The Art Center of the Bluegrass has recently concluded a fourteen-week show on the Black experience. In The Art of Being Black: Conversation and Experience, presented by PNC Bank, artists from throughout Kentucky shared their artistic interpretations in the hopes of encouraging community dialogue and self-reflection. Three inter-related exhibits gave voice to the challenges and joys of being Black in Kentucky, celebrating the Black experience and calling attention to the ongoing struggle for racial justice.
Despite the ongoing challenges and restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic, the exhibit drew visitors from throughout the region – including Lieutenant Governor Jacqueline Coleman and State Representative Attica Scott. “As a Kentuckian, it matters to me to support the arts across our Commonwealth,” says Scott. “In ‘The Art of Being Black,” I saw on full display the joys, loves, and triumphs of being Black in Kentucky. This is art that sparks conversation and moves people from dialogue to action.”
Visitors to the show were encouraged to respond to the artwork by writing on a chalkboard, sharing their thoughts on post-it notes, and creating quilt square collages. This community feedback illustrates the deep impact the show had on its viewers.
Comments on the post-it notes came in the form of a response to the prompt: This exhibit makes me feel… Responses included: “Encouraged and also sad,” “loved and respected,” “tired and seen,” and “hopeful and proud.” On the chalkboard, visitors shared what they wanted people to know about them. Visitors covered the entire surface, sharing powerful statements like: “I am willing to learn and listen,” and “I am individual, worthy of conversation, not judgment.” With phrases like “We Are One“ and “Believe In Yourself,” the quilt squares were a tribute to optimism and hope – as was the artwork which inspired them.
The creative force behind the exhibit was a committee of leaders in the Black community, including J.H. Atkins, Danville City Commissioner, and Dr. Andrea Abrams, Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Centre College. For committee member Melinda Weathers, the power of the exhibits lay in the stories they told. “I heard rich and compelling stories about life in Danville, filled with both joy and pain-reminiscing the past and full of expectations for the future,” she says. “Each piece of art told the stories uniquely and beautifully that touched my soul every visit. The Art Center of the Bluegrass gave unprecedented space and voice to the Black community of Danville.”
For educators in the region, the exhibit provided a mechanism for tackling hard subjects. Lyndsey Carpenter, a fourth-grade teacher at Toliver Intermediate Schools, says that their virtual field trip prompted important follow-up conversations in class. “It allowed open discussions of how people have been treated and how people should be treated.” She also noted that her students connected with field trip facilitator Yolantha Pace, a Danville artist and performer. “Several of my students have seen Ms. Pace out and about in the community since the field trip,” she says. “They get so excited to tell me!”
Karen Tompkins is a special education teacher in the Danville Schools. She says the exhibit caused her to reflect on her practice as an educator and on any unconscious biases that she might have. She says, “I was especially moved by the piece that had a chalkboard with the repeated line, ‘I will not be big, black, and scary in class.’ This piece hurt my soul because I hate to think that any child — especially one I may have taught — has ever felt that they were being punished for being big and/or black.”
During the show, 1,329 students from throughout Kentucky participated in virtual field trips, including every fourth grader in the Boyle County and Danville Schools, as well as students from Mercer County, Fayette County, Madison County, Harlan County, Jessamine County – and even a student group from Indiana. The Art Center has created a video recording of the virtual field trip content that will continue to be available to teachers during the 2021-2022 school year.
Executive Director Niki Kinkade says the show is only one step in the organization’s long-term journey towards greater diversity in its exhibits and operations. The Art Center is taking tangible steps towards that goal through the development of a Diversity and Inclusion board committee and the establishment of a new artist-in-residence studio focused on artists from under-represented backgrounds.
Kinkade has also been tapped to serve on the Kentucky Nonprofit Equity Task Force, joining leaders from across the Commonwealth in the work of increasing representation, access, and inclusion for people of color. “The show grew in response to a specific moment in time, but we intend to carry its momentum forward,” says Kinkade. We are committed to amplifying the perspectives of artists from diverse backgrounds through inclusive anti-racist practices, exhibits, and programming to honor our differences and bring people together. That commitment is not something to be fulfilled through a single show or program. There is more work to be done.”