Art vs. Racism, Privilege, and Displacement

Posted by Ms. Margy Waller, May 27, 2016 0 comments


Creating greater equity is urgent. This is the discussion we’ve been having at the New Community Visions Initiative convenings across the country. In these gatherings, we’ve focused (or tried to) on community goals as the outcome, and arts sector needs as a means to that end. Importantly, we’re talking about equity through art, not for art.

How do the arts contribute to creating more equitable places?

In my city, one of the largest neighborhoods is Avondale. It was a rural suburb in the 19th century because it was hard to travel there from the center city, sitting on top of a large hill above the Ohio River. It became a part of our urban place after the development of cars and public transit. Still, black people lived in the neighborhood beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, so when displacement in the center city occurred a century later, more blacks moved into Avondale. Why there? Realtors and bankers actively limited movement of African-Americans to places they were already locating, and prevented their relocation in all-white neighborhoods.

In the mid-1950s, as white people left for the suburbs or segregated themselves in a part of the neighborhood they renamed North Avondale, the city declared Avondale to be blighted, and promised to invest. But the investments mostly benefitted major institutions in the area: the University, hospitals, and the zoo. For decades, these establishments have continued to takeover homes for expansion and parking, steadily displacing residents and undermining the fabric of community. (Side-note: In my pre-arts-career days as a legal aid lawyer, I represented the neighborhood council in a fight to prevent the zoo from demolishing a whole block of housing. That was a great win. But, a few years later—when I was living in DC—the zoo renewed the campaign and today there is a parking lot there.)

Fast forward to now. Leaders at two of the area hospitals seem to recognize the damage done to the neighborhood and are looking for ways to connect with residents, bridging and bonding with the community, creating a stronger place for all. These leaders called for a partner to create an experience, having in mind something like the ArtWalks—community inspired and co-created crosswalk murals—we’ve created in other neighborhoods.

Here’s what happened next.

My artist-friend Pam Kravetz and I went to Gabriel’s Place for dinner. It’s a neighborhood center in Avondale with urban gardens and honeybees. On Tuesdays, the center hosts a free community dinner and everyone is welcome. Pam and I ate, of course. The chef makes dinner with local ingredients, using the garden produce, and it’s delicious.

But we were really there to gather inspiration for a pavement painting in front of the building. We took the tools of creativity with us: crayons, markers, pencils, and paper. We asked the diners to use their colors and passion to show us what they love about their neighborhood.

One very young lady created a beautiful image of a garden with people, a snake, and a nest with eggs—mostly red and one blue. She printed these words on the drawing: Community is a garden of people that come together to make a difference. And: the blue egg is different which makes it unique.

Pam is the artist and I am the producer for our pavement painting parties. She walked away from dinner with all of the art and I went out to buy the paint and brushes.

On the day we came to create the pavement mural with people from the neighborhood and volunteers from the two hospitals, Pam told me she’d been inspired to create the design based on the community garden in the little girl’s artwork.

We always arrive early for our painting parties so Pam can chalk the outline of the art and I can arrange all the paint for easy access. At Gabriel’s Place, neighbors were so ready and excited to bring the art to life, people of all ages crowded around the painting area watching us get ready, barely interested in the sidewalk chalk we’d brought along for creative distraction while we prepared.

When we gave the call for painting time, there was a rush to start and every volunteer paired with a citizen artist. A couple of hours later, we’d painted a community garden together and people stood around talking about joy. Ozie Davis, President of the Avondale Community Development Corporation, wrote these words next to a Facebook collage of photos from the painting: This was a pure joy today! I’m not sure what you've heard about my hood, but you might need to experience #‎INsideAvondale.

Mostly, this makes me think that co-creating a community inspired mural while listening to music and doing some dancing together connects people and changes the way we think about a place. It didn’t occur to me to think about that morning as access to an arts experience. I suppose technically it was, but that’s surely not what seems most important about the day.

There’s a lot of art in my life. My parents are orchestra musicians. My sisters and I all spent many hours at Music Hall listening to the symphony. Our childhood soundtrack included our parents practicing at home and dinner parties where friends gathered to play chamber music in our living room.

We all took music lessons. Some of us went to ballet and theatre class. We got arts education at the museum. We had a unique— by late 20th century standards—experience of deep and extensive exposure to old (white) European fine arts, especially classical music. As an adult, I go to plenty of symphony concerts. Also theatre, museums, ballet, and even opera. I love going, and the way the arts make me think and feel. I have no doubt that my early interaction with art affected my life’s trajectory in a substantial way.

But there’s a world of difference between my personal experiences with art (and any wish I have for everyone to share moments like those) and our jump for joy when we finished painting together at Gabriel’s Place.

Photo: Ian Timothy Forsgren

The painting activity might seem a small thing. But, no. Co-creating the art is a major happiness element, enhancing quality of life and connecting the neighborhood residents to people working at the encroaching institutions. Recognizing the damage done, the racist and privileged actions over decades, is large.

Americans for the Arts’ new equity statement calls on us to “hold ourselves accountable, because acknowledging and challenging our inequities and working in partnership is how we will make change happen”.

That’s what is going on in Avondale. We’re doing it together. And we’re doing it with art, not for art.

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