Last fall, when the Asheville Area Arts Council chose “Art in Full Color” as its theme for the ninth annual Creative Sector Summit, members of its board of directors knew they needed to include as many people of color as possible in the planning process to best craft a conference focused on equity and inclusion within the creative networks of Buncombe County.
“We took our time to reach out to leaders of color in the arts community to have honest conversations about what they would envision for a conference like this,” says Janelle Wienke, AAAC interim executive director. “With their help and the help of AAAC volunteers, we picked a great lineup of local leaders who are really putting in the work to make a more equitable community.”
Among the figures presenting on their varied gains on Friday, May 17, at the Dr. Wesley Grant Sr. Southside Center, are grant recipients of AAAC’s Arts Build Community program. Created in 2017 along with an organizational equity statement, the grant program funds what Wienke calls “innovative, arts-based ideas that inspire diverse groups of participants to be more active, involved and civically engaged by creating together.” In the program’s inaugural year, she says, the AAAC immediately knew there was a strong desire for funding of this nature; in April, it received quadruple the requests of the previous year.
The individual 2019-20 Arts Build Community grant awards of $1,000 each went to BeLoved Asheville for an outside gallery that amplifies the culture and history of Latinx, indigenous and African American people to be used as an educational hub for youths of color in Asheville; Martha Skinner to facilitate a gathering and sharing among individuals on the autism spectrum, resulting in a collaborative drawing; Nuestro Centro for a cultural arts program that helps children and youths develop a strong sense of cultural identity through Mexican folkloric dance, music, literature and history; the Shiloh Community Association for a series of murals along the Legacy Art Trail to honor important figures from the community’s history; and Word on the Street/Voz de los Jovenes to develop, print and distribute a zine to document artistic responses to thematic questions.
“Everyone involved in this conference has an incredible story. We are bringing local government, arts organizations, artists and community organizers together to have a dialogue about the power of arts to create change,” Wienke says.
“All of their experiences are so different and powerful, but by sharing openly and truthfully, we can have discussions that can really make a difference. Not only do I think that some amazing ideas are going to come out of the panels, but if the participants stick around and network with the panelists, there’s no end to the possibilities that these discussions can produce.”
While having a local emphasis was the AAAC’s original intention for the conference, its leaders recognized an opportunity to learn from others doing similar work across the country. In partnership with the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority, the AAAC was able to bring in Atlanta-based independent consultant Dina Bailey, CEO of Mountain Top Vision, to speak at the opening reception on Thursday, May 16, at the YMI Cultural Center. Through the authority, Bailey is working with Explore Asheville to help facilitate a community-led process to document the heritage of the African American community via the African American Heritage Trail.
Bailey’s presentation, “Telling the Whole Story,” will include some of her experiences from the communities she’s worked with over the years, and both the lessons she’s personally learned as well as ones that her collaborators have discovered as they’ve come together around various projects. She’ll also emphasize the complexity of defining what “the whole story” truly means, addressing aspects that influence how stories are told, such as the importance of coming to shared understandings.
“I get to meet community members who are very passionate about why their community is special,” Bailey says. “I love being able to hear about a community’s strengths and challenges while sharing what I’ve seen in other places. I think it’s often a relief for people to know that they aren’t alone — that others are talking about many of the same hopes and concerns for their own communities.”
Bailey hopes that the Creative Sector Summit gets participants and attendees thinking about the complex nature of communities and the tremendous good that can come from going beyond one’s comfort zones and actively listening to others. Wienke has similar goals for the event, and through the AAAC’s initiatives, she and her colleagues believe the arts can be used as a profound catalyst for progress by elevating change agents and untapped talent in the Asheville area.
“At the end of this conference, we want to plan for increased support for underrepresented artists, performers, writers and young artists, and think about how we can retain and attract a diverse creative sector here in Buncombe County,” Wienke says. “I know that sounds like a lot, but if we listen carefully to one another and think creatively, we will surely be able to collaborate to support one another in new ways. Together, we can develop ideas to spur long-term changes.”
WHAT: The ninth annual Creative Sector Summit
WHERE: YMI Cultural Center, 39 S. Market St.; Dr. Wesley Grant Sr. Southside Center, 285 Livingston St. ashevillearts.com
WHEN: Thursday, May 16, 5:30 p.m. Free with registration; Friday, May 17, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. $25 AAAC members/$35 nonmembers