I have spent a lot of time recently wondering what it will take to get my fellow African-Americans in the city to support and patronize their own arts community.
My family, friends and I have always attended black productions, taken classes at black-owned studios and shopped at black boutiques. It’s only since opening my own business nine months ago that I have found an unsettling view from the other side, and a firsthand look at how many African-Americans place little value on who we are and what we do.
Recently, I was sitting in the World Stage performance gallery, listening to some of the hottest jazz sounds in town. They’re doing Monk, they’re doing Miles, they’re doing originals. It’s a hot night and the door is cracked open to let the evening breeze blow through. All the better for me to check out people as they stick their heads in through the door, drawn by the melodic sounds.
One by one they peek in, start to groove to the music, and then find out there is a $5 donation requested. I watch as they try to talk their way in for free, ultimately get an attitude and then leave. This happens at least five times in 30 minutes.
Suddenly depressed by a scenario I at first found amusing, I gaze around at the audience and count 10 out of 50 seats occupied. And I start to wonder.
Would this be the situation if we were at a club on Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade, in Pasadena’s Old Town or in a Melrose Avenue nightspot with a $15 cover charge and two-drink minimum? Establishments with substantial African-American clientele, but non-black owned and operated. I think not.
The Dance Collective and the World Stage are just two of several arts-oriented businesses on Degnan Boulevard and 43rd Place in Leimert Park. Along these two blocks there are galleries of contemporary African-American art, a museum of traditional African art, artisans specializing in one-of-a-kind items of metal, semiprecious stones and leather, a 1,000-seat theater, an arts academy, Afrocentric fashion designers, a video arts cafe and artist studios.
And yet, even area residents within walking distance of this Mecca of African-American art and culture seldom--if ever--take the time to walk these streets and explore what is in their own back yard.
What is it about us that causes us to fervently believe that the farther away it is, the more it costs, the harder it is to attain, if it is done by someone else--the better it is? I’m seriously beginning to wonder when we are going to see the true value of ourselves.
I’ve heard a group of people complain at one of the Saturday afternoon jazz concerts about the number of non-blacks in the audience. But let’s face facts. If African-American artists had to rely on other blacks to support and patronize their businesses, they would not be able to survive. Those “complainers” were standing outside the performance space, unwilling to make a small donation to enter, a donation equal to what they would spend on video rentals or a McDonald’s combo meal.
Art and creative expression are meant to be experienced by all, regardless of the ethnicity of the artist or the audience. But just as the artist is respected as a vital community member in other cultures, African-American artists deserve and need the same support and encouragement from their own community, in addition to the wider public.
While African-Americans are busy hanging out in other yards, clapping and cheering, their own back yard may become overrun with weeds--a sure sign of neglect.
The entrepreneurs and artists of Degnan Boulevard and 43rd Place have done the groundwork. They have tilled the soil and fertilized it. They have planted the seeds. They have gone through the droughts, but they never gave up. They watered and nurtured, coaxed and cajoled until the seeds finally took root.
It’s time for members of the city’s African-American community to turn homeward occasionally and focus on the beauty springing forth in their own back yard.
Children should be brought to the Degnan area to explore and soak up African-American art. Local business owner Brian Breye of Museum in Black always has time to guide a child, whether gang member or model student, through the wonders of Africa, its culture, history and art. Ben Caldwell of KAOS Network helps young people tell their tales through video. Marla Gibbs’ Crossroads Arts Academy provides training programs with industry professionals.
Rehearsal and studio rental fees here are substantially lower than those charged in the north and west sides of town. Workshops and classes in theater, dance, creative writing, video and music are often offered free or for a minimal fee at a number of the facilities. And the age-old art of barter is practiced with a vengeance at the shops and boutiques lining the two streets.
Let’s stop looking for the greener grass. It can’t get any greener than this.