When executive director John Gidwitz came to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 1984, it was plainly and painfully obvious to him that the BSO, like most American symphonies, was "not effectively reaching into the black community."

"We knew there was the momentum of tradition which had to be overcome," he recalls of his thinking and that of other orchestra officials at the time. "The symphony, through inertia if nothing else, had come to be seen as an institution responsive to the white community."

Although that perception was "an ongoing matter of concern," Mr. Gidwitz says preoccupation with the BSO's finances and the five-month musicians' strike in the 1988-'89 season kept the orchestra from doing much about it.

Earlier this year, the BSO finally acted, appointing a liaison with the African-American community and creating a special five-concert sampler series targeted specifically to potential black audiences.

The BSO's effort is just one of a number of attempts by Baltimore's major arts institutions to broaden their audiences by attracting more black members at the same time they are trying to assure that their offerings reflect the diverse, multicultural world around them. In some cases, these efforts represent new initiatives; in others, a continuation and expansion of past practices. Among them:

*The Baltimore Museum of Art is inaugurating a new African-American Performance Series in December and has targeted the arts of Africa as one of three areas for primary emphasis during the next five years.

*The Walters Art Gallery is gearing up for a major exhibition in March on African weaving and has instituted an "Artreach" program aimed at inner-city youth groups.

*The Baltimore Opera Company is working with black composer Anthony Davis on a new opera about a mutiny aboard a 19th century slave ship and is beefing up its educational activities in city schools.

*Center Stage has two plays on its schedule that draw upon the black experience -- "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," by prize-winning author August Wilson, and "The Heliotrope Bouquet by Scott Joplin and Louis Chauvin," about ragtime.

In making these efforts, many of the institutions are consciously trying to overcome what they readily concede are their exclusionary images, while fulfilling what are often explicit directives to serve all members of the community.

"There's a greater awareness nationwide of the multiethnic character of our society and the fact that many groups need to be served that aren't served enough," says Walters director Robert P. Bergman.

There's also a sense that the African-American community represents a source of largely untapped patronage -- and a growing sensitivity among the leading arts institutions that, as the recipients of large amounts of public funds, it is politically unwise as well as morally indefensible to ignore a large segment of the community.

"The symphony recognizes that it receives substantial tax dollars from the federal government, the state and the city," says Jean Patterson Boone, the BSO's newly appointed community affairs manager. "You can't be publicly supported and be elitist."

While no one argues with that sentiment, there is some difference of opinion about the best way to achieve diversity.

"Last year, we did a new play, 'Miss Evers' Boys,' that hadn't been

done anywhere before," says Peter Culman, managing director of Center Stage, referring to the drama based on a U.S. Public Health Service study of untreated syphilis on black men in the 1930s. "We didn't present that play because we felt we had to do a play for the blacks of Baltimore.

"We do a play for the whole community. If it's well done, it will have enough universality that it has relevance for everyone."

Mr. Culman is convinced that approach, coupled with the theater's long-standing policy of color-blind casting and recently instituted discount pricing plans, will make the theater's offerings available to the widest possible audiences of all races.

On the other hand, the Baltimore Museum of Art's "heightened profile" in the area of African-American exhibitions and programs is the result of an effort that has been "intensified and very consciously so," according to director Arnold Lehman.

"Our position is not just waiting for something to come to us but searching out exhibitions and programs that we feel have a particular kind of interest," he says. "Not only are we doing more shows, but we're doing shows that have greater impact."

Among those on the schedule for the current season are "Ndebele Beadwork," which opened last week, and "Constructed Images: New Photography by African-American and Latino Artists," opening Jan. 29, in addition to the African-American performance series.

Mr. Lehman says the museum's "audience is broadened without question" when it presents such programs. But he adds that the BMA must translate that into increasing its black membership beyond the current level of about 10 percent.

At the same time, Schroeder Cherry, director of education and community services at the BMA, says the museum needs to ensure

that programs and exhibits with a black focus are no more exclusive than those with a white one. "Europeans benefit from being exposed to [African-American] culture," says Mr. Cherry, who is also vice president of the African-American Museum Association.

Walters director Bergman says exhibitions at his museum "almost always come out of the aesthetic tradition of the institution" -- a circumstance which he says is compatible with the museum's "redoubling" of its efforts to appeal to black audiences. "We see projects we want to do and a community we want to serve," he states. "We want to make that intersection work."

He cites as an example last year's exhibit of "African Body Art," whose point, he says, was "to examine African body ornaments against the background of the Walters' great collection of jewelry."

Similarly, the March exhibition titled "African Improvisations," a collection of 30 giant textiles done with free-form weaving techniques, will afford the Walters a "wonderful opportunity to show African material that relates to our own collection," Mr. Bergman says. The Walters is planning to provide jazz accompaniment to the show in an attempt to show rhythmic patterns similar to the weaving techniques.

The Baltimore Opera Company's collaboration with Anthony Davis on an opera based on the mutiny on the Armistead will "be scored for an opera orchestra and also have African instruments," says BOC general director Michael Harrison. He says the opera, which should have its premiere sometime in 1993, grew out of the BOC's expanded education and outreach programs that this year will include the creation and production of operas by students in Baltimore city schools. "We are looking for ways to reach out and have a significance to people," he says.

"One thing I've tried to avoid is the attitude, 'Here we have something for you,' " he adds. "What I've tried to ask is 'What would you like to see?' "

For the BSO, low numbers of black concertgoers have had less to do with the music and more to do with the perception of the institution, according to community affairs manager Boone.

"Symphony music is not foreign to the black community; the church I grew up in regularly sung choral works by Bach," she says. "[But] the twin bugaboos of elitism and discriminatory attitudes have played a large part in folks saying, 'I'll spend my entertainment dollars elsewhere.' "

To counteract that perception, the BSO has undertaken a broad-based program with such diverse and disparate elements as having a booth at Artscape to sponsoring a competition for black composers, Ms. Boone says.

The orchestra also instituted a five-concert sampler drawn from its existing program that include concerts by Ray Charles and the Harlem Boys Choir; a concert guest-conducted by black conductor James DePriest; one featuring two works by black composer Adolphus Hailstork; and a performance of Mahler's "Symphony of a Thousand" that features the Morgan State University Choir. The sampler, titled "A Taste of Something New," is being promoted by personal appearances, radio spots and inserts in the Baltimore Afro-American and Black Church magazine.

One thing that would undoubtedly help change the perception of the symphony as a white institution would be to increase the number of African-American musicians, who currently fill just three of the orchestra's 96 chairs. "We would certainly love to have a more racially diverse orchestra," says executive director Gidwitz. But he adds that, given the low number of blacks in leading conservatories, it will take time to achieve that goal.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad