By Karen Mack
Walk down Degnan Boulevard on any day of the week and you are likely to hear the beat of drums or a few bars of jazz spontaneously played by street musicians. You can visit Sika, a master jeweler who also sells a wonderful selection of African themed merchandise, step into EsoWon books which specializes in the literature of the Diaspora or grab a bite in the always hoppin’ Hot and Cool Cafe.
Welcome to Leimert Park, the African American cultural hub, made possible by the Supreme Court decision in the middle of the last century striking down racially restrictive real estate covenants and, white flight from the urban core of LA fueled by the Watts Riots in 1965. A couple of artist brothers from down South, Dale and Alonzo Davis opened Brockman Gallery and an arts nexus was born. This place, along with the other nearby neighborhoods, Baldwin Hills, View Park and Hyde Park for example, connects to Crenshaw Boulevard and since the 1970s the area has been collectively known as the Crenshaw District and the center of Black life in Los Angeles.
The area is so significant in this regard, local Councilman Marqueece Harris Dawson is working to create “Destination: Crenshaw,” his vision for an outdoor museum that captures the “unapologetically Black” identity of the neighborhood to ensure this legacy continues despite gentrification pressures brought on by Los Angeles’ housing crisis and other changes.
Although I was born and raised in Compton, about 12 miles south, I have had a connection to this area for more than 25 years, from the moment I arrived and found a cultural home. Since then I have participated in the development of the neighborhood in a variety of ways including now as the leader of one of the local nonprofits, LA Commons and an advisory council member for Destination: Crenshaw. LA Commons, along with our key partner, Ben Caldwell of KAOS Network, are providing ways for the community members to participate in art and culture including the annual Day of the Ancestors: Festival of Masks.
Thus, I jumped at the chance, when approached by the Western Arts Alliance (WAA), to be part of their local advisory committee for Black Arts @ WAA, a full day, pre-Conference symposium taking place in the Crenshaw District. The program will include a keynote speaker, none other than Patrisse Cullors, workshops and panels, networking events and showcases. This laudable initiative seeks to “recognize, champion, and uplift Black artists and ensembles as it works to address systemic racism and implicit bias in the field of touring and presenting.”
Los Angeles is a fitting locale to launch this effort, given the serious focus of the LA County Board of Supervisors and recently chartered County Department of Arts and Culture to further cultural equity across the region. Kristin Sakoda, Executive Director of this new agency, has also been an enthusiastic participant on the committee, helping plan the Black Arts @ WAA program. LA also is home to numerous artists who are committed activists including film director Ava Duvernay, the late rapper Nipsey Hussle and Black Lives Matter’s Cullors who fittingly will kick off a program focused on balancing the opportunity scale in the performing arts.
WAA recognizes that there is no quick fix to address the complex issues that have made it more difficult for Black artists, and all artists of color, to thrive as performers. But, they have dedicated themselves to a process rooted in transparency, honesty, and generosity, believing that this focus can be a powerful instrument for change. I can attest to their commitment to this work as a participant on the committee which also includes folks such as David Mack, Executive Director of Invertigo Dance; Pam Green, head of PMG Arts Management; and James Burks and Ben Johnson from the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs (LA DCA), another key organizational partner in the effort. WAA Executive Director Tim Wilson oversees the committee’s planning of Black Arts @ WAA, serving as a facilitator of the committee’s ideas. The result is the Black Arts @ WAA Symposium, which authentically reflects that challenges and opportunities to advance the conversation and the artists who most stand to benefit.
This emphasis on artist development resulted in a special workshop this past June, “The Art of Touring.” Sponsored by the LA County Department of Arts and Culture based on advocacy by the Black Arts @ WAA planning committee, this half-day session focused on the nuts and bolts of going on the road - developing and marketing a performance, finding presenters and negotiating deals. Participants had the opportunity to learn from an all-star lineup including among others, seasoned producer and Ford Amphitheater Executive Director, Olga Garay English; Talent Manager Emerson Bran; and Renae Williams-Niles, Associate Dean at the Gloria Kaufman School of Dance at USC and former head of Dance at the Music Center.
Next up! Black Arts @ WAA will take place on August 25th, beginning with Patrisse Cullors’ keynote at local powerhouse venue, Lula Washington Dance Theater. The remainder of the day will focus on plenary panels on The State of Black Arts across the U.S. and Models for Success in touring, presenting, audience engagement and outreach for black artists and audiences. In addition, concurrent breakout sessions will allow for peer-to-peer learning and networking on issues such as art and activism and creating safe and inclusive spaces. Visits to two leading arts organizations in Leimert Park, the beautiful Art + Practice Gallery and the dynamic World Stage will enable participants to gain a deeper connection to this culturally rich neighborhood. The day ends on a celebratory note with a DCA-hosted reception followed by evening showcases at venues around Leimert Park.
With this pre-conference offering, WAA is setting a great example of how to tackle the equity issue head on by providing a platform for a new and authentic approach to partnership with marginalized communities to guide the broader performing arts community in transforming their practices to truly and justly uplift artists from every background.