Day 1 of BtBA not only lived up to expectations but exceeded them. It exceeded in terms of the intellectual content of the meetings and discussions as well as in my personal experiences.
The physical focus of the day was Harlem and in particular 125th Street.
There are many ways to experience New York, the best way is to see it through the life and relationships of one of its cultural leaders and interpreters, which is what Donna Walker-Kuhne allowed us.
The Day 1 program included meetings with and tours of the Theatre Development Fund, The Apollo Theatre, The Dwyer Cultural Centre and Columbia University’s Arts Management Community Outreach team. The day was rounded out with dinner at Sylvia’s Soul Food Restaurant.
Like any good engagement approach the quality of the engagement is directly proportional to the relationships that either exist or are developed with the target group. What I saw today was in many ways a privileged access to key arts and general community people and institutions and a referred respect because of existing relationships with Donna. I almost lost count of the number of times the people we were speaking to acknowledged Donna, her work, her standing and her contribution to the field as thinker, advocate and most importantly, doer. This was highlighted in one meeting in which an informant stopped in mid-sentence turned to Donna and said, “it is so good to see you”.
So through this access we dealt with key notions of equity of access to theatre.
We had deep discussions about urban redevelopment of Harlem and its potential to both displace the African American population as well as potentially dilute the cultural essence and history of the areas through gentrifications and population increase resulting in a reduction of the African American population from 70% to 40% of Harlem.
We considered the responsibilities’ of key institutions such as Columbia University and its community outreach into the local community.
The issues we discussed and engaged on coalesced into a number of distinct themes, which I am sure will be further explored over the days to come.
- The first of these was focus on African Americans as the predominant diversity narrative. Given the nature of the program this was always going to be the case as was the day’s focus on Harlem. This was an interesting and important discussion yet it did start to generate questions about other diversity groups and where they fit in the schema. The story of Harlem is intriguing and African American marginalisation both in general society and as consumers and producers of arts and cultural product is important to understand. The story of the Dwyer Cultural Centre and its role and the role of other spaces owned and controlled by the African American community was salient and included the importance of property ownership and the constant needs for advocacy, so eloquently expressed by Ademola Olugebola “you constantly have to keep shouting, keep putting your foot in the door, keep making noise”.
- The second theme was the absolute importance of private philanthropy in the lives of cultural institutions. In this the role of government as cultural policy director through the vehicle of cultural funding is really nothing more than symbolic and in dollar terms miniscule. The real power to set the cultural agenda is with the philanthropists. The small in their financial support for the smaller local community arts organisations and the larger big moneyed men and women supporting the larger structures in which becoming a prominent NGO Board Governor comes with a significant contribution price tag. Clearly Australia is in the little league in this aspect but I do have concerns at the resulting power that private money has on setting the direction and mission of major arts NGOs.
- Lastly the problem of falling domestic audiences is indeed an international phenomenon. This is equally the case in New York though more difficult to see because of the prominence and increasing proportion of seats being purchased by tourists. While this is not a problem for arts producers who are happy that their seats are being filled it does carry a significant risk. It is widely acknowledged that a major terrorist event or virus scare affecting tourism would have a devastating effect on the arts and cultural structures across both NGO and private companies. This risk alone should reinforce the need for fundamental and ongoing domestic audience development. And given the constant refrain that New York is multicultural then the audiences to be developed should also be multicultural, and include diversities beyond just African American.
To end my first day reflections I want to profile two men who really stood out for me today. The first is Ademola Olugebola. Ademola is an artist first and foremost with a gentleness and artistic sensibility that that oozes empathy. He is a classic cultural warrior, bearing the intellectual and emotional scars of the black arts movement of the 60s, and understanding the need to maintain the struggle. The tactics through are now far more subtle; creating and aesthetic and industry that is self-determining; becoming physically grounded through property; and prominent and on the front foot in negotiating the societal and demographic changes that will come both to Harlem and to the cultural make-up of the people of New York.
The second I would term a living treasure who is the embodiment of Harlem and its history through his involvement with the Apollo Theatre. Billy Mitchell is the consummate showman. His connection with a space and place and its relations to the song-lines and soundtracks of the lives of people the world over is a pure joy. He made this cultural icon come to life and allowed us to be touched by its importance.
Two very different but equally important men.
Post script: The personal experience I referred to in the first lines of this blog was being able to go on stage and sing and dance a James Brown classic and it did make me feel good.