Three years is typically the point in an undertaking when significant changes should be evident. For example, after that amount of time, a U.S. president’s policies have had time to take effect; similarly, a college junior is well on his or her way to setting up their post-studies life.
But after three trips around the sun following the death of George Floyd and the waves of Black Lives Matter protests that — along with the COVID-19 pandemic — defined the summer of 2020, local arts leaders of color say little progress has occurred in Asheville’s creative sector.
“I think, at best, it would be about the same as [it was] prior to COVID and George Floyd,” says Sekou Coleman, executive director of youth arts, social justice and racial equity nonprofit Artéria Collective. “It was always challenging for local artists of any ethnicity. That’s always been the refrain. With this being such a tourist town, it’s such a challenge for people who live here and try and work here.”
Quoting Malcolm X — “When white America catches a cold, Black America catches pneumonia” — Coleman elaborates that when conditions are subpar for the general population, they’re always far more challenging for people of color. That disparity for minorities is likewise evident in the creative sector, and in 2023, those difficulties have not subsided, despite promise after promise within the arts to enact lasting change.
“It feels as though there was a lot of performative talk and activity, particularly in the wake of George Floyd’s death. We saw a lot of Black Lives Matter signs in people’s lawns and people talking about wanting to do this and that and so forth,” Coleman says. “But the reality is, for us, it’s still a challenge.”
On the plus side, Artéria Collective has what Coleman calls “a great contract situation” with Buncombe County’s Community Engagement team whereby a youth documentation group is following the Community Reparations Commission process. Meanwhile, Artéria’s artists of color are also engaged in several activities with Asheville Parks and Recreation.
However, Coleman says grant programs overseen by city and county entities are failing arts organizations like his. After receiving a strategic partnership grant from the county for the 2023 fiscal year (under the group’s former name, Asheville Writers in the Schools and Community), the nonprofit did not receive funding for 2024. Artéria was also denied strategic partnership funding from the city the past two years and was the highest-rated unfunded group both times, barely missing out on receiving grants.
As described on the city’s grant page, the “current scope of the SPG program is to address the impacts of the opportunity gap by supporting school-aged children from low- to moderate-income households in and outside of the classroom.” Coleman notes that each group that received funding is focused on academic performance, not arts equity.
Rachel Taylor, economic development specialist for the city, confirms that the programs funded since the the SPG program launched last summer have not had a specific or sole focus on the arts. She adds that the organizations that were awarded in this round of funding featured proposals and activities that overlap across the program’s three focused categories: providing access to educational opportunities; building networks and readiness for success; and providing access to support services and resources. Grant recipients include The Arc of Buncombe County; Umoja Health, Wellness and Justice Collective; and Read to Succeed Asheville.
Though Coleman does not take issue with the work and current focus of these programs, he believes there is a lack of understanding about the value of the arts, “particularly as it relates to supporting the overall development of youth and of the community.”
According to Coleman, support from local venues and arts organizations is also lacking, despite numerous conversations he was part of in 2020 when arts leaders were “falling all over themselves to talk about how they wanted to do things differently.” Last November, he contacted a local performance venue about hosting Artéria Collective’s annual spring fundraiser but says the request was denied because the booking agent was more interested in turning a profit by hiring a touring artist for a gig.
“Here’s the opportunity for you to support local artists and local arts equity, and instead you’re doing more of the same,” Coleman laments. “The local community is still perpetuating the same narrative of saying that they want diversity and to do things differently. And in reality, they’re just going to keep on doing the same thing that they’ve always done because that’s what’s easy. It’s what’s familiar, it’s what’s accessible.”
Even the majority of funders and organizations that support Artéria Collective are only willing to do so in a limited capacity, he continues. Coleman stresses a need for benefactors “to think differently and to be more bold in their actions,” but finds that they typically wind up making commitments that don’t impact the organization’s normal operations.
“It’s imperative that those folks who have the resources and recognize how they came into their privilege and are choosing and desiring to do something different, genuinely step up and do something that is different,” he says. “This situation that we’re in is one that was created over generations and through billions of dollars of investments and intentional policies and practices and systems. So, it’s going to take a considerably similar level of attention and intention to redress the situation.”
Unwilling to wait for opportunities to materialize, Coleman’s colleague Lau Malintzin — program coordinator for the nonprofit’s Word on the Street/Voz de les Jóvenes efforts, and who also works as a DJ and cultural event organizer — helped form the OYE Collective in early summer 2020. The group creates spaces that are exclusively for artists of color in the Asheville area.
“No one else was going to do it. We started finding out that every time we knocked on a door, whether that was at a venue or a restaurant, we were always turned away because people were scared of the [racial equity] conversations,” Malintzin says. “And then slowly it has shifted somewhat. I think that people are trying to be more inclusive, not only for the BIPOC community but the queer community — but on a very superficial level.”
That surface commitment has similarly plagued Jenny Pickens. Though the initial flurry of interest in artists of color three years ago resulted in significantly increased exposure for the visual artist and dollmaker — an Asheville native and longtime creator who was largely unknown prior to 2020 — the lack of a visible space to cultivate that attention has hampered her progress.
In addition to the increased work, Pickens was featured on the PBS travel show “Samantha Brown’s Places to Love” and Raleigh-based WRAL-TV‘s “Tar Heel Traveler,” and has been the subject of articles in Black Enterprise and Business North Carolina magazines. Then in early May, The New York Times mentioned her in its latest “36 Hours in Asheville” article, highlighting her “oversized portrait of the author James Baldwin” that hangs in local restaurant Benne on Eagle. And yet, she continues to work from her home studio, her search for an affordable public space in Asheville remaining open-ended.
“I’m not bragging or anything, but my name is out there enough, and I’m doing enough stuff to where you don’t even have to second-guess — you can Google it now and see all these different things I’ve done,” Pickens says. “I’m definitely active. I’m doing what I should do. So why aren’t the options here locally opening up for me? It’s really weird.”
Having her own space is important to the artist on multiple levels. With her name receiving attention in statewide and national media outlets, she says tourists are visiting Asheville to interact with Pickens and her work but are unable to easily locate her. Though she has work on display in Noir Collective, which exclusively features arts, crafts and other items made by Black creators, it’s not a space where she can develop new works, store art supplies or teach art to children — one of her great passions. And so, the quest continues for a studio that fits her budget and is compatible with her mind and soul.
“Places say, ‘I’ve got this space. Come check it out.’ But when I get there, I don’t feel that sense of ‘I’m really here to support you.’ Instead, it’s ‘I’m really here because of your name and I need to market off of that,’” Pickens says. “If that doesn’t feel right, I’m not going to do it. I know some people are like, ‘You’re being picky.’ Yes, I am being picky! Because as an artist, the environment, the feeling — everything’s got to be right for me.”
Pickens adds that she’s not looking for a huge “$20,000 per month” space, or even her own gallery. Just something decent that shows her worth and reflects the time she’s invested in the community. But without generational wealth, an issue for numerous other local Black artists, the necessary funds for even a modest space are proving elusive.
‘A lifetime commitment’
Within this bleak environment, some organizations and venues have nevertheless stepped up. Artéria Collective has received immense support from the N.C. Arts Council and eventually found a welcoming partner for its spring fundraiser in Devil’s Foot Beverage Co., which hosted the event May 21 in its The Mule space. Arts AVL has also helped the nonprofit network and connect with others, and Malintzin points to The Odd as a white-owned business that’s expanded its inclusion to artists of color.
Meanwhile, Pickens has found continued support and opportunities from Rae Geoffrey, managing director at the Wortham Center for the Performing Arts, whose courtyard is adorned with a mural that Pickens painted in spring 2021. Explore Asheville has also recruited her to record voice-overs for its advertising campaigns.
But while organizational and institutional paradigm shifts would be welcome developments, Coleman, Pickens and Malintzin agree that enacting change and creating opportunities for underserved communities is most effective on the grassroots level.
“One thing about this community here, somebody knows somebody that has something,” Pickens says. “You may know a real estate person who has a friend who has this building that’s empty or has this space that they’re not doing anything with. It’s that connection — it’s the people you know, pretty much.”
A key part of that person-to-person community building, Malintzin notes, is recognizing organizations led by people of color that were doing arts equity work long before Floyd’s murder and the BLM protests brought greater attention to these issues. She highlights such groups as the Racial Justice Coalition, the Center for Participatory Change, PODER Emma Community Ownership, Slay the Mic, Asheville for Justice, the Southside Community Farm and the AVL Community Bail Fund that are involved in what she calls “a lifetime commitment to change the systems,” not merely efforts that only last a few years.
“2020 brought to light that we cannot rely on any private entities. For many people, it was a trend — something hip or simply just something to do during quarantine, but for people of color it has been the struggle of hundreds of years of systemic oppression and racism,” Malintzin says. “[Alliance] goes way beyond a Black Lives Matter sign on your yard or your business. It’s a daily commitment to hold yourself accountable, to relearn history, to be open to teach others about this process and to make daily reparations.”