A Singular American Moment

KC Arts Institutions Express Solidarity with Black Lives Matter

Unwarranted and unrestrained police violence against African Americans has long been a stain on the nation. But last May, the brutal killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis prompted a heightened awareness of that lingering problem — and an enhanced understanding of the Black Lives Matter movement and its struggle for racial justice.

Coinciding with the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic and the collapse of the economy, Floyd’s death — documented in shocking video footage — proved to be the catalyst for a singular American moment. And it wasn’t long before a vast swath of society — from cultural institutions to corporations — responded with statements of sympathy and solidarity. Particularly vocal have been organizations involved in the arts, along with artists contemplating just what this shift in the Zeitgeist might mean.

Julián Zugazagoitia, director/CEO of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, said the recognition of the fatal Minneapolis incident and its aftermath “brings into more focus the inequities and the systemic injustice that this country has harbored for many years.”

Institutions such as art museums, he said, can help call attention to social movements that address such inequities. On its website, the Nelson-Atkins states its commitment to “the ideals of empathy, equity, inclusion, diversity and accessibility” and its support for Black Lives Matter.

Although the museum has a predominantly white staff and has implemented a hiring freeze for the foreseeable future, more than 15 percent of the positions are held by people of color. By the standards of American cultural organizations, that qualifies as significant representation.

Diversity also plays a role in the selection of special exhibitions, Zugazagoitia said.

“We try to have a wide variety,” he said. “What a museum like ours can do best is try to bring the perspective of history into addressing contemporary times. And vice versa: When we show contemporary works of art, they can resonate with how they are rooted in a tradition that goes back in history.”

Among the notable African American artists whose works the Nelson-Atkins has displayed are Kerry James Marshall and Simone Leigh. On view at the museum through April 2021 is the exhibition “Gordon Parks x Muhammad Ali: The Image of a Champion, 1966/1970,” featuring photographs of boxing legend Muhammad Ali — a once controversial figure who was ultimately embraced as a national treasure — taken by esteemed photographer Gordon Parks.

“Think about that show and see it today, and it just goes deeper,” Zugazagoitia said. “It makes you reflect on the times in which those pictures were taken, what Muhammad Ali was going through, and what it was to be rebelling against a war in Vietnam. All of those things come much more into focus.”

Jennifer Owen, artistic director and co-founder of the Owen/Cox Dance Group, said her company has long been committed to diversity and racial justice. And she has communicated that message in her dance classes that she has conducted online during the pandemic.

“I regularly talk about the situation going on, and that has been going on,” she said. “That we really need to combat racism and all the injustices happening right now. I’m not sure how effective that is, but it’s one way to speak out, with the voice that I have and the platform that I have.”

Last year, the company collaborated with African American singer-songwriter Krystle Warren on the dance piece “Love Songs,” set to music from her double album of the same name. Warren performed the score live with the dancers and nine musicians.

“We really value diversity in our projects and in our approaches to our work,” Owen said. “We want our work to be a reflection of our society.” In that regard, working with Warren on “Love Songs” was “an incredible opportunity,” she said.

“Her voice, and her outspokenness about racial issues and LGBTQ issues, were important to us,” Owen said. “That was just one example of how we’re trying to demonstrate open-mindedness and celebrate the differences among us.” As is common with most contemporary American dance companies, the Owen/Cox Dance Group features dancers from diverse backgrounds. (For information about upcoming performances: owencoxdance.org.)

COVID-19 has had a serious impact on live performance, bringing it to a virtual standstill or requiring measures to ensure safety. But when performing arts centers return to normal, it’s possible that programming will be even more culturally inclusive than previously.

“It’s incredibly important to have a diversity of offerings on our stage,” said Gale Tallis, executive director of the Folly Theater. “That’s been one of the key factors in what we do and who we are. But these times have also made us really rethink everything and concentrate even more on the kind of programming that we do — and making sure that it speaks to those issues.”

The Folly, which is known for its jazz and Americana series, is also “starting to do surveys” to identify the demographic for its shows, Tallis said.

Emily Behrmann, general manager, Performing Arts/Carlsen Center at Johnson County Community College, said the college had begun to address issues of diversity, equity and inclusion before the world learned about the fate of George Floyd. According to the 2010 census, the racial makeup of the county was 86 percent white.

“As an organization, we have a lot of work to do, and we need to make strides to do better,” Behrmann said.

Whether the George Floyd incident will endure as a cultural touchstone or gradually recede into the collective American memory is yet to be determined. But there’s no question that, in this most turbulent and troubling year, the sight of a policeman’s knee pressed against the neck of a Black man on the ground left an indelible impression. And for the moment, that impression has made an undeniable difference.

“I have been thinking a lot about anti-Blackness and white supremacy, and how I can use poetry as a vehicle to dismantle some of those things,” said Glenn North, a noted poet and director of the Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Heritage Center.

“Language is so important,” he said. “And terms like ‘white privilege’ and ‘white fragility’ have given us a different way of looking at this thing. I think that there are more white people who are starting to realize that racism is a problem that white people have to fix. And I think that’s what makes this moment feel a little different. But there’s so far that we have to go.”

About The Author: Calvin Wilson

Calvin Wilson

Calvin Wilson is an arts writer at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He is also host and creator of the jazz program, “Somethin’ Else,” on 107.3 FM and 96.3 HD2 in St. Louis.

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