Arts Institutions Reach Out to Black Community


"When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations," said President John F. Kennedy.

"When power narrows the areas of man's concerns, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses, for art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment."

What he said in 1963 about the unifying, healing, broadening and enriching power of art still holds true today.

That's why one of the more exciting and important efforts in Baltimore involves the major cultural and arts institutions here and their ongoing efforts to broaden their audiences.

Over the past three or four years, most institutions have added blacks to their governing boards. They have increased the number of performances and shows offered that they hoped would appeal to black audiences. They have formed multi-racial outreach committees with specific missions to explore ways these institutions can reach out and pull people in.

I don't believe these institutions were compelled to make this effort, although the major push roughly coincided with the election of the city's first black mayor in 1987, and most of these institutions receive substantial financial support from the city and state.

I'm not even sure they felt compelled to do so for their financial survival -- although blacks and other minorities represent the fastest growing population groups in the Baltimore region.

Instead, I believe these outreach efforts reflected a broadening of the cultural mission of the city's arts community, a sense that art offers a unique force for promoting understanding and bringing people together.

"Center Stage could, I suppose, continue to rely upon its traditional audience base, maybe focus its efforts on cementing those existing relationships," said attorney Arthur Fergenson, a member of Center Stage's board of trustees and one of the organizers of a newly formed outreach committee.

"But then, we wouldn't be doing our job," Mr. Fergenson continued. "We wouldn't be fulfilling our obligation to the community of providing vital theater that reflects the universality of the community's experience in the broadest possible sense."

"It is all about common ground, establishing common ground, and a level of mutual comfort," said Stuart O. Simms, the city state's attorney. Mr. Simms chairs the BSO's outreach committee and is a member of the orchestra's board.

"We want to reach the point where we are not talking about 'black' artists or 'white' artists but people who are masters of their art and who can speak to anyone who loves art, whatever the color."

The Baltimore Museum of Art began one of the oldest focused outreach efforts in 1984 when it created the Joshua Johnson Council -- a multi-racial committee that sponsored events at the museum and shows featuring African American artists and their works.

"What we want to do is encourage African Americans to think of the museum as their museum, a resource that is available to everyone," said Beverly Carter, the council's chairperson.

Today, for instance, the Joshua Johnson Council will host a reception for Jacob Lawrence, whose works currently are on display.

Center Stage not only has made a conscious effort to present plays featuring black themes, but it also is a nationally known promoter of non-traditional casting -- that is, casting blacks and other minority actors in which race is not specified. Shakespeare's "Pericles", which is now running, features an Asian, a Hispanic, several African Americans and a dwarf.

But perhaps the most determined push has come from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra which formed an outreach committee two years ago.

The BSO not only brought in black artists but also has provided a model for marketing to black audiences. For instance, the orchestra has sold more than 300 subscriptions to its "Classically Black Series."

"Simply put, I see more black faces in the audiences than I did before," said Mr. Simms. "Not just at the BSO but at Center Stage and the Mechanic and everywhere. It is a learning process, but African Americans obviously are adding theater to their menu of choices where they didn't before."

"Audiences are very much a part of the performance," said Mr. Fergenson. "If you have a multi-racial, multi-economic, and multi-educational audience, it will be a very different play, an enriched experience. You shouldn't go to the theater to escape from Baltimore, you should go to be involved in a richer and more complete way."

That is what art has given us. It is the one experience that gives

rise for optimism about the future.

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