A guardian of minority culture

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Steven Xavier Lee says that museums rooted in European culture have tended not to acknowledge the importance and extent of African, African-American, Latin American, Native American and West Indian cultures.

Mr. Lee's dream -- obsession might be a better word -- is a museum in Baltimore that would reflect the fine art and history of such cultures.

He is executive director of a fledgling institution called the Heritage Museum, and he has interesting arguments along with beautiful paintings, sculptures, photographs, prints and ceramic work stowed away and the knowledge of where to find more. But so far, the museum's only location is on the first floor of Mr. Lee's Windsor Hills home on the edge of Gwynns Falls Park.

The Baltimore native and others have been refining the idea for about two years, seeking out people with like interests, trying for financial grants, lobbying -- battling is an apt word -- with state government bureaucracy for seed money, and even competing unsuccessfully for the Inner Harbor's defunct Power Plant as a site. He is now seeking another city site.

Mr. Lee, a painter, has worked in the art field for more than 20 years. He's been an art director for Continental Group Inc. in New York; an art and animation director for Le Centre Bossuet, a cultural center in Paris; and an exhibition designer for Warren Displays in New York; and he has taught design and computer art at the University of Maryland at Baltimore County and College Park.

QUESTION: You've devoted a lot of time and energy to this concept of a museum about minority cultures. What's so important about the idea?

ANSWER: The role that cultural institutions play, and I'm not just talking about the Heritage Museum, is to give direction to our kids.

European-American culture is beautiful. But, for instance, when Native Americans and African-Americans walk into a park and see a beautiful stature of a European American, they are not seeing themselves.

They do not see their image. They do not see their culture. It's so important for them to see themselves. It's terrible if your heritage disappears.

For America to succeed, for humankind to succeed, we must sincerely recognize and support equally, the rich diversity and value imbued in each of us.

Q.: You've contended that troubles urban minorities have in this country relate to a lack of culture -- 'cultural depravity' is the term you've used. Some would say economic depravity has a role, too.

A.: There is cultural depravity, but, yes, economic depravity is a part of it also. But even when people are poor, they have their humanity. When you are economically depressed and culturally depressed on top of it -- that's a problem. It is your culture that helps pull you up and out of poverty.

Look at the Jewish community. When Jewish people were economically depressed, they still put culture first. Look at the Asians who are coming here now. They may be economically depressed, but they do not lose their culture. When you lose your culture, you lose your identity, humanity and direction.

Q.: How do you see something like the Heritage Museum making a difference? What role could it play in restoring culture to minorities?

A.: It would be unique by being the first museum created for the posterity and promotion of this collective genre in a comprehensive and universal perspective.

The primary difference is that the Heritage Museum showcases the art of people of color in a global perspective. All other museums treat minorities as separate independent subcategories, outside of the movement of world art. But the Heritage Museum will showcase the commonality.

The Heritage Museum is a museum where the community determines and shapes programs, where the community determines the artists. Our programs are in in direct response to expressed interest of the community.

Another distinction is the museum's co-relationships between the different groups and the evolution of world art.

Q.: What might the museum do to give people today a better understanding of the evolution of world art?

A.: A gallery devoted totally to works of antiquity where the art and artifacts of the African continent, as well as to the Americas, will be shown together. So that the correlation, the connections, will be made manifest.

Q.: In the past year, you've had a debate with state officials, including the Maryland Arts Council (which helps individual artists, arts organizations and county arts councils with grant money as well as designs new or expanded arts programs) and the Maryland Department of Economic and Employment Development over getting financial grants to pursue the idea for a museum. You've said minorities are not being treated equally, although the state agencies deny it. Why do you feel that way?

A.: African-Americans and Native Americans, two of the three found communities in Maryland, have been neglected for years.

It's a complex and multidimensional problem that has to be approached from many angles. Of course, we are speaking in generalities, but there needs to be a change of perception on many levels.

The European-American society does not equally recognize the significance of minority art. However, the importance of European art is never questioned. A change in that perception has to occur.

Also, there was a time when we Native Americans and African-Americans were actually persecuted for practicing our beliefs. Now, I guess you can say that we are in a phase of benign neglect.

Many minorities feel they may not get their fair share of public money for cultural events, and then they don't pursue it.

The Arts Council is looking into the problem. I have to give them credit for that.

But until I see parity, I must continue to be a voice for parity. If not, we will be paying the price for damage to our community. We are seeing that every day.

Q.: Who is involved?

The Heritage Museum is not my museum. I am merely a paper pusher. The Heritage Museum is a consortium of Maryland cultural organizations, small minority institutions such as the Lanier Museum of African-American Art and the Baltimore American Indian Cultural Center and Museum. It is a multicultural collaboration to preserve and promote the cultural heritage of Maryland's minority communities.

So much of our heritage is out there and decaying every day because it is not in the proper environment.

The role that culture plays in the development of all people is the same. The ramifications of long-term neglect in the cultural development of a major segment of the population affects the quality of life in Maryland as a whole.

Q.: There are other attempts being made to preserve -- at least -- black culture in Maryland. What about the minority cultural institutions such as the Great Blacks in Wax Museum in hTC Baltimore, the Banneker-Douglass Museum in Annapolis, and others in Maryland?

A.: I'm very glad we have those museums. The point is, we should have those -- and more. These museums also deserve more funding.

Yes, providing more funding costs a lot of money. But the disparity in support for minority cultural organizations is obvious in our towns.

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