me the answer was simple: artists. Artists are amazing, insightful, creative people, and through the ages they have put the world around them into context, questioned authority, brought voice to injustice, inspired us, highlighted despair and disgrace, searched for answers and asked others to so with them. Think about political posters, the Anti-Apartheid, Civil Rights, and Free Tibet movements. Heck, the WPA of the 1930s was not just to give artists work but to inspire a nation. Jazz—what is jazz but quintessential American expression rooted in the black experience? Folk music asks deep questions about poverty and injustice, peace and equality, Rap can express raw, unedited truths about the disparities in our society. There are so many ways in which artists have been a catalyst for change. Art—be it music, dance, literary or visual—has the power to open your heart and change your world view. I believe this in every fiber of my being, so I knew if I wanted to affect change, it had to involve artists. Now, the question became how to actualize this big idea.
I started with just talking to people: Lynn Bustle, who was our director of programs at the time; Mac Sims, a friend and wise sage; my board; and many others. I knew early that whatever the project was to become, it needed to be a collaboration, but who would be the partners? The answer was obvious: I had four collaborators right in the building with me. The visual arts organizations in the Greensboro Cultural Center were natural partners. So I asked them and they all agreed that yes, this is an important project and, yes, we’re onboard. We had the Art. Then Mac convinced me we needed Dialogue. I knew this was important, but who could help us with this? NCCJ and Ivan Canada immediately jumped in and said yes. NCCJ was a natural fit, and with their experience in our community, we could make something wonderful happen. We now had Dialogue. Then I had coffee with board member Taneka Bennett, and she said, “What about music, dance, spoken word being part of the conversation?”
Now this was getting out of hand… it kept getting bigger, and I resisted. But luckily, by this time the African American Atelier, CVA, Guilford Native American Art Gallery, NCCJ and Greenhill had formed a planning group, and the team thought, yes, we need a multidisciplinary element to the project. Now we had our Art + Dialogue with its three component parts: Art, Dialogue and Open Sessions. It was a reality. Our next challenge was where to do it. All of the partner organizations were already programmed for the fall, and we really wanted a neutral site—a place where all community members would experience minimal barriers to entry, and where everyone would feel welcome and be able to easily get there by car, bike, bus or foot. Greensboro College seemed like an ideal fit and its President, Dr. Larry Czarda, was all over it: Yes, do the project, and do it here!
Six long months have now gone by. We secured early funding through the SJ Edwards Foundation, then CFGG, The Bryan Foundation/ArtsGreensboro, and Tannenbaum-Sternberger Foundation followed with grants. We did a statewide call for visual artists to submit work that would be reviewed by an august panel of art professionals, and they selected 18 artists who come from all corners of North Carolina and then California. Ivan’s team is putting together the panel discussions, and Michelle Carello, our project manager, has assembled multidisciplinary artists to take part. Shari Clemons at the African American Atelier is creating great educational programming with help from Ruth Revels at Guilford Native American Art Gallery, and Dara Nix-Stevenson, board member at CVA, has been a backbone to the entire project, helping with social media, giving us astute advice, and assisting on every aspect of A + D, being a critical part of helping make it a reality. It takes a village.
There have been ups and downs with A + D. Every collaboration involves stress, and we are no exception. I say this because putting together a project about racial tension requires every person at the table be really open to each other, to listen, not judge, and recognize and leave stereotypes at the door. I am not perfect, but neither is anyone else, and we have all learned together during this process. It is life affirming and humbling at the same time. With that said, I cannot wait until September 24th to arrive. We have had a journey, and now we are inviting everyone else to come and complete the project, because it will ONLY work if people come, open their hearts, listen carefully, and engage visually, audibly, instinctively, and emotionally.
Nancy Vaughn, thank you for being brave in Nashville, because I am here today because I too took a leap of faith, others agreed to join me, and I know it is worth it.
Executive Director, Greenhill
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