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Cultural Plan: Bridge Racial Divide in Arts



The city's sprawling arts organizations need to bridge the gap between white and black arts patrons, a much-anticipated report on the city's arts community concludes.

Set for release March 11, the Cultural Action Plan, led by San Francisco-based consulting firm WolfBrown, is a master plan of sorts for how the city's arts programs and organizations can pull together. It's the result of months of work conducting surveys, crunching numbers and holding public forums. Local corporate donors backed the $100,000 study.

The six-point report concludes that if properly maintained, the arts sector represents a significant economic contribution to the area, especially through tourism. It highlights the need for groups to make educational programming available in and out of schools, from childhood to post-retirement. It encourages groups to work together, raise awareness, draw more people into audiences and donor pools and find systematic ways to support artists through zoning changes and grant programs.

Perhaps most importantly, the report signals a philosophical shift in how to manage the old divisions along racial and class lines in the arts community.

The report refers to “conjoining strong southern traditions,” observing that white audiences tend to dominate “formal activities” such as the symphony, ballet and art museums “often associated with major venues, those with fees attached to participation, and those with their origins largely in western European traditions.”

In contrast, “African Americans participate in events more closely associated with their neighborhoods, families, and churches that are often less formal and free to participants.”

It's a step forward in the conversation. Five years ago, boosters of the performing arts center released an uncomfortable promotional video in which a statue of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson hops off its pedestal and tap-dances through a pitch for the new facility fostering cultural diversity in the arts. “Yessir, lookin' good.” an actor playing Bojangles says. “The heart and soul of this area all fixed up and spit shine.”

Meanwhile, the performing arts center's backers told developers working to renovate the old Hippodrome and Elks Lodge in Jackson Ward, the city's most famous black theater, that they weren't interested in a financial partnership.

As for the six-point plan, the consultants envision a central body to help coordinate for all the disparate groups, such as umbrella organization Homeward, which consolidates homeless services, or the Capital Region Airport Commission.

The Arts Council, which for years has been a clearinghouse for corporate and government donations, will reposition itself to fill that role. After three years without a permanent head, the group hired John Bryan, a former arts dean at Virginia Commonwealth University. He embraces many of the recommendations.

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