Around the Block: What does a Thriving Local Arts Community Look Like? November 07 2021
Alice Lovelace makes no bones about telling you she’s “been around the block.” Since arriving in Atlanta in 1976, Lovelace has forged a trailblazing artistic path as a performance artist, teacher, poet, organizer, author, playwright, and arts administrator.
In 1979, one year after linking with artists Toni Cade Bambara and Ebon Dooley at the Neighborhood Arts Center, Lovelace became a Writer-in-Residence and helped organize poetry readings and classes while holding meetings for the Southern Collective of African American Writers (SCAAW). In 1983, she and Dooley founded the Southeast Community Cultural Center. A year later, the nonprofit opened the Arts Exchange in an old elementary school, a space replete with art, dance, and recording studios, galleries, a theater, and a home base for the Atlanta Writers Resource Center. In the late 1990s, Lovelace became executive director of Alternate ROOTS, an artists-led southern regional organization, and executive director of the Atlanta Partnership for Arts in Learning (APAL), which she founded along with Dr. Lisa Delpit and actress Jane Fonda.
Today, Lovelace serves as president of the board of the rebranded “ArtsXchange,” now based at 2148 Newnan Street in East Point after relocating in 2019. Given her “block” is now East Point—the future home of the Black Art In America Headquarters on Connally Drive in 2022—Lovelace speaks to the current climate of the arts in the city while advancing what a thriving local arts community looks like.
“So, first, you have to have a public policy before there can be something that somebody can hold you responsible for,” says Lovelace, who has years of experience on numerous public policy committees for art at the municipal, county, state, and national levels. She points to such representative models as Fulton County, Hapeville, and Atlanta. Certainly, stresses Lovelace, “the reason that the city of Atlanta thrives is because it has a healthy policy on the arts” that encourages and accommodates artists and arts organizations with “an environment that nurtures. But, first, you’ve got to have a policy.”
“Policy is a lot about regulation, about sometimes giving exemptions to certain groups,” explains Lovelace. “When you go to a reception in the city of Atlanta, I don’t care what it’s for, there’s wine flowing, maybe an open bar and different things that the city allows for the arts organizations to have through special permits to do that very easily,” she offers. “That’s something that would be a good regulation that would make for a healthy environment for arts to thrive because open houses and gatherings around art and art centers are important, especially in the visual arts and performing arts. So one has to actually be thinking about those things and come up with ways to encourage them.”
That said, Lovelace clarifies that “the mayor and the council people definitely support the arts. I think that’s what makes this an excellent time.” She cites ongoing efforts like the public art displays around the marketplace and the Wednesday Wind Down concert series. “I do believe that they understand the value of it, and that they appreciate art,” acknowledges Lovelace. “I don’t think it’s a lack of will or respect, I just don’t think they fully know what to do with it.”
Councilman Joshua Butler believes the city has recently been doing a good job of putting the pieces in place. “I think we’ve been doing what we can do by investing the time and resources in developing the arts for more than two or three years now,” offers Butler, an art collector and East Point native who grew up under a painting father that was an integral part of the Atlanta-area arts scene. Butler’s collection includes paintings by John Biggers and Glenn Ligon, and he is hoping to acquire a piece from famed Atlanta artist, Radcliffe Bailey, who studied under his father in high school. The Morehouse College graduate points to East Point’s ongoing revitalization and its increasingly regular public ballet recitals, concert series, and outdoor art. “We are big supporters of art and now we have a program where we’re getting into public art, where we decorate some of these street corners with art,” says Butler. “So, yes, East Point is investing substantial time and money in the arts.”
Over the past two years, along with welcoming the ArtsXchange, the city has moved to further promote itself as an arts-friendly destination by establishing an Arts Commission and implementing its first Public Arts Master Plan, which includes public performances, murals, and additional artistic displays adorning public spaces. During the plan’s inception, Mayor Deana Holiday Ingraham stated how such a program would “cultivate vibrancy in our downtown and neighborhoods, create gathering spaces that promote community connections through art, connect our youth to art and artists, and serve as a branding opportunity for the city to display our unique identity and enhance our gateways to the city.” Three months ago, the city received a $6,000 Project Grant from Georgia Council for the Arts to further fund its ongoing projects.
But whether planned or not, for the past three decades, East Point has enjoyed a compelling relationship with the arts. Home of Tri-Cities High School, a visual and performing arts-based magnet, the city has produced such notable stage, film, TV, and musical artists as Kenan Thompson, Kandi Burruss, Tameka “Tiny” Harris, Sahr Ngaujah, Antwan “Big Boi” Patton, “Andre 3000” Benjamin, Saycon Sengbloh, Denise “D. Woods” Woodgett, Shanell “SnL” Woodgett, and rap group, Goodie Mob, among others. Along with the ArtsXchange, the city has hosted numerous arts-related institutions, including Ballethnic Dance Company, Seven Arts Center, the Windmill Arts Center, the Ludacris Foundation, the East Point Main Street Association, and several cultural and community centers.
Given his rearing in an artistic environment, Butler promotes why such a relationship is essential. “Art is important not only as a form of expression, as they are a form of mathematics,” insists Butler, citing how kids introduced to art commonly perform better in math, and how it helps one think creatively at an early age. “And if you continue to nurture that creativity, that creativity can lend to different areas of one’s life,” offers the councilman who, as a student, excelled in physics and math. “I just don’t happen to study my community in the political space, and part of how I got to this position and how I serve is based in some form of solving problems creatively, thinking outside of the box, and thinking more than in black and white, but in vivid colors. And if we had more people that are politicians that were a little more understanding and had a real empathy for people, then they would be able to see there are different ways to solve the same problem, that we don’t have to have our differences expressed in an acrimonious way, because art is a very accepting.”
“Art is an economic engine,” puts forth Lovelace, whose organization is gearing up for the annual Ebon Dooley Art & Justice Awards on December 5th. “We provide production studios for 13 independent artists to actively engage in the marketplace and in the act of creating works that impact and inspire,” she says, further characterizing art as both “a creative class and an industry. People can see it when they look at a movie, but they can’t see all those component parts that are in that movie. So somebody, when they were young, had to be inspired to go into the theater and, instead of wanting to be in front of the camera, wanted to learn how to be behind it and do incredible things with the technology and the science of it. That’s art.” When looking at a magazine or the design of a building, continues Lovelace, “you can’t help but see art everywhere. When you look at designer clothes and geometric features, and you look at gallery walls, or dancing, how can you encapsulate what art is?”
Going forward, Butler is looking to see more of it in East Point, and not just for the foreseeable future. For while public art represents a step forward for a city looking to increase its artistic footprint, the councilman recognizes these current efforts are ultimately far more significant than the posting of colorful images around the block.
“We’re in the process of redeveloping our Commons area,” acknowledges Butler, of the Commons in downtown East Point. “So when I think about that redevelopment, I think about what this is going to look like 30 years from now, because it is a 30-year investment. I’m not thinking about what the people need today, but what they need 30 years from now. And we have to begin to think about the world in that way.”
“East Point is making a tremendous investment in the revitalization of its theater,” confirms Butler, of the renewed city commitment to renovate its 90 year-old East Point Auditorium. “It will be a place for us to continue to have ballet recitals and music concerts, but it is also a way of investing in something historical and bringing it up to the present.” Many don’t realize, he continues, that the historic building “was once a place for African-American artists like Count Basie who could not perform in traditional theaters in Atlanta and had to come to East Point and perform in that theater.”
So, adds Butler, “when we are talking about an investment in the arts, that’s a tremendous investment.”
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AMARI JACKSON is a creator, author, TV/web/film producer, and award-winning journalist. He is author of the 2011 novel, The Savion Sequence; creator/writer/coproducer of the 2012-2014 web series The Book Look; writer/coproducer of the 2016 film Edge of the Pier; and current writer/coproducer of Listen Up! on HBCU GO/Roku TV. He is a former Chief of Staff for a NJ State Senator; a former VP of Communications & Development for the Jamestown Project at Harvard University; and a recipient of several writing fellowships including the George Washington Williams Fellowship from the Independent Press Association. An active ghost writer, song writer, martial artist, and journalist, his writings have appeared in a wide variety of national and regional publications.
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