Final independent artists’ remarks to Durham City Council IX, December 19, 2019.

Above: Durham arts activist Laura Ritchie addressing City Council. 

Posted below are the comments made by local independent artists to Durham City Council on December 19th, 2019, on the crisis of arts funding in the city. Thank you to Andrew Aghapour, Laura Ritchie, Ed Hunt, Monét Noelle Marshall, and Mark Iwinski for sharing their comments. http://link? See previous speakers’ comments here (August 22)here (September 5)here (September 19)here (October 10), here (October 24), here (November 7), here (November 21), and here (December 5th). This is the final installment in the planned speaker series. Thank you to all who spoke or showed up to support.

Andrew Aghapour

[Audio link forthcoming]

Laura Ritchie

“My name is Laura Ritchie. I’m a founder of The Carrack, a community art space that opened on Parrish Street in 2011 and closed this September on East Main. I serve on the Public Art Committee, on the boards of several arts organizations in our region, and am a member of Art Ain’t Innocent. I’m here to share some of The Carrack’s story, and to call attention to the urgent need for increased funding for, and more equitable stewardship of, the arts in Durham by our city’s leadership.

The Carrack was started to address a need. A need for a radically accessible gallery model that could support underrepresented creators, including artists of color; queer and trans artists; and local emerging artists. And we did that. In our eight year tenure, we exhibited work by over 1,000 visual artists in more than 150 solo or group shows, and programmed hundreds of community gatherings, performances, and art events – all at zero cost to artists.

But The Carrack, like so many arts organizations, was dependent upon free labor. Labor I could afford to give because I am a white woman with a wealthy family. For most years as director, I worked more than 40 hours a week. I never made more than $8,000. Annually. At our best, under capable new leadership, two staff made $15/hour for a cumulative 35 hours a week. At the end of that year, they’d worked over 300 hours without pay. Though we achieved our mission outwardly, we failed the artists at the core of our organization – our staff. And rather than continue to center white, class-privileged leadership out of financial necessity, and thereby perpetuate the inequity we were fighting against in the first place, we decided to close.

I have heard Mayor Schewel emphasize the need for more private sector support. I’d like to respectfully counter that that was not the key to saving The Carrack. Our annual fundraiser drew 500 attendees four years in a row and many donors gave through our monthly sustainer program. What we needed was access to ongoing operational support so we could fairly pay our staff – so they could keep building on the development efforts we already had in place. These grants do not currently exist for organizations like The Carrack. The closest options, through our state and city arts councils, would have granted us a max of $10,000 annually, combined, and came with requirements that would have increased the strain on our already taxed staff.

I commend Monica, Akiva, and Marshall for their immense effort, and am heartened by the attention their proposal is receiving. It deserves it. I am also concerned that the work to protect, preserve, and nurture the arts has been left to us – the already overworked and underpaid artists and arts organizers – motivated by the urgency of our art scene’s potential disappearance and the harmful ways art has been wielded and discarded in the process of Durham’s gentrification.

We still need The Carrack – and The Shed, and Outsider’s, and Unexposed, and Manbites, and Durham Artists Movement, to name just a few of the spaces we’ve recently lost.
Our arts ecosystem is resilient, but also incredibly vulnerable. And without direct, financial support from the City, I fear for its future. Thank you.

Ed Hunt

“Good afternoon, members of the council, thank you for your time.

My name is Ed Hunt. I am a 35-year Durham resident; I moved here in 1984. I am here to speak in support of the independent artists initiative.

A quick history:

My partner and husband Jeff Storer run Manbites Dog Theater, a company we founded in 1987 in downtown Durham. We were a vagabond company for our first ten years, performing in makeshift spaces in Durham and all over the Triangle with very little funding.

In 1998, thanks to grassroots generosity from our audiences and supporters, we were able to raise enough money for a down payment and purchased a building on Foster Street, which became our home for the next 20 years. During our 31-year run, we produced over 150 plays and presented the work of dozens of other local theater companies and artists.

Last year we closed down as a producing company, sold our building, put the resulting assets in a fund, and transitioned into a support organization for Triangle theater companies and artists.

In August, we awarded our first round of grants, totaling over $38,000, to support 25 Triangle theater projects being produced this season. Over 60% of these projects are being created by Durham artists and companies.

Our grants aren’t large – the maximum amount is $2,500 – but we know from experience how important that kind of support can be for small companies.

Our overall strategy is simple: more support for theater means more local theater. More support for artists means more local art.

I want to live in a city known for its locally created art, and that means a city willing to support and encourage its artists. That’s why I encourage your support for the initiatives being proposed.

Thank you very much for your time.”

Monét Noelle Marshall

“Good morning! My name is Monèt Noelle Marshall. I am an artist, facilitator and cultural organizer. I serve on the Public Art  committee and I am a member of Art Ain’t Innocent. And I choose to call Durham home.

I have huge dreams. Dreams not just for myself but for Durham. I would like to invite you in to my dream. Imagine driving through East Durham on a Thursday evening and there’s rehearsal on the front steps of Angier Avenue Baptist Church. You roll down your window and hear NC Central’s marching band playing in the distance. You turn on 90.7 and hear a new song from local jazz/hip hop band Zoocrü’s upcoming album and learn that they are on a national tour. You drive towards downtown and you see a group of teenagers completing a striking mural with Brenda Miller Holmes’ guidance. You cut down main and see that the storefront that was empty for years is opening soon. It will be a Art co-op. Books, desserts, tea, visual art exhibitions and performances all in one place. You remember that you got an email from the Office of Arts and Culture about a new business opening. It reminds you to get your child’s Tri5 membership renewed. With this free membership, they can get up to 4 $5 tickets to local performances from Ailey at Duke to Monet’s new show. You’ve noticed the improvement in your child’s communication skills since writing performance critiques and getting their thoughts published in the Indy has boosted their confidence. You easily find a parking spot and walk towards the arts council building. It’s buzzing with an artist talk on the main level, a concert in the parking lot and a new exhibition opening. You cut through the crowd to get to the quarterly Arts Jam. It’s a place for all types of artists to perform and share. It never disappoints and has become one of the hottest tickets in town. As the lights dim you are grateful that you invested in Durham artists and provided them the resources necessary to become the world class talents they always were.
Wasn’t that fun?! I want that Durham. I want to live, make, love, raise a family, buy a home and invest in that Durham. I want to build a many acred art space, a multidisciplinary internationally known creation lab and venue a la Tyler Perry studios in that Durham. And regardless of how you feel about Tyler Perry, Tyler Perry Studios has an annual revenue of $900 million. Imagine the taxes! We can’t get that Durham without work. This work requires a serious financial investment in Durham’s art community. But that’s not all. It requires us to do the painstaking work of creating systems that are actively anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-transphobic, anti-homophobic, anti-classist. It requires a commitment to shift our relationship to risk, accountability, creativity, collaboration and failure, something that artists are especially good at. Durham artists are investing in the Durham we’re dreaming. I stand here asking you to match our investment. Thank you.”

Mark Iwinski

“Good Afternoon Mayor Schewel and City Council.

Thank you for fitting me in.  I appreciate the opportunity and your attention as I speak before you today in support of the arts initiatives set forth in the proposals by Monica Byrne and her colleagues over these last sessions.  Some of you may know me as a member of Durham Area Designers engaged in promoting good urban design for Durham through charrettes, including the vision plan for East Main Street and the light rail [The light rail is dead, long live the light rail.].  But you probably don’t know that I am a nationally recognized visual artist living in Durham since 2008, an art professor at Elon University and the recipient of multiple state and private grants from Vermont, New York and North Carolina as a 2010 North Carolina Arts Council Fellow.

The NCAC fellowship is an amazing award and as a fellow I can testify to its’ significance in bolstering an artist’s career.  [So much so that I stood before the NCAC board of directors during a public hearing after a republican majority was elected to the legislature and arts funding was in doubt.  I asked the chair and the board to protect the artist grants from defunding and was assured during that session that indeed they would be.] But NCAC fellowships only touch a small fraction of the artists in our entire state over a given year.  What is being proposed here is a robust, visionary, localized granting program on par with other major cities which would ensure the longevity, vibrancy and diversity of the arts in Durham.

It has been written (Timberg) that the perfect combination for a strong cultural life in a city is “a slightly decaying downtown” we all know how Durham prides itself on its grunginess, “a university that gives you an interested public” we have two! [Three, if you count the suburb of Chapel Hill.]  And “a scene”.

Here in lies the rub.  A cultural, artistic scene requires investment and supporting institutions.  Great cities have all recognized that long term significant investment in arts and cultural institutions needs to be part of their ongoing strategy.  This is not just about importing Broadway here as the DPAC so effectively does.  It is about attracting, engaging and supporting independent artists and arts organizations so that Durham is the generator of cultural export other cities desire.  City’s which do so not only attract fortune 500 companies but see multiple spinoffs suffusing the local economy.

We do have the Durham Arts Council and their Emerging Artists Grants. But do they meet our needs?  In a word no.  The DAC and its granting process are completely insufficient to the task in their current iteration and will not be able to support or guide the mature growth and cultural investment necessary to make Durham a great cultural city.  The grants themselves, progressive when first instituted, are now woefully inadequate financially to accomplish significant work. Fine for someone just out of school but as a true catalyst for serious artistic growth in the community they are wanting.  And the DAC has a high proportion of administrative overhead compared to granting.   Further, the grant process itself is hampered by limited thinking and lack of vision both by the board and those administering them resulting in a status quo that has not altered in over a decade.

No, a new visionary model for the arts in Durham required. And to reach a state of maturity all cities, [ states and nations] systematically invest in the arts.  It is a sign of cultural and political maturity for a city to make such investments and Durham is poised to become that mature city. But only if you have the political will.  The proposals authored by Ms. Byrne and her colleagues are a robust, mature vision for arts funding in Durham.  Democratic government at its best should encourage and enhance the life of the mind. (Frohnmeyer) And so Durham needs to become a leader in the realm of ideas, to demand wisdom and vison from its citizenry and its institutions and to foster and substantially invest in this vision through access to and support for the arts, humanities and education.”

 



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