Arts in black and white. Is Columbia a culturally segregated city?

From The Free Times

Article by Dan Cook

When The Avett Brothers played the Township Auditorium in mid-March, it was a big deal for Columbia — or at least some of its residents. The North Carolina-based Americana band, probably best known for its 2009 song “I and Love and You,” played a virtually unprecedented three-night run. Free Times put the show on its cover, and thousands of people came out every night.

Just as the March 7 performance was about to start, Free Times tweeted out to its 18,000 followers: “Waiting for @theavettbros … who’s here?”

“Almost entirely white people,” came a reply from the Twitterverse.

It was breathtakingly true. At the Saturday night show, at least, there didn’t seem to be a single black person in the audience.In the specific case of The Avett Brothers, this shouldn’t be a surprise: Bluegrass, folk and Americana bands draw mostly white fans everywhere, not just in Columbia.But it’s not just Avett Brothers concerts where the racial breakdown at local arts and entertainment events is often skewed in one direction or the other. Go to a ballet, an art opening, a play, a classical music concert or a lot of the city’s festivals, and you’ll often find an overwhelmingly white audience in a city where 42 percent of the residents are black.Of course, there are also events where you’ll find much the opposite — gospel plays and R&B shows at the Township, the Black Expo, the Harambee Festival at Benedict College, the Jubilee Festival and Hip-Hop Family Day, among others.What’s harder to find are the events that are truly integrated.“This city is very divided in the arts when it comes to race,” says Sherard Duvall, director of media education at the Nickelodeon Theatre and one of the organizers of Hip-Hop Family Day, a festival celebrating hip-hop music and culture. “Black people go to black arts events, and white people go to white arts events.”

That’s certainly not Duvall’s intent with Hip Hop Family Day — organizers try to define it “by what it is, not by who it is,” he says. Yet, like lots of other events in the city, it tends to draw a crowd of mostly one race.

This week, Free Times looks at cultural segregation in Columbia — why it exists, whether it’s changing and why it matters.

Alone in a Crowd

Dalvin Spann, an artist and founding member of the local artists collective Izms of Art, was born and raised in Columbia. He went to Dent Middle School and studied at the Savannah College of Art and Design.

He’s been going to art openings and other arts-related events for a long time. And for as long as he can remember, he’s usually been one of the only black people to show up at these events.

“That’s what I was accustomed to seeing,” he says. But, he adds, “It depends on where I go.”

At an event where there’s a likelihood of seeing works by black artists, he says, there’s more likely to be black people in the audience, too.

At the Black Expo, he says, “The attendees are going knowing that there is the possibility of seeing black art there, so they tend to gather there more — as opposed to a gallery where there might or might not be a black artist.”

Terrance Henderson, a frequent choreographer and performer at Trustus Theatre, states it more bluntly: “There’s a lot of cultural segregation [in Columbia] … most people live in segregated neighborhoods,” he says. “It’s a segregated lifestyle.”

A 2009 statewide study by the South Carolina Arts Commission found that black people are slightly less engaged in the arts than white people — 39 percent of black people had not attended an arts event in the past year, compared to 30 percent of white people. The study defined arts participation widely, to include not only attendance at concerts and other performing arts events, but also attendance at school and community performances and engaging in the arts through writing, painting or playing an instrument.

Though many of Columbia’s neighborhoods do split along racial lines, overall the city used to be evenly divided racially. Fifteen years ago, Columbia was nearly a 50-50 city — 48 percent of its residents were white and 47 percent were black, with the rest split among Latino, Asian or other ethnicities. It’s now 52 percent white and 42 percent black.

Even before the percentage of black residents started to decline, a Knight Foundation study conducted around the turn of the 21st century found that white residents were generally happier with the city’s cultural offerings, with 83 percent of whites saying Columbia was an “excellent” or “good” place to live, while only 69 percent of blacks agreed. It shouldn’t be surprising, perhaps, in a city where black-oriented arts groups have tended to be — and still are — small and poorly funded.

There are no recent studies examining perceptions of Columbia by race. Culturally, though, the city has been gradually offering more to its black and minority residents in recent years even as its population has grown modestly more white.

Events such as Hip-Hop Family Day, the Main Street Latin Fest and Famously Hot New Year, which has presented old-school R&B headliners three of the past four years, have helped serve as a counterbalance to staples such as St. Pat’s in Five Points, which is the city’s largest annual event and draws a predominantly white crowd. With such shows as Run the Jewels and Waka Flocka Flame, the Music Farm, too, has offered the hope of diverse programming in a town where music clubs have often tended to cater to white or black audiences, but not both.

Non-Legal Barriers

To the extent that audiences still tend to split along racial lines today, that split is a matter of things like habit, choice, exposure and economic opportunity — not a matter of law. That’s a big difference from the 1950s, when blacks had to enter the Township Auditorium through a side door and were only allowed to sit in the balcony.

Though legal barriers are long gone, other barriers remain — some easy to define, others less so. Part of participating in the city’s cultural offerings is feeling comfortable in participating.

Artist Leo Twiggs remembers when blacks were not allowed in institutions like the Columbia Museum of Art — and, well after formal integration, when blacks still didn’t feel welcome there or at other museums. (Full disclosure: This writer is married to the deputy director of the CMA.)

“There is a kind of aloofness that is personified by museums,” Twiggs says. “Museums never had signs during the years of segregation … but you just knew that was not a place that you could go.”

That status didn’t change overnight.

“Because museums were this place that it was just assumed you couldn’t go, even after desegregation, museums had to work very hard to get African-Americans to participate,” Twiggs says.Brandolyn Pinkston, former board chair of Friends of African-American Art and Culture, an affiliate group of the Columbia Museum of Art, recalls a story from her father, who passed away last year at the age of 90. He went to college in the Midwest at a time when there were few black college students and blacks lived largely separately from whites.“He loved classical music,” she says, but when he went to concerts, “People thought [he was] there to work at the reception.”Columbia is well past such perceptions today. African-Americans can and do attend all types of arts and cultural events in the city and are freely welcomed at them — but they often do so at rates far lower than their representation in the local population.At a lot of events, Duvall says, people feel subtly excluded — not like they can’t attend, but more like they shouldn’t.“A lot of people — black and white — feel like, ‘That’s not for me. They don’t want me there. They didn’t do this for me,” he says.

Spann says that even today, galleries and other arts groups “need to keep in mind how to bring in everybody, how to make it appealing to everyone.” And to make that happen, he says, it’s up to both institutions and individuals to come out of their comfort zones.

It’s About Experience — Not Race

Pinkston has a story to tell about inclusiveness and participation in the arts.

She was at the Columbia Museum of Art one day when she saw a family wandering outside on the plaza. They were trying to decide whether to come in, and they were leaning against it.

“‘Oh no, we’ve got on jeans,’” Pinkston recalls them saying.

“And I said, ‘Come on in — it’s not that kind of place.’”

The family was white.

Pinkston, who use to head the S.C. Department of Consumer Affairs, tells the story to make a simple point: Some people are intimidated by participating in the arts, and that intimidation doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with race.

Ken May, director of the S.C. Arts Commission, says a person’s level of education is the strongest predictor of participation in the arts.

Spann echoes the point.

At each stage of his artistic development in middle school and high school, Spann says, “I was kind of taken under the wing of an art teacher.”

What was perhaps the biggest stage of his development — attending the Savannah College of Art and Design — came about because the college came directly into his high school.

“I didn’t know about SCAD until they came to my school,” Spann says. “When you come directly to the students and the kids, then they become aware — and then their parents become aware,” he says. “You have to put it in front of them; I think that plays a large part of it.”

It helped at a certain point to have black role models, too, Spann says. His middle school and high school art teachers were both white, and Spann learned a lot from both of them. But it really hit home with Spann when he met and learned about black artists like Twiggs, Tom Feelings and Tyrone Geter.“They had to fight a little harder and make sure they were better than the best, and their skills were so on point,” Spann says. “I think there is not enough discussion between people like Leo and people in their teens.”Pinkston places a strong emphasis on education, too.“I truly believe that you have to start with young minds and keep that process going,” she says. “When schools can’t take children on field trips or get the necessary supplies to create that expansive mind, or [can’t] bring in a group of actors or fund transportation, that’s where the limitation of resources or exposure comes in.”To help bridge that experience gap, Pinkston is part of a nonprofit, The Links Inc., that commits part of its budget to taking students to arts and cultural events.Like Pinkston, Twiggs emphasizes the importance of arts-related experiences — especially for those kids whose parents aren’t middle class.

“Those kids from well-to-do schools, you are just preaching to the choir — because their parents will take them anyway,” he says.

Twiggs founded the Stanback Museum at S.C. State University and taught art appreciation for many years.

“You never know what it does,” Twiggs says, recalling one student who told him she cried when she got a chance to see the Coliseum in Rome in person after learning about it in Twiggs’ class. “I have just had so many students over the years I have taught art appreciation … it was just so important for me to instill that in them, because I knew that they did not have that experience before they got there.”

Building a Foundation

In January, Columbia’s most progressive and only professional theater company, Trustus Theatre, presented a play called In the Red and Brown Water, which featured a predominantly black cast.

On the weekend the play opened, most of the audience members were white.

“We chose it because the narrative is strong — not because it’s a white or black cast,” says Larry Hembree, executive director of Trustus.

Because of its black cast, though, there was some expectation at the theater that at least a significant proportion of the audience would be black.

Chad Henderson, director of marketing at the theater, was fielding questions about how the play was being promoted.

“People mentioned talking to churches,” he says. “But it’s not like it was a gospel thing.”

Then one of the cast members took it upon herself to try to attract a black audience. She posted on her Facebook page about how she was upset that her friends weren’t supporting the work she and the other cast members were doing.

The post led to a lively discussion on social media — and also brought in a lot of black audience members the next weekend.

Trustus staffers make it clear that they’re not trying to fill quotas — nobody is counting the number of tickets sold to black people. But they are trying to be inclusive, and part of the reason the cast member’s Facebook post had an effect was because of work done at Trustus over a long period of time.

Jim Thigpen, who founded Trustus along with his wife, Kay, made it a priority to recruit and train local black actors, Hembree says.

“I was not used to seeing black actors,” Hembree says — 15 or 20 years ago, there just wasn’t a significant contingent of trained black actors performing in Columbia’s major theaters. But having that base of actors connected to the theater has helped the organization build a foundation for diversifying its audience.

“A strong core of our group is our African-American company members,” says Chad Henderson.

Adds Terrance Henderson: “It’s not the point [for black audiences] to just personally identify with everything,” he says. But, he adds, there is meaning in producing works that resonate with black audiences.

To see part of their culture “accepted in a wider venue,” he says, makes black people “feel validated.”

A Dialogue, Not a Month

Arts leaders say privately that they’re trying hard to diversify their audience base. Many do things like outreach programs at local schools, and some offer free or reduced-price tickets in an effort to attract underserved audiences.

Even so, it can be an uphill battle — and there are some types of outreach that are more effective than others.

“It’s hard to get people out of their comfort zone if they’re not comfortable,” Duvall says. “It’s like having a difficult conversation.”

It’s on arts groups, Duvall says, to create “a comfortable place.”

That can be harder than it sounds, given hard-wired perceptions in the community.

Take just one example: The historical perception of Lexington County as a not-so-welcoming place for blacks can still be a barrier. Duvall brings up the example of trying to offer programming geared toward black audiences at venues like New Brookland Tavern and Conundrum Music Hall.

It’s “that West Columbia thing,” he says. “[Black] people will not cross the bridge.”

The S.C. Arts Commission has learned through its own efforts how hard it can be to connect with communities it hasn’t traditionally worked with. In recent years, the commission has been involved in efforts to establish the Gullah-Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor.

In the early stages of an outreach effort, May says, it’s important “to do more listening than talking.”

He also says it’s time-intensive and takes a lot of human contact and relationship building.

“You’ve got to be in it for the long haul,” he says. “This is not a short run.”

Local artist Michaela Pilar Brown, who moderated a discussion at the Columbia Museum of Art in January featuring three of the state’s top African-American artists, says it’s hard to attract black audiences without having black staff members.

“It is difficult to come into a space and not feel completely at home — and that has to do as much with the people who are employed there as with what’s on the wall,” she says. “What’s on the walls will change when the employees are more diverse.”

Brown is quick to point out that she’s not singling out the museum.

“That’s true for all institutions,” she says. “You can’t give lip service to diversity without addressing it on the staff.” When blacks and Latinos “are in positions of leadership,” she says, “then you start to speak to diversity in your program offerings.”

At Trustus Theatre, Hembree sees it slightly differently. To him, it’s the art that comes first and the diversity that naturally follows it.

“People get grants because they beef up the number of blacks on their board,” Hembree says. “‘We’ve got to find three awesome black bankers — who are they?’” he says, imitating the mindset. “I’m not going to buy into that.”

Instead, Hembree says, it’s about producing the right plays and “programming from the heart” — which will naturally lead to producing plays that reflect the diversity of the human condition.

Terrance Henderson says it is important to him that there are black board members and staff members. Otherwise, he says, it sends a signal that the only place for blacks at Trustus is on the stage.But, he adds, the theater is already achieving that balance without adopting a quota mentality.“There’s a sincerity that is evident” at Trustus, Henderson says. “It permeates through their staffing and their marketing.”He contrasts the Trustus approach with what he sees from other organizations that he sees as “not about being engaged” with a minority community as much as just “trying to sell tickets to a community.”At the Nickelodeon Theatre, Columbia’s primary home for independent film, Duvall echoes the point.“It’s not about marketing per se,” he says. “It’s about relationships.”

Take, for example, the theater’s Civil Rights Sundays.“‘Civil Rights Sundays’ sounds black,” Duvall admits. “But civil rights are human rights — it’s about your rights as a citizen.”In organizing the series, the Nickelodeon works hard to reach out to all parts of the community. So, if the theme is protest, for example, they don’t limit panel speakers to civil rights activists — anyone who has experience in a protest movement of any kind might be asked to join the discussion. That, in turn, opens up a discussion with a broader swath of the community. The movies, too, aren’t always about black America.“At the end of the day, it’s ‘Do I feel included? — and not just when you are ready to include me,’” Duvall says. When people feel like, “‘This is for me, too,’ then they will take part.”More Diversity Means Less ControlSometimes, making people feel included can take an institution out of its comfort zone.

Ken May at the Arts Commission says he’s seen a long evolution in how the Columbia Museum of Art has sought to attract black audiences.

“Ten years ago, some of their efforts were pretty clumsy,” he says. Now, though, he sees “maturity” in the museum’s approach.

The Friends of African-American Art and Culture group is a key example. Instead of trying to ‘target’ a community in a quick-fix, numbers-boosting effort, the museum has sought to have an ongoing conversation with a group it hopes to engage as an audience over the long term.

It’s the difference between an organization presenting a black-themed exhibition or performance once a year during Black History Month — in an effort to sell tickets as well as to show its inclusiveness — and actually inviting representatives of the black community to have a hand in determining the institution’s programming.

“You have to be willing to share control,” May says.

Arts groups are under a fair amount of political pressure to be more inclusive. Both the City of Columbia and Richland County, which fund the arts through hospitality taxes, are keenly interested in how local organizations are serving minority communities. Arts groups are routinely asked how they are diversifying their boards and their programming, and privately there are complaints about perceived inequities in public funding between established organizations with white leaders and smaller organizations with black leaders.At the Arts Commission, May says that political pressure is growing at foundations, too.At some major foundations, he says, “The discussion has gone from equity in access to equity in funding,” May says, a shift that “has pretty profound implications.”As arts groups seek to diversify their audiences and their programming, however, there are limits — and perhaps underlying problems with the whole conversation, May says.The assumption “is that everybody should go because it’s ‘high art,’” he says. “There’s arrogance in that. In fact, nobody likes everything — no art form appeals to everyone.”To put it plainly, what if the people arts groups want to reach simply aren’t interested in what’s being offered?

That’s a difficult question. Orchestras and ballet companies, for example, mostly perform works from the Western canon. To what extent should audiences be educated on the virtues of these classics — versus institutions expanding their understanding of what counts as art?

As art forms and audiences evolve, there’s a case to be made for re-examining the whole paradigm and reconsidering which types of art deserve a home in major arts institutions.

Look at an event like Cola-Con, a local event celebrating comics and hip-hop culture.

“That is animation, it’s not classical European art,” Pinkston says. “But that was a huge event for a lot of people in this town.”

And not just black or white people; Cola-Con has typically been one of the more integrated cultural events in the city.

Columbia’s Great Strength

Though its cultural habits still tend to skew black or white, there’s also a freshness to Columbia’s cultural scene that shows great promise.

Asked if Columbia has an inclusive arts culture, Spann brings up a show called Post Graffiti, put on by the Columbia Museum of Art in 2010.

For the show, the museum allowed graffiti artists to paint on one of its walls for a community exhibition. It was quite a step for a museum known for its Renaissance collection. But it attracted artists from outside the city and was covered by the website Art Daily.

“We did the Post Graffiti event, and we had artists from Charlotte,” Spann recalls. “They were honored. They said, ‘We can’t get a museum to show our work in Charlotte, but we can go to Columbia and post on the walls.’”

Among Columbia’s strengths, Spann says, are its size and the relative open-mindedness and accessibility of its leadership.

“You have transplants from other places playing key roles in getting things going here,” he says. And the arts scene is growing, he says, because the relatively small size of the city makes it easy to get out to different venues and meet people.

That’s a Columbia trait that many have recognized. Several arts leaders with experience in other cities say Columbia stands out for its openness to collaboration across disciplines and institutions.

May says things are definitely changing in Columbia.

Though there’s still a sense of “a dominant culture and a marginalized culture,” he says, he also sees a lot of good things happening.

“Columbia has changed a lot — the larger Columbia, not just the arts community,” he says. The city has become “more cosmopolitan and tolerant … than we have been historically.”

Recent events such as the ColumbiaSC 63 project, focusing on the city’s civil rights history, and the Burning of Columbia commemoration, have served as important points of reflection, May says.

While there’s much work that remains to be done before all of Columbia’s residents feel equally invested in the cultural life of the community, the trend seems to be headed in the right direction. What seems normal now, May says — such as the city’s open acceptance of its gay and lesbian community, for example — would not have been 10 or 15 years ago.

And, he says, “I think it’s accelerating.”