Alabama artists chat with the president of the National Endowment for the Arts


  • Previously, public support for the arts meant bringing outside artists to underserved populations.
  • “Now that also includes promoting those arts that come from Alabama,” said folklorist Joey Brackner.
  • The NEA President joins discussions on resources available to fund and support artists in rural Alabama.

Above all else, the Alabama black belt values ​​its history and traditions. The quilts, sculptures and paintings that come from the region tell its story and are an integral part of the cultural and economic vitality of the Black Belt.

Women in rural Wilcox County today sew colorful quilts because it was their great-grandmothers’ livelihood decades ago. It reminds them of when their black ancestors sewed for warmth on the plantations or when they found economic autonomy by selling their art during the civil rights movement.

Charly "The Tin Man" Lucas visits the Prattauga Art Guild showing his work at the Prattville Creative Arts Center in Prattville on September 14, 2014.

Charlie Lucas, famous sculptor of Selma “Tin Man”, creates his art because “art is our history”. His great-grandfather was a blacksmith and it was he who introduced Lucas to working with metal, which he incorporates into each of his pieces.

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The Miller family’s recognizable pottery, made from Perry County clay, traces its history back over 150 years. National folk art collectors treasure their vases and bowls, but the family still sells them at local festivals and at galleries like Black Belt Treasures in Camden.

“You can talk a lot of trash about Alabama, and it sticks in a lot of areas, but one thing we’ve produced is a wide range of artists, from writers to musicians and artisans, and a lot of between them are rooted in the traditional culture,” said Joey Brackner, a retired folklorist from Alabama. “They are from this place.”

People view the Sewn Together exhibit of 19th- and 20th-century Alabama-made quilts from the collections of the Alabama Department of Archives and History and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in Montgomery, Alabama, Saturday February 11.  2017.

Brackner and other representatives from across the arts met in Selma last week to talk about the joys and challenges of carrying the torch of Alabama traditions. Dr. Maria Rosario Jackson, president of the National Endowment for the Arts, and Dr. Elliot Knight, director of the Alabama State Council for the Arts, were there to listen.

“There is a strong network of artists and arts organizations in rural Alabama. There is also a need for funding and support for their work,” Jackson said in a statement to the announcer. “There was a healthy conversation around the table about the resources available to support this work. Sometimes that support is at the federal level through the National Endowment for the Arts. Sometimes it is at the regional, state or local level.

A group of panelists gathered in Selma to discuss the arts with NEA President Dr. Maria Rosario Jackson.

Brackner worked for the Alabama State Council for the Arts for 36 years, chronicling the work of traditional Alabama artists and ensuring they were not excluded from funding opportunities. NEA and ASCA.

In the 1960s and 1970s, he said that public support for the arts through taxpayers’ money was mainly about bringing “someone else’s art”, such as orchestras and ballets, to underserved populations of Alabama.

“There’s nothing wrong with these art forms,” ​​he said. “However, now that also includes promoting these arts from Alabama communities.”

Many artists who have participated in the conversation have recognized the attraction of the Black Belt for tourism, and they want to amplify it.

Sulynn Creswell, executive director of the Black Belt Treasures Cultural Art Center, said the organization is intentionally located in Wilcox County “to draw tourists off the highways and into communities in the Black Belt region.”

To date, she said Black Belt Treasures has sold more than $1.9 million in works by local artists, and tourists from all 50 states and 32 other countries have visited the gallery.

The problem black belt performers may face in attracting tourists is lack of access. Without many places tourists can stay or restaurants where they can eat, the artists said it’s hard to bring people to rural Alabama — even though they have a story to share.

Last week, artists and leaders of arts groups in Alabama discussed their work during a panel with the NEA and the Alabama State Council on the Arts.

Limited broadband access also adds another barrier.

“One of the things we want to do is make sure this art becomes an economic engine for small communities like ours,” said Freedom Quilting Bee Legacy consultant Kim V. Kelly. “People want to be here and they want to buy products, but in Wilcox County it’s very small.”

Kelly works with Freedom Quilting Bee Legacy on a pro bono basis and has helped the organization obtain 501(c)(3) status. The non-profit organization aims to preserve the history of the original Freedom Quilting Bee, which was established in 1966 as an organization of black women who sold their quilts on a large scale at a time when they were otherwise deprived of their rights.

Construction of The Freedom Quilting Bee building began on March 8, 1969. Father Francis Walter blessed and dedicated the site to the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on that day.

Before Freedom Quilting Bee opened in Alberta and won contracts with retailers like Saks Fifth Avenue, Martin Luther King, Jr. traveled to the region to defend the right to vote.

“His message to the crowd gathered, and it was a big crowd, was that when you register to vote and when you vote, you will win your freedom,” Kelly said. “They named Freedom Quilting Bee after that speech he gave.”

The 4,200 square foot manufacturing building closed before the turn of the century as people moved away and quilting returned to a traditional art form and not a manufactured product. Now, however, the nonprofit Freedom Quilting Bee Legacy is working to restore the building and develop the 14 acres surrounding it into an artists’ community center. They plan to hold workshops and tours, build huts for accommodation and have a gift shop.

The Freedom Quilting Bees in Boykin, Alabama on Wednesday, April 22, 2020.

The Alabama State Council on the Arts awarded the nonprofit a $35,000 design grant to begin executing the plan in October. Kelly looks forward to the future of Freedom Quilting Bee Legacy and said the nonprofit would also apply for National Endowment, or NEA, grants for the project.

“They said one of the things the NEA wants to do more of is make direct grants to rural communities and individual nonprofits rather than funneling money through different organizations,” Kelly said. “So I’m very interested in the NEA’s commitment to this.”

Several artists mentioned that the prospect of applying for NEA grants can be daunting. Due to the broad reach of the agency, small organizations or individual artists sometimes worry that their application will be part of a massive influx from across the country.

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“It can be daunting to apply for something with the national endowment,” said DRUM program director Elvie Schooley. “But one of the needs we have is that we need financial support to develop teaching teams because our program comes with a curriculum, the services we provide and we also collect data for understand our impact. Were busy.”

DRUM the Program is a community arts group that focuses on West African drumming and dancing in Montevallo, Ala.

Schooley’s nonprofit uses arts education through summer camps and after-school programs to teach West African drumming and dancing in Montevallo. She said she believed art should be incorporated into every child’s upbringing, and she said it was heartwarming to meet more than a dozen other people in Selma who are dedicated to goals. similar.

“Invisible divisions in our communities, that racial divide is kind of melted when you have art as a catalyst,” she said. “Art has found a way to create community.”

Hadley Hitson covers the rural South for the Montgomery Advertiser and Report for America. She can be contacted at [email protected] To support his work, subscribe to the advertiser or donate to Report for America.

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